Thursday, April 26, 2007

Goodbye Lennon


Goodbye then. Mr Lennon.

It’s been, well, fun isn’t really the correct word.

Compelling? Possibly. Entertaining? At times perhaps.

Because let’s be honest Neil Lennon and Scottish football have been a combustible mix.

The good stuff: five SPL titles, three (possibly four) Scottish Cups, two League Cups, qualification from the Champion’s League group stages and a UEFA Cup Final.

It is an honours list that proves the value of Lennon’s contribution. And, having seen the way that the UEFA Cup final passed him by, it is a testament to his commitment that he’s lasted this long, as combative as ever.

But that is part of the problem. The combative nature and the simplicity of his play has made him hard to love. His behaviour has often made him impossible to defend.

Off the field, of course, events outside his control (the kiss and tell stories, the Neanderthals that pass for football fans in Northern Ireland, the bigotry that has spewed from the stands at Ibrox) have contributed to the controversy.

But Neil Lennon has never shied away from controversy himself. Opposing players, opposing fans, referees, his own players, his own fans.

It’s never really mattered to Neil who he fights with. The fight was part of the game and the game was all about winning.

It’s fashionable now to laugh at the irony when supporters are offended by players reacting to the jibes from the terraces. That might be a fair point but footballers are paid well enough to stay above the mob. Lennon never could. The sectarian abuse he received was at times sickening – Lennon, perhaps because of his experience with Northern Ireland, seemed unable to shut it out.

Lennon liked to dominate referees. Snarling petulance greeted decisions against his team but he could – and would – use all his experience to get other players cautioned. He collected bookings like Henrik Larsson collected goals – but he was almost always too cute to be booked twice in a game.

Steven Pressley, now a colleague at Celtic, branded Lennon ‘the common denominator’ in a litany of controversies. It was a statement of fact that was ignored, at least in public, by Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan.

They knew, unlike an often vocal section of his own support, that Lennon’s simplicity let Celtic play and that the team benefited from such a skilled manipulator of football’s dark arts.

And now he will, in a likelihood, bow out with a double – winning as he always wanted to. The honours list will long be tinged by the controversies but, at the same time, Lennon’s stay in Scotland has coincided with a prolonged assault on sectarianism.

That unlikely by product of the whirlwind that has surrounded Lennon might just be his greatest contribution to our game.