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Sammy McIlroy urges Celtic boss Neil Lennon not to quit football

By Graham Luney

Sammy McIlroy has pleaded with Neil Lennon not to walk away from football.

McIlroy was Northern Ireland manager when Lennon retired from the international game after receiving a death threat prior to a friendly against Cyprus in 2002.

The current Morecambe boss failed back then to persuade Lennon not to end his Northern Ireland career — and now there are fresh fears the former Celtic and Leicester City midfielder will quit as Parkhead supremo after an escalation of sectarian tensions.

Police have confirmed a parcel bomb had been sent to the Celtic boss but the 39-year-old was back at Rugby Park last night, guiding his side to a 4-0 SPL win over Kilmarnock which leaves the Hoops a point behind Rangers at the top but with a crucial game in hand ahead of Sunday’s Old Firm clash.

“I hope Neil stays in football,” said McIlroy. “What is going on now is totally different to what happened when Neil played for Northern Ireland.

“He was a great guy and professional. It’s just a very sad and unfortunate thing that should never happen to anyone.”

Lennon made 40 appearances for Northern Ireland in nine years, scoring two goals.

He had suffered sectarian abuse after joining Celtic and was booed by a section of the Windsor Park crowd during a match against Norway.

But a death threat he received before he was due to lead out his team against Cyprus on August 21, 2002 sparked his international retirement.

McIlroy was informed of the death threat by police while he was at the team’s base in Templepatrick and his reaction, naturally, was one of “absolute disgust”.

The parcel bombs addressed to Lennon and high profile Hoops fans Paul McBride QC and former Labour MSP Trish Godman follow on from bullets sent in the post to the Celtic boss and Northern Ireland duo Niall McGinn and Paddy McCourt who are both honing their skills at Parkhead.

For McIlroy it brings painful memories flooding back of the time when a call, accompanied by a code word, was made to the BBC, saying Lennon would be murdered if he played against Cyprus.

“Neil was a great professional to have in our side and it was only a small group of people who were unhappy he was involved,” added McIlroy.

“They wanted to wreck what we were building and unfortunately for me I had good, experienced players who were retiring at the same time.

“Neil was a quality player and what happened was terrible.

“We had to respect his decision and the Irish Football Association, to their credit, worked very hard to transform the atmosphere at Windsor Park.

“I also gave Paddy McCourt his first cap against Spain at Windsor Park in 2002 and he is another great footballer.

“I just hope there’s an end to what is going on and everyone can be allowed to get on their jobs for club and country.”

Lennon’s assistant, Johan Mjallby, revealed his close friend was focused on his job despite the threat to his safety.

Mjallby said: “He's in a good mood and all he wants to do is prepare the team for the run-in and talk about football.

“Neil's a strong character but it's still a terrible thing.

“It's not a distraction he wants right now but he loves his job as manager of Celtic Football Club and right now he just wants to prepare his players.”

Ally McCoist, who will replace Walter Smith at the helm of Ibrox next season, said: “I am really, really saddened that this has taken place in Scottish football,” he said.

“We obviously have our differences on the park and that's the beauty of the game.

“You don't agree with everything that is said and done, but you hope we can conduct these conversations and disagreements in the correct manner.”

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