I’ll start this blog by firstly setting the parameters of what I’m going to discuss to avoid falling into traditional Scottish football “whataboutery”. I’m looking specifically around the issue of the treatment of Neil Lennon. I will not be referencing other issues such as the punch on the Hearts goalkeeper during the Halloween Edinburgh derby because I do not consider them relevant to this blog. I don’t condone such behaviour and I’m not pretending things like that don’t happen, they’re just not for this particular piece.
So where do I start with Neil Lennon? I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Lennon once, during a tour of Hibernian’s East Mains Training Centre, where he took part in a Q&A with a group of supporters. He was warm, charming, friendly and funny – a bit intimidating, sure, but he could not have been nicer.
These are traits that you will hear others who know Lennon well use to describe him. He is far removed from the pantomime villain or snarling aggressor that he is portrayed as by those who are of a mind to paint him that way.
I will confess to having a strong dislike for Lennon when he played for Celtic. I couldn’t stand his aggression on the pitch or the way he played. His combative style rubbed many people up the wrong way, and he was someone who, at the time, was easy to dislike. Similarly, there have been many players who I’ve felt that way about, usually they wear the maroon of Hearts, the blue of Rangers, or the green and white of Celtic. I don’t think I’m out of order saying that fans of most teams will feel similarly about a variety of players who play for the clubs seen as their biggest rivals.
Players such as Ian Black, Barry Ferguson, Rudi Skacel, Jimmy Sandison, Craig Bellamy, and so on have all had the treatment at Easter Road and I’m certain I’ll have shouted stuff at them in days gone by that I would never dream of shouting at someone in the street. They all gave a bit back, and fair play to them – I couldn’t stand them because generally they personified the rivalry.
For me it was never, ever a sectarian (or racist) issue. Religion etc never came into it. I am not a religious person and have no issue with anyone that chooses that lifestyle, whatever the religion. That’s up to them. For a long time, I would have argued that Lennon didn’t get abuse because of his religion or background, and that fans simply didn’t like him because of the type of person he is.
When Lennon came to Hibs I wasn’t convinced that it was a good move or that he’d be a good fit for the club, and I’ll happily admit to being completely wrong about that. Lennon has been a revelation at Easter Road. The vast majority of the support have embraced Lennon and I am proud to have him in our corner. Aside from the improvements he’s made to the team on the pitch, his toughness, determination and bravery has filtered throughout the club. Hibs are no longer seen as a soft touch, and although that change started when Leeann Dempster and Alan Stubbs came on board, it’s under Lennon that the team have really kicked on.
Being able to view Lennon’s treatment from other fans from a point of view where I am supportive of him has been a real eye-opener. There can be no argument that Lennon receives the abuse he gets on account of the fact that he is a Northern Irish Catholic that played for Celtic. That is not to say that this is the motivation for every fan who abuses him, but it is a hugely significant differentiator when you compare Lennon’s treatment to that of (for example) Craig Levein – another manager who plays up to the pantomime villain at times yet has not had to suffer the trauma of dealing with bullets through the post or acts of violence from the stands.
Lennon is seen by many bigots as the embodiment of their Catholic enemy. When people made an effigy of him to burn they weren’t doing it because he was a bit tough in the tackle, they did it on an anti-Catholic agenda.
There seems to be a resurgence in anti-Catholicism in Scottish football at the moment, Alan Stubbs – a mild mannered and respectful manager who could never be accused of ‘bringing it on himself’, has been subject to sectarian taunts from Rangers and Hearts fans while managing Hibs. I’m not talking about a wee bit here and there, I’m talking about loud and clear anti-Catholic abuse from large sections of supporters picked up on live TV and swept under the carpet by authorities and the media.
When this is allowed to happen unchallenged, it paves the way for the other abuse. When people are given the freedom to attack an individual for their religion, it’s easy for those that don’t consider religion but just don’t like the individual to join in. Their motives aren’t sectarian but sectarianism gives them the platform and the social acceptability to become abusers. Mob-mentality sets the standards for behaviour.
Lennon is accused of bringing it on himself, it’s a ridiculous and lazy argument. On Wednesday, after being taunted with some mild and some wild ‘banter’ from the stands, he gave a bit back and got pelted by a coin. Incredibly, folk were quick to criticise Lennon – he goaded the crowd, he incited them, he brought it on himself. By that logic, surely the crowd brought it on themselves by giving it tight to Lennon through the game. It’s nonsense. It’s absolving people from personal responsibility and victim-blaming. It’s a tired and hugely flawed argument.
Surely people have sufficient self-control that they can cope with one man jokingly telling them to calm down, or running on the pitch pretending to be a plane, or cupping his ears – whatever – without feeling that this is such an outrage and such provocation that violence is the only reasonable course of action to deal with it.
When Levein wound up the Hibs fans with his mischievous and calculated “natural order” jibe, which played to the gallery of Hearts fans and undoubtedly got under the skin of some Hibs fans, the response was equally mischievous. The unfurling of a ‘Natural Order?’ banner as Hibs triumphed over Levein’s Hearts was the perfect counter. Good natured and harmless, the panto villain had given some and had to take it back (which he did, with good grace).
Lennon, on the other hand, has had to deal with effigies, with bullets in the post, with assaults in the streets and assaults within stadiums (twice at Tynecastle now, with one fan running onto the pitch to attack him prior to the coin throwing assault on Halloween). Graffitti appeared around Tynecastle in the run up to the derby which read simply “Hang Neil Lennon”.
It’s an absolute disgrace – yet there are people who will say, with a straight face and firm in their belief, that he brings it on himself. That engaging with the opposition support is enough of a crime for death threats, intimidation, and assault.
And part of the issue is that Lennon is never afraid to put his head above the parapet. He stands proud, resolute and defiant in the face of the threats. He refuses to be intimidated and the bigots simply cannot handle this. Lennon consistently wins against them, whether that’s on the pitch or by refusing to back down. He is the winner.
Every club in Scotland has an element in their support (to varying degrees) who exhibit unsavoury and largely unwelcome behaviour. There are two clubs in Scotland who now have a specific and significant issue with anti-Catholic sectarianism – Hearts and Rangers. At Tynecastle there are a growing number of Union Flags and Red Hand of Ulster flags, an increasing volume of sectarian songs and now, as those things have gone unchecked, we are seeing the sectarianism manifest itself in violent threats and violent assaults.
Neil Lennon is not, and never has been the problem. If you think he is, then I hate to break it to you – but you’re the problem.
It is long past time for action to curb this growing and worrying trend of accepting sectarianism and specifically anti-Catholic abuse. It’s not acceptable to turn the mics down on the TV and let it go unreported in the press. Let’s start calling these bigots out for what they are. Let’s shame them at every opportunity and make enough noise about it that we eventually turn the tide.
We need to change the debate from thinking we can’t talk about one club’s behaviour without referencing another. That doesn’t work.
Neil Lennon has done nothing other than stick up for himself and refuse to be bullied. I can’t stress enough the admiration I have for the man.
He should not have to worry about his safety when he goes to work or walks the streets, he deserves respect, and he deserves not to be dehumanised and vilified.