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29 August 2002 Edition

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Moral cowards fail Neil Lennon

The IFA should bear the burden of blame for the outcome of last week's Neil Lennon drama, and Sammy McIlroy was anything but magnificent. He and his employers were moral cowards, argues FERN LANE

In February 2001, when Neil Lennon was booed and subjected to sectarian abuse by his own supporters at Windsor Park during the Six-County team's dismal 4-0 defeat against Norway, his manager, Sammy McIlroy, dismissed it as "not that bad". He was suggesting that sectarianism was part of the normal 'banter' directed at footballers and that players had little option but to tolerate it. Lennon himself declared his intention to keep playing for the side. Soon afterwards, graffiti threatening his life began to appear in loyalist areas.

McIlroy's failure then, along with that of his employers, the IFA, to do something decisive to confront the violently anti-Catholic sectarianism which has long infected football in the Six Counties finally worked itself out last week, when Lennon withdrew from Wednesday's 'friendly' against Cyprus after receiving another death threat.

The caller, purporting to be a member of the LVF, telephoned a Belfast newsroom a few hours before the match saying that Lennon would be killed if he played at Windsor Park. Lennon, apparently mindful of the threats already made against his family in Lurgan, subsequently announced his retirement from international football, saying that "enough is enough".

On Thursday, the LVF issued a statement denying any involvement in the threat, pointing out that the caller had not used any recognised codeword. Kenny McClinton, who has mediated on behalf of the LVF, speaking with the portentous self-righteousness and insane logic that characterises most loyalist utterances, said the LVF, enthusiastic supporters of the any-taig-will-do school of loyalism, had told him they "have no interest in who plays sport for whatever country, and that they absolutely condemn any threat against a sporting figure".

The revelation that the threat was probably a hoax led a number of other loyalist spokesmen, including Billy Hutchinson, who accused Lennon of cowardice, to agree with McClinton, who declared himself "slightly insulted" that Lennon had "rolled over so quickly". A number of journalists also followed suit. Henry McDonald, writing in The Observer, declared that "Neil Lennon's decision to cut short his international career is a victory for every moron with a 20p piece in a public phone box. If they can drive a professional footballer out of a national team the crank callers' wider campaign of intimidation will be affirmed". Tom Utley in The Telegraph declared that "the fact is that when Lennon was faced with the horrible choice between heroism and funk, he chose funk. In so doing, he gave another little victory to terrorism. He was tested, in a way that none of us wants to be. But he failed the test." The editorial in Scotland on Sunday admonished Lennon, saying that he "was happy enough to take on the mantle of captaining his country. By pulling out of the game he let that country down."

Implicit in all these comments - and there were many more in a similar vein - was the suggestion that it is for the player alone to deal with the sectarianism that has accompanied his international career, most especially since he signed for Celtic. For example, there was little questioning of McIlroy's decision to allow the team to play at all. Had he, and his team, displayed a little more solidarity with Lennon than sympathetic words, it would have sent a more meaningful signal to the bigots at Windsor Park than the absence of one of their hate figures. The moron with the 20p coin is not, after all, an isolated individual.

Predictably, Unionism let itself down again in its response. The culture, arts and leisure minister Michael McGimsey's continues to refuse to introduce the Football Offences Act, a piece of legislation which makes racist chants at football matches a criminal offence. The strangest comment came from Scottish unionist Donald Findlay, the former chairman of Rangers, claimed that there was no sectarianism in Scottish football, asserting: "My experience of having to resign as the vice-chairman of Rangers three years ago, after being secretly filmed singing football songs at a party celebrating our cup final victory over Celtic, made me acutely aware that, whatever you may mean or feel or think, you cannot ignore how other people may interpret what you have done." Football songs?

It was left to one or two journalists - significantly, football correspondents - to point out the failures of the authorities. Writing about McIlroy and the IFA, Matt Dickinson in The Times said that "The more they talked in defence of the decision to go ahead with the match against Cyprus despite the death threat against Neil Lennon, the more it seemed a mistake that can never be rectified."

Michael Walker, football correspondent for The Guardian, went further. Writing about his own early experiences of attending matches at Windsor Park, where sectarianism has been allowed to flourish, he wrote:

"As I graduated from the paddock to the Spion Kop to watch as Billy Bingham (Protestant) assembled a side (mixed) that would qualify for the World Cup in Spain as Bobby Sands (mixed parentage) died on hunger strike, the sheer purity of the hatred expressed towards Catholics, even those on the team such as O'Neill and Pat Jennings, was dismal."

"But then Windsor Park has not got a history to boast about. The greatest Irish club side ever, Belfast Celtic (perceived as Catholic, although members of my own Protestant family played for them), met its demise there in 1948. The centre-forward Jimmy Jones (Protestant) was dragged into the paddock where I was to stand innocently decades later and had his leg broken by angry Linfield (Protestant) fans. Basically, they tried to kill Jones, a man from Lurgan, Lennon's town. They failed in that but they got the next best thing, Belfast Celtic...

"The Irish Football Association faces a hard choice about Windsor Park - though again I know what I would do. I'd bulldoze it."

Lennon's faint-heartedness lay not in his decision not to play, but in his rationalisation of it, and his own apparent willingness to accept that the entire issue is one for him to deal with as an individual. "I don't blame the IFA one bit for this and Sammy McIlroy was magnificent with me throughout it." he said. "This can't go on and obviously the buck will stop with me eventually and I don't want it to drag on any more and that's why I want to nip it in the bud as quickly as I can."

He's wrong. The buck should not have stopped with him. The IFA should bear the burden of blame, and McIlroy was anything but magnificent. He and his employers were moral cowards. Despite all the words of condemnation of the threat and the sympathy for Lennon, they all essentially said 'you're on your own pal' and abandoned the player to his fate.

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