If you look closely at football in Northern Ireland you will see a stain. It became very visible in 2002 and many people have been trying to get rid of it ever since.
But as we all know, some stains are hard to remove.
What happened to Neil Lennon when he played for Northern Ireland was one of the most embarrassing and shameful episodes in the history of our game.
The death threat he received before he was due to lead out his team against Cyprus on August 21, 2002, was the action of someone who had no regard for human life, never mind the health of the Northern Ireland side.
But the Irish Football Association did have a serious problem to address from within the confines of its international stadium.
Lennon was booed when he played at Windsor Park and after the death threat he announced his international career was over.
The Lurgan man had expressed a desire to play for a united Ireland team but his biggest crime, in some people’s eyes, was to be a Catholic, part of a successful Celtic side and be proud of it.
Hatred poured from the old terracing and new stand at Windsor Park and the watching world didn’t like it one bit.
Former Hoops player Anton Rogan was also booed and the IFA eventually realised it had to grasp the nettle of sectarianism and crush it — easier said than done.
The fact that the Lennon incidents seem so long ago is a tribute to the excellent work which has been done in the last six years to tackle the issue.
The IFA’s Football For All campaign, driven forward by its head of community relations, Michael Boyd, together with the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters’ Clubs, have helped rebuild our country’s reputation in the worldwide football community. Northern Ireland fans were voted Europe’s best and the
atmosphere has been transformed at Windsor Park but the acid test will come when a proud and successful Celtic favourite, such as Niall McGinn, runs out to battle for his country in south Belfast.
Current Northern Ireland boss Nigel Worthington, a former international team-mate of Lennon, believes the dark days of sectarian abuse are now confined to the history books.
“The days of booing players who play for Celtic at Windsor Park are gone,” he said. “Niall has signed for Celtic and I, along with every Northern Ireland supporter, will wish him every success. He should be proud to play for such as a massive club as Kyle Lafferty and Steven Davis should be proud to wear the Rangers shirt.
“They are a credit to themselves and to Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland fans will always appreciate players who pull on the international jersey and give 100 per cent to the cause.
“We should always nurture and encourage young talent and I am so reluctant to mention the booing issue as it is in the past. We are human beings, all united with a common goal when we are competing for our country. Windsor Park is not a cold house for Catholics or Celtic players. There is a great atmosphere at the ground and I cannot praise the fans and the IFA enough for the contribution they had made in moving on from the bad times.
“The fans are 100 per cent behind the players. What happened to Neil Lennon was an embarrassing episode but we are looking forward to the future with players, the manager and supporters sharing the same pride when it comes to representing our country.”
In 2001 and 2002 Neil Lennon didn’t enjoy playing football at Windsor Park but he can now afford to smile when he reflects on how his experiences were a catalyst for change — change for the better. As the country attempts to move on from its troubled past, football is reflecting that change.
We can only hope than Niall McGinn’s career — or Paddy McCourt’s — takes off at Celtic so Northern Ireland fans can prove that bigotry is buried in the past and that football is their religion