Quit fears for Celtic boss Neil Lennon as death threats and Old Firm row take toll
Neil Lennon finds himself caught at the centre of a gathering storm today ahead of a crunch meeting to determine the future of Scottish football’s Old Firm derby.
Lennon’s future as Celtic manager has been left in the balance after he was forced to draft in round-the-clock personal security because of a series of sinister death threats.
However, the former Northern Ireland international seems determined not to be forced out, despite the sectarian hate campaign — and yesterday received the backing of one of his leading players.
The latest twist came when Lennon was forced to pull out of a trip to Co Donegal at the weekend because of concerns over his safety.
It follows a turbulent week for the Old Firm which has seen both Glasgow clubs in the spotlight following chaotic scenes at last Wednesday’s explosive Scottish Cup replay.
A high-level meeting involving the Scottish Executive and officials from both clubs will be held today to discuss the game and thrash out how to avoid similar scenes in future fixtures.
The teams meet again in the League Cup final at Hampden Park in 12 days’ time.
Hanging over that fixture is the long-term future of Lennon, who has been repeatedly targeted by bigoted thugs since joining Celtic as a player in late 2000.
The latest threat came last Friday when a suspicious package, later identified as a hoax nail- bomb, was intercepted at a sorting office in Ayrshire.
Earlier this year bullets were sent in the post to Lennon and two other Catholic Northern Ireland players at the club, Paddy McCourt and Niall McGinn.
And at the weekend Lennon did not travel to the club’s friendly with Finn Harps in Donegal on the advice of security personnel.
He was shadowed by security men as he took training on Friday, while his home is understood to be under 24-hour surveillance.
Celtic coach Alan Thompson has expressed fears that Lennon could quit for the sake of his family at the end of the season.
However, he has received the backing of the club and its players, with defender Daniel Majstorovic praising Lennon’s strength of character in dealing with the threats.
“I haven’t noticed any difference in him recently and he still seems exactly the same,” he added.
“He is such a strong person with an unbelievable character.”
The Old Firm rivalry is closely aligned to the religious animosity which divides Glasgow, and also the politics of Northern Ireland.
That rivalry spilled over at times during last week’s cup tie which saw three Rangers players sent off and 13 yellow cards shown.
Lennon and Rangers assistant manager Ally McCoist had to be separated at the end of the game as tensions reached boiling point.
Over 30 supporters were arrested at Celtic Park while the assistant chief constable of Strathclyde Police, Campbell Corrigan, revealed there had been a 77% increase in processing individuals for violence, anti-social behaviour and drunkenness following the game.
Today’s summit meeting in Edinburgh has been called at the behest of the Scottish police.
It will be chaired by Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, who said next Sunday’s Old Firm cup final must not be another embarrassment for Scottish football.
“We've got a Rangers v Celtic cup final — the League Cup final — in two weeks' time,” Mr Salmond said.
“So our immediate task in hand is to make sure that cup final becomes a showcase for the Scottish game, not an embarrassment.
“Then, following on from that, to try and do everything we can to make sure that better atmosphere continues.
“The summit on Tuesday will be focused on what everybody can do — the police, the clubs, the football authorities, the government — to make sure we get this into a much, much better place.”
However, former Rangers captain Richard Gough cast doubt on whether the summit will have much influence on the conduct of players in future Glasgow derbies.
“It's just my personal opinion, but I think football matters should be dealt with by football people,” he said.
“Football is an emotional game. I don't think that meetings between politicians will have any difference to what happens in a football game.
“Obviously the managers are now going to warn the players to be on their best behaviour, but sometimes games can kick off quite easily.”
The violence at last week’s cup tie prompted the chairman of the Scottish Police Federation, Les Gray, to claim that future Old Firm games may have to be played behind closed doors, or even banned.
“If I could push a button I would ban it tomorrow, but it’s not going to happen,” he said.
“The game is not the problem. What happens on the pitch is a problem, because it’s replicated on the streets. Violence goes through the roof.
“If you look at the cuts in the police budget, we can’t afford to keep this going.”
Both Celtic and Rangers have a huge following in Northern Ireland, with thousands of fans travelling to Scotland to watch them in action every week.
Neil Lennon’s football career took off during his time with Leicester City, when the Midlands club was a force under fellow Ulsterman Martin O’Neill. When O’Neill moved to Celtic he made Lennon one of his first signings, paying £6m to take the midfielder north of the border. He was appointed manager of Celtic full-time last June — succeeding Tony Mowbray — after a brief spell as caretaker boss. His international career with Northern Ireland ended after a loyalist death threat before a game with Cyprus in 2002.