21 August 2006
ABUSED FOR BEING A CATHOLIC AND IRISH
NEIL LENNON today opens his heart on the sectarian and racial abuse he has endured.
The Celtic captain says bigotry is a problem in Scotland and too many people sweep it under the carpet.
Lennon, 35, makes his comments in his autobiography, Man And Bhoy, serialised in the Daily Record.
THE Old Firm match at Ibrox in November, 2004, was pure bedlam from start to finish - full of passion on both sides.
Alan Thompson was sent off after Peter Lovenkrands went down rather too artfully for my liking and Chris Sutton was red-carded.
We were two men and two goals down and I was being vilified everywhere I went on the pitch.
I had never known the abuse to be so bad and it reached a climax when I went to chase a ball that had gone out of play.
I was bombarded with Rangers scarves, so I thought it would be funny to pretend to spit and polish my boots with one of them.
That only endeared me further to the Rangers support but what happened after the match sent them apoplectic.
As usual after the final whistle, I went over to salute the Celtic fans in the Broomloan Road stand when I saw Martin O'Neill coming towards me.
I really didn't know what he was going to do. But then he put his arm around me and walked with me towards our fans.
In view of the public and cameras, he was saying: "This is my team and they are my players, and I back them to the hilt."
When I realised what he was doing, the Celtic fire within me flamed up and I, too, gestured my defiance to our support.
The Press and broadcasters went crazy. There were calls for Martin and I to be disciplined but as usual the reactions were all over the top.
One of the more bizarre interventions came from the normally sensible Rangers Supporters Trust who paid a lip reader to "prove" that I had called the fans "orange b*******" during the game.
Leaving aside the fact you didn't need a lip reader to hear thousands of Rangers supporters abusing me, I categorically deny shouting that at their fans.
But you should have heard what I said to Alex McLeish and their bench. It was after that game that Martin made a much-publicised remark: that I had been subjected to racial and sectarian abuse. I was being abused for being Irish and Catholic.
He was criticised in many quarters for saying that but I could see the point that he was making.
I now know how players like John Barnes, Ian Wright and Viv Anderson must have felt when they first encountered racial abuse.
When you are the victim of abuse, the football pitch can be a lonely place and in a sense you are not really one of the 22 players on the field.
I have played in games in England in which players were racially abused. It is extremely unpleasant, not just for the poor guy who is being subjected to the jeers or monkey chants or whatever but also for his fellow players.
No player minds if he is being booed or jeered because fans don't like his performance but to be abused simply because you're black or because you are Irish or a Catholic is surely beyond the pale in any civilised society. It has been going on for five years now and I am quite used to it.
Although it gets annoying from time to time, it is just something I have to tolerate.
Curiously, the abuse did not take place when I first arrived at Celtic. It only began to happen on a regular basis after I was booed and jeered while playing for Northern Ireland.
Since then, it has happened to me so often, that it is really a matter of little concern to me. If anything, I have used it to spur me on, with a feeling of: "I'll show you."
My team-mates also rallied round me and felt the same way about one of their number being abused.
So if you are one of the people who jeered me, how does it feel to know you helped to inspire me and my fellow Celts to play better against your team?
And since I have been in a team which has won more trophies in the past five seasons than any other Scottish club, how clever does that make you?
Why have I been singled out for this treatment? Some people say it is because I am combative.
But as far as I know, I have never changed my style and, as I say, no one booed me incessantly before the Northern Ireland situation erupted.
I think it is fairly obvious that in places such as Ibrox and Tynecastle, it is because I am an Irish Catholic who plays for Celtic.
I am not saying I have received sectarian abuse in every stadium in Scotland but undoubtedly the motivation for some people to boo me is bigotry.
In a twisted view of the world, they think they can express their sectarian outlook by abusing me, picking on me because I am the highest-profile Irish Catholic in Scottish football.
That appears to me to be the principal reason why I have been subjected to this long campaign of abuse at so many grounds.
I will say it again - bigotry is a problem in Scotland and too many people are happy not to confront the issues involved. The majority of the population are decent folk who abhor sectarianism but there is a sizeable minority who express their anti-Catholic feelings at football matches.
Put it this way, if I was a captain of Celtic who hailed from somewhere in Lanarkshire, does anyone really think that I would be booed and jeered every time I touched the ball?
People who carry out this activity should take a long look at themselves but I won't hold my breath waiting for them to do so.
I am disappointed with the number of journalists who have acted as apologists for the abusers.
They have written that I am abused because of my aggressive manner or because I have an arrogant style.
So why is it that other players who have been aggressive or arrogant over the years have not received the same constant, continuous abuse as I have?
Some people in the Press have depicted me as someone who could not control himself on the field and that, too, in some way, excuses the abuse I have received.
So why is it that my disciplinary record is actually nowhere near the worst? I have only been sent off once in a league match in nearly six years in Scotland.
All I have done on the field of play is to stick up for myself and my fellow Celtic players and defend ourselves from our opponents.
I have done no more than Roy Keane did at Manchester United or Terry Butcher did for Rangers in his heyday. Yet, many people in the media do not see it that way.
They actively go out of their way to ignore the abuse I have suffered or act as an apologist for the abusers instead of having the guts to say what is really going on.
I get booed from the second I walk on to the pitch at Ibrox and Tynecastle in particular, yet there are journalists who are happy to sweep these things under the carpet and pretend that it is happening because I wind other players up.
For all the logic in that argument, they would be as well writing that people jeer me because I have red hair.
What really annoys me about those who give me personal abuse is that none of these people - not journalists, not fans - nobody except my family and friends really know what I am like as a person.
Extracted from Neil Lennon: Man And Bhoy by Neil Lennon to be published by HarperSport on September 4, priced £17.99. Copyright Neil Lennon 2006. To order copies of the book at the special price of £15.99 each, postage and packing free, please call 08707 871 724 quoting reference 849D.