the midfield general

The Cult: Neil Lennon

Having enjoyed successful spells at the club as a player and manager, Neil Lennon is a genuine Celtic legend. But the combative midfielder faced considerable challenges off the pitch, battling both with depression and sectarian abuse.
25 October 2016, 10:59am
Illustration by Dan Evans

Having enjoyed successful spells at the club as a player and manager, Neil Lennon is a genuine Celtic legend. But the combative midfielder faced considerable challenges off the pitch, battling both depression and sectarian abuse. He's our latest inductee to The Cult.

Cult Grade: The Midfield General

The modern football agitator is a somewhat different breed to what went before. It's impossible to imagine Dennis Wise getting into today's Chelsea team, all teeth and knees, like a back-garden pitbull barking at the neighbours. Robbie Savage, even in his later career, seemed like an anomaly, all Prince Charming hair and aghast glances at tired refs. It's like your Da says: football's "gone soft". "It's a yellow for sneezing nowadays", says yer Da. Yer loathsome, terrible Da.

Neil Lennon seemed a cut above your average ankle-biter, though. Sure, he was 'combative', but a reputation has followed him off the pitch, one of a battle-worn relic of a player, all sideways passes and pointed fingers (mostly, if memory serves correctly, aimed at Fernando Ricksen). We're told how much we love our old-fashioned central midfielders – the Vinnies and the Sounesses – but Lennon is something else. When his life outside football came into the discussion, the fact that he enjoyed playing an on-pitch villain meant that he brought a litany of sectarian incidents on himself. Herein lies the bizarre cocktail of myth and ability that is Neil Lennon.

The first time I ever saw Lennon off the pitch was after a loss to Aberdeen at a freezing Pittodrie. The second was at the High Court in Glasgow. Among a gaggle of other journalists, I had to watch as one of my childhood heroes told a jury of his peers that he didn't feel his status as a prominent Catholic in Scottish football justified being sent bombs. Anti-Irish racism – and that's what it is – left an indelible mark on the career of a man who was, by normal standards, an excellent footballer. The seething cauldron of football in Glasgow, however, does not care for normal standards.

But we'll get on to that. It plays into the myopic narrative of Scottish sectarianism to blight the story of Neil Lennon with the injustices forced upon him as opposed to the control he would dictate upon football matches. Simply put, a team was better with the fire-haired Northern Irishman than it was without him. After following Martin O'Neill to Celtic from Leicester City, the Manchester City youth team graduate hoovered up trophies and, next to Stiliyan Petrov and Paul Lambert, orchestrated a midfield that ranks among the best ever in Scottish football. His first year with his boyhood heroes would conclude with three domestic medals. He helped drag Celtic to the final of the UEFA Cup in 2003, before being made captain by O'Neill's successor, Gordon Strachan, in 2005

All the while, his metronomic dictation of tempo simply made Celtic more difficult to play against. He did the unglamorous – three goals in seven years would attest to that – anchoring the defence and allowing the likes of Petrov, Shunsuke Nakamura and, all too briefly, Liam Miller to create goalscoring opportunities. Yes, his propensity to seemingly always pass the ball sideways was a source of frustration at times, but like many of the best midfielders his worth was measured mostly in what was missed when he wasn't there. He was, in the truest sense, a battler. Winning the ball, keeping the ball, moving the ball on – that was Lennon's game. It might not earn you a Ballon d'Or or aftershave endorsements, but at the 100mph pace of Scottish football, tactical awareness, ball retention and a calm head are premium qualities. And Christ, for whatever combination of reasons, the opposition hated him.

READ MORE: The Cult – Henrik Larsson

He had his questionable moments, sure, but the reality was that they were infrequent. Yes, he might've stuck a middle finger up at particularly rowdy Dundee fans that time. A minor scuffle with Aiden McGeady at the end of a match probably wasn't advisable either. Driving his head into the innocent boot of Alan Shearer while at Leicester City: unforgivable (he went on to defend Shearer at an FA hearing and the pair are now on good terms). These, however, were the actions of a passionate and, as he would later admit, emotionally turbulent man.

His decision to discuss a lifetime battling depression was a particularly brave move in both the insular corridors of association football and the poisonously masculine landscape of post-industrial Scotland. On a personal level, I really can't understate how important it was – as a Catholic-raised Celtic supporter with my own mental health problems – to see someone of Lennon's stature talking about psychiatric illnesses. It's easy to attach sentiment and intellectualise particular moments in the game, in our post-Fever Pitch echo chamber of football reporting, but that was significant, and history will look fondly on him for it. Describing it frankly and in simple terms, Lennon said: "It's a bit like walking down a long, dark corridor never knowing when the light will go on."

Being a target on the pitch was bad enough, but during Lennon's career as a player, and even more so in his time managing Celtic, the midfielder would be denied the dignity that most human beings would consider a minimum. As a player, he was assaulted in Glasgow's leafy, upmarket West End by two University of Glasgow students who would later serve jail time. His international career was cut short by Loyalist terrorism in Northern Ireland. The temerity of being born Catholic and having the commonly held ambition to one day represent a United Ireland football team would prove too much, and the death threats rolled in. This despite there being a United Irish rugby union team with their own national anthem. While playing for Celtic, graffiti pictured a man being hung, captioned 'NEIL LENNON RIP'. That doesn't even cover it all.

Point of Entry: Becoming the Unjustified Public Enemy

Until frighteningly recently, the rhetoric in Scottish football media would dictate that this was self-inflicted. He was a fighter, they said. He was dogged, rough and ready. He'd collect yellow cards and wind up opposition fans with his style of play and occasional gestures, just as the Wises, Joneses and Savages had done. For many, that meant he was fair game for a sustained, sickening campaign of sectarian abuse. In fact, Lennon was another victim of anti-Irish racism and anti-Catholicism, which remains prevalent in Scottish culture.

After leaving Celtic in 2007, having only collected two red cards in seven years, Lennon would make a brief return to England, playing for Nottingham Forest and Wycombe Wanderers, before retiring a year later. He would later make his mark as Celtic's manager, winning three league titles, two Scottish Cups and taking the Bhoys to the last 16 of the Champions League.

READ MORE: The Cult – Juninho

It was, however, during his time as Celtic manager that I saw him walking to the witness stand. I watched and attempted to take notes as he looked at two men from Ayrshire who had sent him and other prominent Scottish Catholics – including the late Paul McBride QC – a letter bomb. Lennon didn't wear the mile-wide smile that he wore when he was lifting trophies, but instead the wearied mask of a person who had to withstand torrents of vile abuse based on little more than the religion he'd been born into, with repeated baseless accusations of bringing creed into football. All he'd said was that he dreamt of Protestant and Catholic footballers playing together without question.

Therein lies the dichotomy of Neil Lennon: the cult hero who left everything on the pitch, but couldn't avoid what he represented off it. Ultimately, his cultured midfield play allowed him an element of control in a match that he has rarely been afforded in life.

The Moment: Celtic 2-1 Barcelona, 7 November 2012

Fraser Forster collects the ball and hastily knocks it almost the length of the pitch. Tony Watt, who's just come on, watches as the ball flies over the justifiably nervous Marc Bartra's head. Watt controls it, and stares Victor Valdes in the eye before slotting it away. Celtic Park is on fire. The Bhoys lead Barcelona 2-0 in the Champions League. Irresistible, unplayable Barcelona. There is no noise like it. Messi pulls one back later, but Lennon's tactical nous (i.e., absorb pressure, let Barca knock it about and hope to hit them on the break or at set-pieces) culminates in a local lad having scored one of the most famous goals in the history of the football club. Nobody who's worn the green and white will ever forget that moment. It's the moment. It's a moment that crystallises our reasons for watching football: the sheer ecstasy of the unexpected and perfect. Every Celtic fan owes Neil Lennon a debt of gratitude for making that happen.

Closing Statements

Kevin McKenna, for The Guardian: "The vendetta to which this man has been subjected by a significant proportion of modern Scotland on account of his religion and his nationality has shamed Scotland for 12 years. No other figure in Scottish public has had to endure such venom, yet the response by the Scottish government and the SFA has been shameful in its timidity."

Words: @tweeteuan / Illustration: @dandraws