Neil Lennon death threats was lowest point of my career, reveals Boyce
Former Fifa vice-president Jim Boyce has said seeing Neil Lennon forced out of the Northern Ireland team was the lowest point of his career in football administration.
Boyce, who recently retired, was Irish FA president when Lurgan-born Catholic Lennon received death threats before a friendly match against Cyprus at Windsor Park in August 2002.
The threats, which are believed to have emanated from loyalist paramilitaries, prompted the midfielder to retire from international football.
And Boyce revealed his fury at the incident led him to a tense meeting with senior Northern Ireland fans in which they agreed to try and eradicate the sectarian elements from within their ranks.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, 71-year-old Boyce also reveals that he'd met Lennon and his parents prior to the death threats and that the player had spoken of his honour at having just been appointed Northern Ireland captain.
"The night before the death threats I went to see Neil in the Hilton Hotel in Templepatrick where the Northern Ireland team was staying," said Boyce.
"He was sitting with his parents. I went over to congratulate him on his promotion and he said: 'I'm absolutely delighted. What an honour it is to be captain'.
"You can imagine my horror when, on the way to Windsor Park for the game, I received a call to tell me what had happened."
The death threats followed an incident in which Northern Ireland fans jeered Lennon during another match.
Although it was thought at the time the jeers were because he'd recently signed for Celtic, it's now understood that the negative response may have been related to the midfielder's reported support for an all-Ireland football team in a newspaper interview.
"I remember one night addressing fans at a meeting and telling them that the dreadful sectarian chanting would have to stop, because the Northern Ireland team consisted of players from both religions," said Boyce.
"After the meeting, five top Northern Ireland supporters shook my hand and said: 'Boycie, fair play to you, at least you came here this evening. We will sort this out. It will take time but we will sort it out'.
"And to their eternal credit they have done so. And I was delighted when they were recognised by Uefa a few years back as being the best fans in Europe."