Yet within the hotbed of hatred that is Scottish football, Neil Lennon is portrayed as a divisive figure who at times brings abuse on himself with his ‘antics’. If playing and managing your team is worthy of such terrifying threats then we all need to open our eyes and stop. Football in Scotland is over, it is no more. It ceases to exist without an apologetic footnote. When high profile supporters are targeted because of their love for a football club, there is a realisation that we are approaching year zero. Part of me wants Neil Lennon to leave right now, walk away without an ounce of fear and shame to a happy and relaxed existence. Yet this truly would be the end, and in many ways would exacerbate the ills of society more. If Lennon is forced out, Celtic would be at the mercy of the bigots with the bullets, only one victory away from yet another suspect package driving players, supporters, officials and supporters of the future away into a similar abyss. The alternative for Neil Lennon, in the year 2011, is to remain the walking target that he has been ever since a Catholic man from the North of Ireland had the audacity to sign for his boyhood club 11 years ago.
Change has to come from within, and a sudden media and Rangers explosion of conscience amidst the hope of exploded bombs has been showered with mixed messages. On one hand Ally McCoist’s strong words, labelling those who seemed intent of ending a man’s life ‘evil’ can only be applauded. Paradoxically, this was the same McCoist who six weeks previous blamed Lennon for the actions of El Hadji Diouf at the cup replay. The Celtic manager was receiving hatred then, yet McCoist chose to intensify matters by seemingly legitimising a campaign of hatred against Lennon. The mainstream media’s inability to report that Cardinal O’Brien was sent a live bullet prior to the Pope’s visit to Scotland is a damning indictment on not only the country as a whole, but of the attitudes of many who populate it.
Change can only occur when there is a concensus of conscience, an acceptance that sending live bullets and nail bombs to people because of their football or religious allegiance is fundamental wrong. It is an evil that claws away at the skin, hitiing you until a large bruise serves as an ugly reminder of what Scotland is, and always will be, until there is more than a half-hearted apology for death threats. This should not, cannot, and will not be tolerated, yet all the while the facts are reported alongside the sick depiction of Neil Lennon’s bullet ridden frame, and all the while the criticism of the bigots shares newspaper space with Neil Lennon’s confrontation with McCoist, it creates the idea in the eyes of the ignorant that there is an element of legitimacy. Lennon, after all, is passionate and therefore can wind people up. It immediately waters down events that should create a reservoir of support for a man who will never be able to live a carefree existence that many of us take for granted. In these circumstances, many Celtic supporters would not blame Neil Lennon for walking away from football at the season’s conclusion, hopefully with two trophies in the air and two fingers in the direction of the bigots.
Not even being a thought in my parents’ minds in 1967 and being still too young in 1998 to appreciate the significance, I would argue that 2010/11 is the most important season in living memory. Winning the league this year will be sweeter than any silverware from even the O’Neill era. To win the league this year, in spite of the off field hatred, will be one of Celtic Football Club’s finest achievements. Winning three titles in a row under Strachan was wonderful, especially the unexpected 2008 triumph with the backdrop of tragedy, but here we have a team that is likeable, wonderful to watch, and led by potentially the most popular boss in the club’s recent history. A man who, if he can manage to triumph over a disgusting level of off-field hatred from within the governing body, opposition, and terrorists who cannot even reach up and grab the gutter, would have ensured a footballing miracle. For the remainder of this season, we are all Neil Lennon, and we will continue to stand tall.