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Sammy McIlroy: ‘I couldn’t take chance with Neil Lennon’s life’

Former NI boss reflects on death threat against Neil Lennon


Sammy McIlroy and Neil Lennon

Sammy McIlroy and Neil Lennon

Sammy McIlroy and Neil Lennon

Former Northern Ireland boss Sammy McIlroy has spoken about the death threat against Neil Lennon that spelled the end of his international football career.

Sammy revealed: “The Troubles were supposed to have ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but there were still vigilante groups not prepared to let go of the past, and when I made the decision to appoint Neil as my captain against Cyprus in our first friendly of the 2002/03 season, it provoked an angry response.

“There were some extremists unhappy that he was playing anyway, as a Catholic boy, but when he joined Celtic those complaints became louder.

“One such person contacted the BBC upon hearing that he would captain his country and threatened that Neil would be shot if he dared step on the pitch.”

In his new book, The Last Busby Babe, Sammy admitted that his initial reaction was one of surprise.

He explained: “I was challenged on this by one reporter, and maybe I was naive, but I sincerely couldn’t see what the problem was. I was a manager picking a team in circumstances that were already difficult.

“I first heard of the threat while the lads were having their pre-match meal. I was called to reception and the (IFA) informed me of what had been said: ‘If Neil Lennon plays tonight he will be shot.’ Some of the officials were saying it could be a hoax. I felt deeply uncertain...

“Many people saw the Troubles through a different lens. Some felt it wasn’t a big deal. I couldn’t have lived with myself taking a chance with someone else’s life.

“After the meal I pulled Neil to one side. I really didn’t know how you’re supposed to break something like that to somebody, but Neil had experienced boos before… He knew there was likely to be some backlash — though I suspect neither of us expected it would be quite so extreme. I told him in the same way it had been explained to me.

“I told him that what happened next was his decision… But I spoke about his young family and said I really thought he should speak it over with his father and wife and that, in all honesty, I didn’t want him to play.

“He decided not to. Today, they’d call the game off. We should have done. It finished 0-0, but I know all of the lads were so deflated that we were still having to deal with this sort of thing.”

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