Neil Lennon and the art of survival

Neil Lennon and the art of survival

FOOTBALL DOESN’T CARE WHERE YOU’VE COME FROM. It doesn’t care how hard you’ve worked, or how much you deserve a break. It’s a brutal business, unsuited to the weak of spirit and brittle of constitution. Those who emerge from it do so wearily, and with the battle scars to prove it. Football, like life itself, makes certain demands before it grants you success. Nobody knows this more than the former Northern Ireland and Celtic captain Neil Lennon. 

The Troubles were taking hold when Neil Lennon was born in Portadown on 25 June 1971. More than 2,000 lives would eventually be taken, but Gerry and Ursula Lennon did their best to shield their children from the murder and bloodshed. Neil, like his sister Orla, was brought up to respect himself and his community even whilst the bombs and bullets flew overhead. 

The flame-haired, stockily-built Lennon was a natural sportsman who divided his time between two types of football. He was a promising talent in both Gaelic and soccer, combining lunch-time games of the latter with lung-busting performances for the school GAA team. When he was 16, he would inspire St Michael’s Grammar to victory in an All-Ireland final. It was clear to everybody, even at this early stage, that he was blessed with a remarkable talent with the ball at his feet.   

A choice had to be made, however, and Lennon ended dreams of winning the Sam McGuire Cup with Armagh by devoting himself to soccer in his teens. His schoolboy performances had attracted a coven of admirers from across the water, with even Rangers manager Jock Wallace inviting him to the blue half of Glasgow for a trial. When the Ibrox outfit cooled their interest, Motherwell fought off Manchester City to sign him as an apprentice in the summer of 1987. 

A few months later a homesick Lennon would return home, put off by the agricultural training methods and unforgiving environs in North Lanarkshire. Foregoing thoughts of a career at the highest level, he signed on with local Irish League outfit Glenavon, scoring on his debut. Blink, however, and you’d have missed his carrot-topped sojourn at Mourneview Park. Manchester City were still interested, and signed him that October. 

By the end of his first season, Lennon’s promising displays had earned him a spot in the reserve team, before he finally made his full debut in English football on the 30 April 1988. It was a false dawn, with an injury ruling him out midway through his maiden appearance. By the time Howard Kendall was appointed manager in 1989, Lennon – like thousands of young footballers every year – was deemed surplus to requirements. 

Crewe Alexandra has long been a nursery for young talent. Dario Gradi has shaped a generation of English footballers, with the likes of Danny Murphy, Seth Johnson and Dean Ashton later graduating from the Gresty Road finishing school. It was the Italian who gave Lennon a third chance in the lower divisions, a decision that would reap immediate dividends when he was voted Crewe’s Player of the Season.

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Lennon’s performances, whilst brimming with the tenacity and crisp passing for which he would eventually become known, had been hampered by a niggling back pain. It was only in the off season, and after a visit to Belfast’s Musgrave hospital, when he realised the extent of his injury – a stress fracture in his lumbar spine had to be operated on immediately. Even if the operation was a success, it would mean a long spell on the sidelines and no guarantee of a return to the field. 

Nothing could have prepared Lennon for the purgatory that followed. The operation may have been a success, but he would be celebrating his 20th birthday immobile in an anodyne hospital ward, right when most young talents are arguing their case for the first team. Eighteen months of graft, pain and sacrifice followed, before he would see a football pitch. 

Finally, on 24 October 1992, he made his comeback against Bury. He may have looked awkward on the field, with his injury endowing him with an artificially straightened trunk, but his quality remained unmistakable. Predictably, he would mark his return with an assist, before inspiring his teammates to the Third Division playoff final against York. The Alex may have lost, but with a fully-fit Lennon to guide them, promotion was assured in the following campaign. 

With a second consecutive promotion denied only by a last-gasp Bristol Rovers goal, Crewe and Lennon were beginning to attract attention. Ron Atkinson’s Coventry made an approach, but the Englishman’s champagne arrogance was no match for the counter-offer put forward by Lennon’s countryman and Leicester manager, Martin O’Neill.

The Derry native had done it all as a player, winning the European Cup under the bloody-minded genius of Brian Clough. By 1995, he was making waves on the other side of the white line, building an ambitious team in Leicestershire and spying Lennon as the ideal anchor for his midfield. One meeting between player and coach was enough to seal a bond that would bring them unrivalled success for the next decade. 

On 27 May 1996, 100,000 people would descend on Wembley to watch Steve Claridge shin Leicester into the Premier League for the first time in their history. After a shaky start, Lennon had made the centre of the Leicester midfield his own personal playground, snapping into tackles and distributing the ball to creative zealots like Muzzy Izzet and Garry Parker. 

As meteoric as their success had proven, Leicester were considered favorites for the drop as the 1996/97 season began. The pundits were encouraged by the Foxes’ uncertain start to the campaign, with three defeats in their first six games. Eventually, however, O’Neill’s sturdy 3-5-2 got a foothold in the league. Matt Elliott reached more headers, Kasey Keller made more saves, and Leicester started winning. By May the Foxes had snarled their way into a top-10 finish, and a remarkable season was capped with victory over nouveau riche Middlesbrough in the Coca-Cola Cup final. 

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The next season would prove more challenging. After reporting for pre-season with a platinum blonde haircut, the Northern Irishman and his teammates seemed re-energised, losing just two of their first 10 league games before a lull in the autumn. 

By the time Dennis Bergkamp scored afamous hat-trick at Filbert Street in December, Lennon’s attachment to controversy was already becoming known. In November, he had been arrested for disorderly conduct whilst on a team trip to Dublin, landing himself an overnight stay in a Malahide jail cell. It was the wake-up call he needed, the nadir of a growing drinking habit that he resolved to kick. 

Spared a custodial sentence only by the clemency of a Dublin judge, Lennon returned to help his Leicester team retain their place in the top half of the Premiership. Despite a difficult year that had also seen him embroiled in a nasty on-field spat with Alan Shearer, Lennon marked his sophomore year with an award for Midlands Player of the Season. 

Over the next two campaigns, Leicester and Lennon established themselves in the Premiership. Two more cup finals followed, with a loss against Tottenham countered by victory in the League Cup over Tranmere in 2000. The halcyon days, however, were about to end. 

O’Neill’s tenure at Filbert Street had not gone unnoticed. Several clubs courted the Northern Irishman, but as soon as Celtic made their interest known, the move was as good as done. One of his first plays in Glasgow was to approach the man to whom he owed much of his team’s success. Lennon, a lifelong Bhoy who had idolised Kenny Dalglish in his youth, took a pay cut to join the Hoops just before Christmas. 

By December, Celtic were already on their way to smashing Rangers’ nine-year hegemony. O’Neill’s 3-5-2 lent itself ably to the talents of Johan Mjällby and Joos Valgaeren. With Lennon joining Champions League winner Paul Lambert in midfield, Henrik Larsson and Lubomír Moravčík did the rest. Celtic were insatiable, obliterating Rangers 3-0 at Ibrox in April on the way to a momentous domestic treble. 

Lennon, with his bleach-blonde dynamism and snarling aggression, became an instant favorite of the Parkhead masses. But for every fan who adored his displays, there was another who greeted him with vitriol and hatred. His first experience of sectarian abuse arrived that season at Tynecastle, with epithets about his Catholic upbringing becoming commonplace as the year wore on. 

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Whilst Lennon could handle the abuse, he was less equipped to deal with the silent torment that had begun to envelop his life. “I have thought long and hard about what I am going to reveal here”, Lennon wrote in his 2006 autobiography Man and Bhoy. “The truth is that for a large part of my adult life I have suffered from bouts of depression.”

The admission of Lennon’s illness is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, it came at a time when depression was much less widely spoken about in public. Only in the past decade has it become fathomable for public figures to speak openly about their mental health. Even today, it’s an issue that provokes its share of muttered rebuffs and dismissals. 

Secondly, Lennon was one of the first professional footballers to disclose his struggles with the illness. The Armagh man had noted the treatment that his fellow professional Stan Collymore had received during his own battle with depression, and was understandably wary of the stigma that, even today, is associated with an illness affecting millions worldwide. That he felt able to speak about his struggles so openly remains something to admire and applaud.   

Back in 2002, however, Celtic remained competitive, with a glorious exit in the Champions League bookended by the retention of their league title. As the 2002/03 campaign got underway, though, Lennon would find himself embroiled in more pressing concerns. 

On 21 August 2002, an unnamed man called the Ormeau Avenue office of the BBC in Belfast. The message was curt, but the meaning was simple: “If Neil Lennon plays tonight he will get seriously hurt.” 

Until that point, Lennon had represented his country with unfettered pride. A seasoned international of nearly 40 appearances, he had already captained his country in competitive fixtures. This time, however, he would do so as a Celtic player. For a moronic minority, the prospect of Lennon captaining their team in a meaningless match against Cyprus proved beyond the pale. 

‘Neil Lennon R.I.P’ had already been scrawled in black paint over a nondescript wall in Lisburn, whilst his signature for Celtic had seen him endure tumultuous boos during a friendly against Norway at Windsor Park a year earlier. Then, his every touch had been met with an incongruous mix of boos and cheers, as sane-thinking fans tried to drown out the cries of their idiotic counterparts. When Lennon was substituted at half-time, he was already considering retirement from international football. 

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When news of the death threat was relayed to him at the Northern Ireland team hotel, the decision was finally made. Lennon, concerned for the well-being of his young family, made the only logical choice. An interview with UTV’s Adrian Logan announced his departure from the international game, with the incident making news headlines throughout the world. Northern Ireland, not for the first time in its embittered history, was being spoken about for all the wrong reasons. 

His country’s loss was Celtic’s gain. Not much more needs to be said about the Glaswegians’ historic run to the 2003 UEFA Cup final in Seville, where Blackburn and Liverpool were slain on the way to a gallant defeat against José Mourinho’s Porto. Lennon missed a chunk of the campaign with injury but he was back in the side just in time for Derlei to break Celtic hearts. 

The Bhoys’ European heartache was compounded just days later when, with both Glasgow clubs locked on 94 points, the final day of the Scottish League season arrived on 27 May 2003. Celtic may have smashed Kilmarnock 4-0 at Rugby Park, but Rangers’ 6-1 demolition of Dunfermline meant the title would reside in the blue half of the city. Lennon and his teammates, having come so close to unfettered glory, were left criminally empty-handed. 

As the 2003/04 season began, Lennon had firmly established himself in the hearts of the Celtic fans. His aggressive style and unique gait, aided by a left foot a couple of inches longer than his right, was a welcome sight to the Green Brigade and beyond. The Celtic fans loved him regardless, but increasingly his performances on the pitch drew acclaim. The award for Players’ Player of the Year was just recognition for a season in which Lennon became Celtic’s midfield reference point. 

By 2005, however, Martin O’Neill’s idyllic tenure had reached its denouement. Seven trophies in five years confirmed his status as one of Celtic’ greatest ever managers, but the health of his wife Geraldine would always be more important. Lennon himself was facing an uncertain future. His increasing age, an expired contract and O’Neill’s departure meant Celtic were on the verge of losing not just a coach but their most important player. 

A phone call from new manager Gordon Strachan calmed the storm. Lennon, he insisted, would remain at the club. Furthermore, he would be the Celtic captain, the first Irishman to have the honour since Bertie Peacock half a century earlier. 

Any pride in the announcement would soon be dashed in the most unlikely fashion, with Artmedia Bratislava knocking Celtic out of the Champions League with a humbling 5-4 aggregate victory. Lennon, however, had already faced down much worse than the Slovakian upstarts. 

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Led by his totemic captain, Strachan would secure the title at the first time of asking, with Lennon forming an immovable blockade with Roy Keane in the middle of the park. With the league title secured with six games to spare, a domestic double was secured courtesy of a comprehensive victory over Dunfermline.

That summer, Scott Brown arrived from Hibernian. Lennon’s influence on the team dwindled, and after brief spells with Nottingham Forest and Wycombe Wanderers, he retired from the game in 2008 to become a club coach. 

Two years later he would be back in the spotlight, becoming Celtic manager after Tony Mowbray’s departure in the spring of 2010. “Celtic is my home,” said Lennon at his unveiling to the press. “I have spent the last 10 years of my working life here and I look forward to bringing back the success our great club deserves. Whether as a player, captain or manager, I am a Celtic supporter first and foremost, and no-one will work harder to put a winning team on the park.”

Lennon might have expected the sectarian abuse that comes with being a Catholic manager for one of Scotland’s biggest teams. After all, he had already been beaten unconscious by two sectarian thugs back in 2008, just as he was embarking on his nascent coaching career in Glasgow. He might not, however, have countenanced bullets being sent to him at the club’s stadium address, nor the explosive devices packed with nails which were intercepted by Lanarkshire police before they reached their target. He might, too, have baulked at the thought of a Hearts fan lunging violently towards him, as one did during Celtic’s 3-0 victory at Tynecastle in May 2011. 

As debut managerial campaigns go, it was unique in its violence and vitriol. Through it all, however, Lennon remained an impregnable presence on the Celtic touchline, winning his 12th trophy with the club and first as a coach as they lifted the Scottish Cup. The following campaign brought more glory, with the Premiership secured before Rangers’ liquidation in the summer of 2012. With their greatest rivals out of the picture, two more consecutive league titles followed, before Lennon departed the club for Bolton in 2014. 

After an unsuccessful stay in the north-west of England, Lennon rekindled his winning habit in 2016, guiding Hibernian to a deserved promotion from the Scottish Championship. The Lurgan man faces a difficult job in Edinburgh, with his side locked in mid-table after a difficult start to the campaign. True to form, he has already attracted controversy at Easter Road, receiving yet more death threats in August after leading his team to a 3-2 victory at Ibrox.

Few, however, will be betting against a man who has already beaten rejection as a youth player, a broken back, clinical depression, sectarian abuse, and even threats against his life. Lennon, whether his detractors like it or not, is one of football’s greatest survivors.

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

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