Celtic on the rise but Lennon's travails are off the pitch
Sunday 20 March 2011
The day does not belong to Neil Lennon, but then so many of its intrigues and antagonisms will gather around him. The Celtic manager is a central figure in today's CIS Cup final against Rangers, even though he could not be more detached from it.
In a way, something of Lennon has become lost to the aftermath of the last Old Firm game, when it was revealed that he is under 24-hour surveillance, has a panic alarm installed in his home and has received a number of death threats.
It is his presence, with the Celtic manager banished to the stand and not having spoken to the media since the 1-0 win over Rangers two weeks ago. That night at Parkhead three Rangers players were sent off and Lennon had to be hauled back in a touchline confrontation with Rangers' assistant manager Ally McCoist.
The anger and hostilities of the encounter prompted a summit between club officials, the police and politicians, and today's final will be scrutinised.
Lennon has appeared at training with a bodyguard, while a suspected nail bomb was intercepted at a sorting office, only to turn out to be a fake. His lawyer and agent have spoken about the night when Lennon had to flee his home with his partner and young son following another threat.
Suddenly, the antagonism that comes so naturally to Lennon, the sense of fierce, almost savage defiance that he carried with him as a player and now a manager, seems futile.
In a country still troubled by sectarian attitudes and isolated violence, this Northern Irish Catholic manager of Celtic has become symbolic. There was condemnation of the death threats, but he seems to provoke a general enmity that did not arise for previous Celtic managers Tommy Burns, a devout Catholic, or Martin O'Neill, a Northern Irish Catholic who led the team to glory.
Outside the confines of Parkhead, where Lennon can show his warmth, generosity, intelligence and wit, he is often a reviled figure. This complicates the country's relationship with him, and Celtic believe the Scottish Football Association have been excessive in their punishment of his touchline rages. He will sit in the stand at Hampden, and not lead the team out in his first cup final as manager, because he is in the midst of a four-match ban.
He might revel in this tension if it was not affecting his family, but he is unlikely to leave Celtic even though this has been raised as a possibility. Instead, he will try to restore the club's dominance. This first cup final of the season seems symbolic too: Rangers are waning, Celtic on the rise. But it is also Walter Smith's last cup final as Rangers manager.
It is a moment of turmoil for the Old Firm: Lennon's private angst, Smith's final acts; Celtic stirring, Rangers diminishing; Scott Brown and El-Hadji Diouf maintaining a feud that seems indicative of the general aggression. It is the teams' sixth meeting this season – and it feels like the most significant.
Lennon can take to the pitch five minutes after the trophy is presented, if his side win. Otherwise Hampden, and the occasion, will belong to Smith.
Celtic v Rangers in the CIS Cup final kicks off today at 3pm
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