The Neil Lennon affair – Scotland’s shame or football’s legacy?


The football season is over, the dust has settled and Rangers have triumphed. There are calls for their manager Walter Smith to be knighted; the plaudits deservedly heaped on the Rangers manager are in contrast to the sentiments levelled at Celtic’s manager Neil Lennon.

Neil Lennon we are told is a ‘hate figure’ – which probably means that he annoys or angers rival fans.

Sport, of course, has witnessed hate figures before.  Even the gentleman’s game of cricket managed to produce its own in the form of one Douglas Jardine, a Scot, who in the thirties captained England as they wrenched the ashes from an Australian side containing the legendary Don Bradman.

Jardine introduced the infamous ‘bodyline’ tactic that saw fast bowlers like Harold Larwood aim at the torso of the Australian batsmen. Jardine disliked Australians and they were only too happy to reciprocate.

The legendary boxer Muhammad-Ali was regularly targeted by white extremists who were angered by what they saw as an arrogant black American who was too big for his boots.  Ali’s pre bout verbal trashing of opponents was a forerunner to what we now call hype.

It’s not just hate figures that sport has produced in abundance; on field attacks on players and officials are also more common that one might have believed. Rugby Union was shocked in 2002 when Springbok fan Peter van Zyl ran onto the pitch and attacked referee Dave McHugh as he refereed a South Africa v New Zealand test match.

In 1981 when still an Aberdeen player, Gordon Strachan was attacked by a Celtic fan after scoring from the penalty spot in a match at Celtic park.

In a famous role reversal in the Eighties, the late great Brian Clough famously threw punches at fans who had run onto the pitch in celebration of a Nottingham Forest win.

There is a huge difference, of course, between the examples above and the campaign against Lennon. The point is that sporting passion can lead to all sorts of illogical feelings of loathing and spontaneous moments of madness.

However, whilst spontaneous acts of madness are one thing there is something pre-meditated about the sending of ammunition and parcels designed to maim.  There is also a sense that these mail-bomb attacks are not one-off reactions to sporting individuals or circumstance but are a continuation and an escalation of a long-term problem.

Three people have now been charged in connection to the parcel bombs and the incident at Tynecastle involving Lennon.  However, if Neil Lennon decided to leave Celtic tomorrow, the problems and underlying reasons for the attacks would not disappear, they would wait for the next ‘hate’ figure to emerge.

Scotland’s shame

It’s Scotland’s shame we are told, as politicians and media commentators rush to condemn this sinister manifestation of anti-Irish sentiment.  Labour’s Jim Murphy said: “There are too many sectarian morons at Scottish football, but it’s part of a dark underbelly that shames Scotland.”  Celtic’s Peter Lawwell has also described the attacks as “Scotland’s shame”.

There is no doubt that something unhealthy exists in certain areas within Scottish football, but is it really the case that this is part of a wider Scottish malaise?  Is Jim Murphy right to suggest that there is a bigger hidden problem of which the football incidents are but a part?

No one can deny the institutionalised discrimination suffered by Irish Catholics in the Sixties and Seventies, too many lives were blighted by such discrimination.  But Scotland has moved on from those shameful days when the school you went to, rather than your ability, determined job prospects and career opportunity.

What appears to be happening now is less about mainstream Scotland and more to do with the slow infiltration of Northern Irish culture into small pockets of western Scottish society.  The darker aspects of this culture have for some time found succour on the terraces of Scotland’s two biggest football clubs.

What we are watching is the emergence of a politico-religio extremism that has piggy backed atop quite normal and accepted sporting rivalries. An imposter that has wrapped itself in the skin of sporting tribalism for years has now burst forth.

This ‘soccer-sectarianism’ has led to unprecedented attacks on figures and organisations who reside within what can best be described as the Scots/Irish spectrum; with the central hate figure being Neil Lennon.

The media tell us that Mr Lennon has ‘baggage’ in the form of being a Catholic from Northern Ireland and having a tendency to display uncompromising defiance in the face of intimidation.

His on-pitch behaviour and off-pitch comments are a matter of great debate.  Does he display a commendable passionate desire to win or an unbecoming lack of judgement?  Are his off the pitch comments typical examples of mind games or un-gentlemanly outbursts that shame the club? Nothing is clear cut and there is a furious debate over whether Neil Lennon ‘brings much of it on himself’.

This reasoning falls apart of course when one recognises that it isn’t just Neil Lennon who has been targeted by these people; for also targeted were a top QC and a Labour MP.  The common denominator linking Neil Lennon, Paul McBride and Trish Godman is, of course, Celtic Football club.

Understand that and we begin to understand what is going on here.  The uncomfortable, apparently unmentionable, truth is that the two biggest football clubs in Scotland are central to these incidents.  This isn’t a widespread Scottish society problem at all, this is a problem that has at its roots, a rivalry between two Glasgow clubs who have immersed themselves in two opposing cultures.

The passionate rivalry between Rangers and Celtic is well documented and not in dispute, nor is the animosity that exists between supporters of the two clubs.  Such animosity is typical in all sporting spheres and certainly not peculiar to Scotland, every sport produces rivalries.

What is peculiar to Scotland, though, is the respective British and Irish nationalism that pervades the soul of both clubs.

Flags and anthems

In the case of Celtic we see this in the display of the Irish national flag and the occasional singing of the Irish national anthem along with the Fields of Athenry.  In the case of Rangers it is the Union flag that dominates and renditions of Rule Britannia and God Save the Queen.

Celtic supporters will tell you that the club was founded by an Irish priest in order to help poor Irish immigrants who had arrived in Scotland and that the Irish symbolism and imagery is merely a celebration and acknowledgement of those Irish roots.

Rangers supporters will tell you that the club is British and that the embracing of symbols of the Union and the Royal Family is merely a reflection of this fact.

But is the rendition of God Save the Queen at Ibrox or the Soldier’s Song at Parkhead really a demonstration of tradition or affection?  Do the heads of state of Britain and Ireland really view the use of their respective country’s national anthems at Scottish football matches as honourable signs of respect?

Somehow we doubt it.  Within the theatre of football, especially Old Firm football, such songs and imagery are more likely to be viewed as acts of defiance and provocation than anything else.

But these are the actions of the fans, and to be fair there is little anyone can do in a free democratic society to prevent such expressions of passion and emotion.  It is the singing of offensive ‘unofficial anthems’ where the real problems lie and here the clubs can and do set the tone for fans behaviour.  In this area it has to be said that Celtic has had considerably more success than Rangers, having almost eradicated sectarian chanting from Celtic Park.

There are still elements of the Celtic support who chant inappropriate songs in support of organisations like the IRA.  These groups, although dwindling in number at Celtic Park, are still very vocal at away matches. Thus, it is clear that the club still attracts those who might best be described as being sympathetic to Irish Republicanism.

At Ibrox the attempts at dealing with inappropriate chanting has been nowhere near as successful.  The recent intervention by EUFA was indicative of the impotence of any of the initiatives brought in by Sir David Murray.  The move by the European governing body was also a sad reflection on the years of obsequious tolerance shown towards sectarian singing by the SFA.

Rangers attempts at tackling the problem were also hamstrung by the decision to turn Ibrox into a match day equivalent of last night at the proms.  Well-known world-war II theme tunes mixed in with Union flags and Rule Brittania provided a heady mix of military jingoism and British imperialist bombast.  Far from discouraging the ‘FTP brigade’ as Mr Murray once described them, the carefully cultivated atmosphere seemed the perfect setting to encourage the worst excesses of British Nationalism.

It is against this backdrop that the targeting of Neil Lennon, Paul McBride and Trish Godman should be viewed.  That backdrop is a patchwork of out-dated prejudices, foreign battles and religious/political conflicts from another land woven into the tribal loyalties of Scottish football fans.

Only yesterday we learn of a letter sent to another QC, Donald Findlay.  The letter was designed we are told to cause ‘alarm’.  Mr Findlay is a high-profile supporter of Glasgow Rangers.

SNP MP Pete Wishart has called for a Royal Commission on Sectarianism and says: “What we must establish is the equivalent of a Royal Commission to look into all the issues involved in sectarianism. It should be totally independent, Judge led with prospective witnesses legally compelled to give evidence. There should be no no-go areas, but the focus should be on the old firm clubs themselves and the specific role they may play in sustaining or contributing to a culture where sectarianism may thrive. No institution should be allowed a veto; nothing proclaimed a sacred cow, and the debate should touch on every part of our community that helps shape and inform this debate.”

Pete Wishart is right, there needs to be an open and honest discussion where nothing is off limits.

Scotland sits on the threshold of a new era, there is a feeling that change is coming.  Let us seize the opportunity that this new dawn offers and tackle once and for all the small-minded bigots who have for too long operated with impunity.

Let no one be left in any doubt that the Scotland of the 21st century is an inclusive, open and confident society where intolerance in any of its forms is not welcome.