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Celtic manager Neil Lennon stands tall after torment

By Steven Beacom

Neil Lennon has had death threats, packages containing bullets have been sent to him in the post, he's been assaulted in the street, he's been attacked while doing his job standing on the touchline, he's been booed by his own fans and he's admitted to suffering from depression.

Here's the good news. The lad from Lurgan is still standing. Still fighting. Still battling.

Still here.

And still dividing opinion, especially in our little corner of the world.

Along with his Celtic team, the manager of the Glasgow giants flew into Northern Ireland yesterday in preparation for tonight's eagerly awaited Champions League clash against Cliftonville at Solitude.

It will be the first time Lennon (42) has been involved in a competitive fixture in this country since he won his 39th cap against Bulgaria in June 2001. Welcome home, Neil.

For many in Northern Ireland, the Celtic manager is either a hate figure or a Bhoy who will forever be loved. He stirs up the rawest of emotions. Some of that has been his own fault. Some not.

Articulate and intelligent, Lennon's comments can be thought provoking.

He's talked some garbage, too, in particular relating to referees, but then, hasn't every manager? Lennon's run-ins with the Scottish football authorities have become the stuff of legend at Parkhead.

It's all been part of a turbulent, and on occasions, tortured life. Hate him you may, but step back for a second and look at the troubles he has encountered and the demons he has wrestled with along the way to experience, if not always enjoy, a highly successful career.

Surely, he warrants your admiration for his strength of character and an ability to keep getting up from the floor even when he has plummeted to the depths of despair.

When in his 2006 autobiography he revealed that he had suffered from clinical depression, it was a genuine act of bravery in an environment which would have frowned upon, laughed at and mocked such a diagnosis. Lennon inspired other footballers and members of the general public to speak up and seek medical and family help from their own form of this debilitating illness.

In many ways that has been his greatest accomplishment, becoming a standard bearer for those in desperate need of one.

There have of course been other major achievements on the football pitch, the place he feels most comfortable.

It's a fact that he is one of the most decorated sporting stars to have emerged from Northern Ireland. Not only did he deliver as a player, he is now putting together an impressive honours list as a manager.

All this after leaving behind the Lurgan home in 1987 and moving to Manchester City, having impressed playing for Glenavon in his teenage years.

Lennon, all ginger hair and determination, didn't quite make the grade at City but moving to Crewe gave him the confidence and playing time he needed and when Leicester City came calling with Martin O'Neill as manager, Lennon's career flourished in a fine Foxes side, which won two League Cups and qualified for Europe. Claiming a first cap in 1994, he became a regular in the Northern Ireland side, proving to be a popular midfielder with those in the Kop who appreciated his fearless attitude.

When O'Neill took over as Celtic boss, Lennon joined him in December 2000 and in the latter's first game for Northern Ireland as a Celtic player against Norway at Windsor Park, he was booed by a small section of the home support every time he touched the ball.

It was shameful stuff.

Lennon, after taking advice which included words of wisdom from former Northern Ireland skipper O'Neill, returned to international action, playing four more games, including one at Windsor where he was cheered to the rafters, taking his tally to 40 caps.

Things took a turn for the worse, however, when before a Belfast friendly with Cyprus in 2002, police received a death threat against Lennon. He pulled out of the match and never played for Northern Ireland again, focusing on Celtic where he lived out his Bhoyhood dream, captaining the side and collecting medals galore. Lennon, the player, left Parkhead in 2007, but there was a sense he would return. He did, as coach, in 2008, the same year that two men, later convicted, assaulted him in Glasgow.

In 2010, he became caretaker boss taking over from the sacked Tony Mowbray. More death threats followed, so did the abuse everywhere he went and a couple of years ago while Lennon was in his technical area a Hearts 'fan' attacked him during a game at Tynecastle. Some thought Lennon would quit. No chance. He remains Celtic manager and now has two SPL titles to his name, helped it should be said by the financial meltdown at Rangers. There was also the brilliantly engineered victory over mighty Barcelona in last season's Champions League at Parkhead as the Hoops made the knockout stages of Europe's premier competition.

In the summer, the Everton board considered him as a successor to Manchester United bound David Moyes, but opted for Roberto Martinez instead.

While Rangers get their house in order, Lennon could quite easily win six SPL titles in a row, guaranteeing him crack after crack at the Champions League, though in that time I'm certain the Premier League will also come calling.

Whatever happens, you can bet Neil Francis Lennon, a man who has come through many trials and tribulations, will be up for the challenge.

Belfast Telegraph


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