Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bombs sent to Lennon's home casts sad light on Scottish football sectarianism

Neil Lennon is as an abrasive manager as he was a player. Perhaps his three most obvious qualities are his forthrightness, his Northern Irish heritage and his love for the green and white hoops of Glasgow Celtic Football Club. With the latter goes a certain antipathy - antagonism, even - for local Old Firm rival, Rangers. But when bombs are sent via post to his home, all perspective has been lost and football becomes a pawn in a much larger game.

Lennon, who as a player asked and gave no quarter, is in his first full season managing his alma mater and finds himself successfully beginning to move the club on from Tony Mowbray's disastrous reign. He hasn't taken any backward steps - neither have supporters from the green half of Glasgow - but has found himself under literal fire in ways his immediate predecessors seem to have (mostly) avoided. Also targeted in this most recent campaign were two high-profile Celtic supporters.

Lennon and his family have moved from their property and are living secretly under twenty-four hour guard. For football to come to this doesn't make a mockery of the sport - when violence, or intended violence begins, the game becomes a canvas for much larger social issues and casts a sad light on the religious divide between opposing sectarian factions in Glasgow. Traditionally, but this is far from a hard and fast rule, Celtic are known as a "catholic" club and Rangers a "protestant" one.

For decades the Old Firm derby has been amongst the most hotly contested rivalries in Europe, both on the field and between supporters. But when a man's life is endangered simply because of his status as manager and his inflammatory remarks about football, then any sense of perspective has been thrown from the nearest window. Has Lennon actively harmed anyone with words or deeds? Or has his legal representative, QC Paul McBride? Each may speak their mind and express their views as is their right. But words should never be the catalyst for actions such as this.

It has been said that sport is for everyone. It can be all-inclusive and has the ability to bring together opposing sides and even heal emotional wounds. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Christmas Truce football match between Allied and German forces during World War One. If the English and Germans could put aside their differences in such a climate, how can a game be taken so seriously as parcel bombs, bum-stabbings and other acts of violence? It seems some people just use sport and the tribalism bred by it to be extremely crappy to one another.

One February 2006 episode of the British television series Life on Mars said it best, an episode revolving around 1970's football violence between blue and red halves of Manchester. After an organised brawl, Detective Sam Tyler chases the instigator into a corner and explains the consequences football sectarianism so clearly you can't miss his foreknowledge of the Hillsborough and Heysel disasters.

If you wish harm to a man, in cold blood, because his football - and perhaps religious - sensibilities differ from yours, then you don't deserve the enjoyment and escape of sport. Football is wonderful, but it's never that important.

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