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Celtic’s Prince of Goalkeepers

4 Sep

My recent piece for In Bed With Maradona on John Thomson, whose image will be the header picture on the blog for the month of September.

In early September, a theatre in Glasgow will host a production which focuses on the life of a former footballer who most of the audience will never have seen play.

Their knowledge of John Thomson will have been gleaned from the occasional grainy piece of newsreel, anecdotes passed down through the generations, and media articles – they all tell the tale of a young man whose life was tragically cut short due to his bravery on the football field.

Thomson was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife in 1909, before moving with his family to the mining village of Cardenden.  Like most young men of his age, Thompson was expected upon leaving school to work in the local mine.  Aged just 14, he joined his father at the Lady Josephine colliery in nearby Bowhill, where as an oncost worker he spent his days some 300 yards underground, unclipping the chain clips of wagons which carried coal.

However, Thomson’s aptitude for football – more specifically, goalkeeping – set him apart from most of his contemporaries.  Despite being only 5ft 9, his early performances meant he was something of a sensation in the east of Scotland.  After a short spell with local team Bowhill Rovers he joined junior side Wellesley Rovers with local newspaper the Fife Free Press stating that the club had: “unearthed a champion goalkeeper.”

There have been various suggestions as to how Celtic became aware of Thomson.  According to the club’s manager at the time, the legendary Willie Maley, he was advised of a promising young keeper by a friend who lived in Fife.  Regardless of the circumstances, Celtic liked what they saw and paid a fee of £10 to take Thomson to Glasgow.

It took around six months for him to be given his chance in the first-team, but after his debut in a win against Dundee, Thomson never looked back.  He quickly established himself as an automatic choice and the honours soon followed.  Celtic lifted the Scottish Cup in 1927 and 1931 and Thomson was also called up by his country, making four appearances for the national side.

As a keeper he had it all.  His grace and agility were matched by his bravery, as he regularly threw his head and body into places were some players in the modern era would be reluctant to place their feet.  With regular shoulder-charges (and a bit more) from opposing players, goalkeeping in the late 1920’s and early 30’s was not for the faint hearted.

There was no requirement however, for Thomson to be reminded of the dangers of his occupation.  In 1930, a match against Airdrie left the keeper with a broken jaw, fractured ribs, damage to his collarbone and two teeth missing.  Thomson’s mother Jean was so concerned by his injuries that she urged him to quit the game, stating that she’d had a premonition that her son would be killed playing football.  Nearly 18 months later, Mrs Thomson’s vision would become a horrible reality.

On 5th September 1931 Celtic travelled across Glasgow to Ibrox stadium for a league encounter with their oldest rivals.  The match was goalless early in the second-half when Rangers centre-forward Sam English ran onto a through ball from team-mate Jimmy Fleming and bore down on the Celtic goal.  Thomson, as expected, was off his line at the first sign of danger.  When asked previously what went through his mind when he faced such situations, Thomson replied that his only thought was keeping his eye on the ball and going for it.  It was no surprise therefore when he threw himself head-first at the feet of the onrushing English.

Thomson’s head collided with the knee of the opposing player.  He lay motionless on the turf and very quickly, many witnesses both on the field and in the crowd, realised that this was no minor injury.

It was reported that a single female scream was heard from the main stand at Ibrox.  That was said to be Margaret Finlay, Thomson’s fiancée who had attended the match with his brother Jim.

Thomson was removed from the field by stretcher and taken to Glasgow Victoria Infirmary, on the south-side of the city.  He had suffered a lacerated wound over the right parietal bones, resulting in a depression of the skull.  An operation was carried out to try and alleviate the pressure caused by the swelling in the brain.  It proved unsuccessful and John Thomson died at 9.25pm that evening.  He was 22 years old.

Glasgow was united in grief, Scotland a nation in mourning.  Thousands gathered at Glasgow’s Queen Street railway station to see off trains taking fans to Fife for the funeral.  Many others who were unable to afford the fare instead walked the 55 miles to Cardenden.

It’s estimated that around 30,000 people were in attendance as Thomson was buried.  Despite the traditional religious divide that exists with Scotland’s two largest clubs, Thomson was not a Roman Catholic.  Instead he was a member of the Church of Christ, a small Christian sect whose members conducted services themselves and took charge of events as ‘The Prince of Goalkeepers’ was laid to rest.

Amongst the tributes paid to Thomson, Maley said of his goalkeeper: “Never was there a keeper who caught and held the fastest shots with such grace and ease.”

The journalist John Arlott meanwhile, described Thomson as: “A great player, who came to the game as a boy and left it still a boy; he had no predecessor, no successor.  He was unique.”

It would be remiss not to note the impact that the events of that tragic incident had on the other party involved.  Sam English was born just a few months before Thomson and after playing junior football with Yoker Athletic, had earned his big move to Ibrox.  An official enquiry confirmed what most observers already knew – that English was an honest player who made a genuine attempt to win a ’50-50’ challenge with a goalkeeper.  There was no malice whatsoever.  Thomson’s family agreed, making it clear that they did not hold English in any way responsible for the keeper’s death.

Sadly, not everyone shared that point of view.  Opposing fans – from various clubs, not only Celtic – never allowed the striker to forget his involvement in Thomson’s death and he was mercilessly barracked wherever he played.  Even after leaving Ibrox and playing for Liverpool, Queen of the South and Hartlepool United, the player’s ‘reputation’ seemed to precede him.

English retired from the game in 1938 aged just 28.  He described the part of his career which followed that day at Ibrox as “seven years of joyless sport.”

Sam English died in 1967, at the age of 58.

Over the years there have been various efforts to ensure that Thomson’s name lives on.  In 2008 a campaign backed by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown led to Thomson being inducted into Scottish football’s Hall of Fame despite failing to meet the normal criteria of 50 international appearances.

In 1983 the John Thomson Memorial Committee was formed, with the aim of promoting Thomson’s memory in his local area.  Their activities include an annual football tournament (bearing Thomson’s name), which is contested by local primary school children.  This year will also see the JTMC, along with Celtic Graves Society, organise a pilgrimage from Celtic Park to Cardenden, following the route of those who walked to Thomson’s funeral in 1931.  They will reach their destination on 4th September.

The following day sees the ‘The Prince – The Johnny Thomson Story’ begin at Glasgow’s Kings Theatre.  Its opening coincides with the 80th anniversary of Thomson’s passing, and a potential audience of thousands are set to attend over an eight-show run.

The fact that so many people are prepared to attend or participate in such events, gives credence to the words which adorn Thomson’s headstone:

“They never die who live in the hearts they leave behind.”

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SPL Preview 2011/12

1 Aug

A recent piece for Just Football. 

The whole of Europe is eagerly awaiting the new SPL season which kicks-off on 23rd July – well no, actually they’re not.  Not surprising really, given that the last campaign turned out to be a truly horrible affair for so many reasons.  Hopefully this year will be more about players, teams and results, rather than referees, politics and death threats.  Here’s a look ahead to 2010/11:

Some Old Favourites Return

Were the SPL to adopt a Champions League-style theme tune, then ‘Welcome Home’ would be apt.  Hibernian have brought back Garry O’Connor and Ivan Sproule, Willo Flood has signed on again at Dundee United, and Callum Davidson has returned to his first club, St Johnstone.  Chris Clark meanwhile is back at Aberdeen and at the time of writing, Rangers are trying to agree a deal for Carlos Cuellar and may yet move for Kenny Miller.

McCoist v Lennon

That’s as rival managers, not squaring up to each other on the touchline as they did at the end of the Scottish Cup replay in March.  As Ally McCoist embarks on his first season in charge at Rangers, he has money to spend now that Craig Whyte’s takeover is finally complete.  However, he is learning the same lesson as Neil Lennon did last summer – the top two are not as big a draw as they once were, with Rangers’ signing targets Craig Conway, Neil Danns and Tomer Hemed all choosing other clubs.  McCoist has brought in Spanish midfielder Juan Manuel Ortiz and others should follow.

Celtic have brought in Kelvin Wilson to strengthen a defence which, although statistically was the best in the league, conceded too many cheap goals in too many important matches.  Kenyan Victor Wanyama provides options in midfield or at the back.  Lennon is on record as saying that it’s “imperative” that Celtic win the league – he’s not wrong.  Four years in a row without the title hasn’t happened since the dark days of the early 1990’s and if it does, then Lennon’s own future will be in doubt.

Heart of Midlothian

There’s rarely a dull moment at Tynecastle, particularly with club owner Vladimir Romanov around…or even when he’s back in Lithuania.  His most recent act was a bizarre statement via the club’s website which included:

“Every year Hearts fights to be in the top three, but even last season in the last 12 games of the season it was almost like someone replaced the team with a different one. Whose fault is that? Players? Manager’s? Or it is mafia?”

This is the same Romanov who previously suggested that Celtic and Rangers were “buying” officials and has had run-ins with numerous managers and players during his time in charge.

The latest controversy to hit the club is defender Craig Thomson’s conviction for lewd, libidinous and indecent behaviour involving two under-age females.  Hearts had originally allowed Thomson to continue his career as if nothing had happened.  However, they then suspended him after public condemnation from fans, sponsors and Edinburgh City Council – even First Minister (and Hearts fan) Alex Salmond had his say.  Hearts have now announced Thomson will leave the club, though there has been speculation that he will move to one of Romanov’s other clubs in Eastern Europe.

Despite the flak they’ve been receiving, it’s looking rather promising on the field.  Excellent in the first-half of last season, the squad has been bolstered with experienced SPL campaigners John Sutton, Danny Grainger, Jamie Hamill and Mehdi Taouil.  They won’t win the title but are clear favourites to repeat last season’s third-place finish.  Don’t be surprised if they land a domestic cup either.

The Top Six

Dundee United should be Hearts’ main challengers for third place, but will have to cope without the departing Conway and David Goodwillie.  Motherwell should also finish comfortably within the top-half – Stuart McCall has made a positive start to his time in charge at Fir Park, including last season’s Scottish Cup final appearance.  Much will depend on new signing Michael Higdon following the loss of Sutton.

Inverness Caley Thistle will look to finish in the top six after being there for much of last season but they too have lost a striker, with the impressive Adam Rooney heading to Birmingham City.  If low-scoring St Johnstone are able to find the net more often (only 23 goals in 2010/11) they may surprise a few people.

The Rest

Kilmarnock will find it tougher this time round without so many of their key men from last year, including Paatelainen, Bryson, Eremenko and Sammon. Craig Brown, meanwhile, will continue his rebuilding job at Aberdeen and any kind of finish above seventh will be a decent return.

Like the Dons, Hibernian need to make a good start or risk being dragged towards the bottom.  Hibs’ preparation has been hampered by speculation surrounding the future of manager Colin Calderwood, who is wanted by Birmingham and Nottingham Forest as an assistant.  Clearly, the timing of such a departure would be far from ideal, but it wouldn’t be a disaster: there has been little evidence during his tenure to suggest that Calderwood is the man to take the club forward, and some of his statements to the media indicate that he wouldn’t be too disappointed to leave either.

For St Mirren and Dunfermline, it could prove to be a difficult season.  The Paisley side were 10th and 11th in the last two seasons and will hope to avoid continuing on that downward trend.  The Pars meanwhile, will take heart from the likes of St Johnstone and Hamilton, who in recent years have both survived in the top flight after promotion.

Off The Field

Scottish football seemed to appear on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers almost as often as the back pages last season.  The threats to Neil Lennon’s life and the touchline attack at Tynecastle showed the world what the Celtic manager has to contend with in order to live and work in Scotland.  Then of course, there was the Dougie McDonald decision-changing fiasco which led to industrial action by referees.  As if that wasn’t enough drama, Celtic and Rangers met seven times during the course of the season, with that explosive cup-tie in March resulting in high-level meetings between the clubs, Scottish Government and the Police.  Anti-sectarian legislation is expected to follow later in the year.

So, expect another quiet season in Scotland.

SPL Team Of The Year 2010/11

27 Jun

Originally published at Just Football

With the SPL season over, it’s time to have a look back at the players who have made their mark during the campaign.  When selecting a team of the year it’s hard to avoid Celtic and Rangers, but thankfully there are those from outside the big two who have done enough to earn their place.

 

GK: Darren Randolph (Motherwell)

When John Ruddy left Fir Park at the end of 2009/10, Motherwell were always going to have a job trying to find a suitable replacement.  Fortunately, they’ve done just that with Randolph, who has not only set a new club record for clean-sheets in one season (overtaking Ruddy in the process) but has also forced his way into the Republic of Ireland squad.

RB: Steven Whittaker (Rangers)

Whittaker is finally producing the form which made him such a prospect at Hibs.  Sound defensively and not bad going forward either, with 7 goals in all competitions.

CB: Sean Dillon (Dundee United)

Not a household name, but Dillon’s ability to read the game has led to a consistently high level of performance and United’s fans voting the Irishman as their player of the year, ahead of David Goodwillie (more about him later).  Previously a recognised right-back, Dillon has played across United’s back-four this season with his best displays coming at centre-back.

CB: Marius Zaliukas (Hearts)

Powerful and commanding, but given the off-field nonsense Zaliukas has had to deal with this season, his contribution to his side is even more impressive.  Stalling on a new contract earlier in the season, Hearts’ supremo Vladimir Romanov decided that Zaliukas should be left out of the side.  Although he returned before Christmas, Zaliukas missed the recent loss to Rangers at the behest of the Edinburgh side’s dictatorial owner, apparently departing the team bus just before it left for Glasgow.

LB: Emilio Izaguirre (Celtic)

Winner of both Player of the Year awards and proving to be an absolute bargain buy, Celtic watched Izaguirre play for Honduras at the World Cup.  A marauding full-back who links up superbly with team-mates, he also defends well and is very composed when playing himself out of trouble.  His final ball still needs a bit of work, but he has enormous potential.

RM: Steven Naismith (Rangers)

Naismith seems to have finally overcome the injury problems which hampered his early Ibrox career, and is a vital link between midfield and attack.  He has also chipped in with 11 league goals.

CM: Beram Kayal (Celtic)

Good passer of the ball, strong in the tackle, dictates the tempo of the game…and still only 23.  The Israeli international has already been linked with Manchester United and when he adds goals to his repertoire, he’ll be the complete midfielder.

AM: Alexei Eremenko (Kilmarnock)

The Finn is one of the main reasons behind Kilmarnock’s impressive campaign – very much a flair player, with great touch and vision.  Currently on loan at Rugby Park from Ukranian side Metalist Kharkiv, Eremenko has been linked with both Celtic and Rangers.

LM: David Templeton (Hearts)

The 22 year old is a throwback to the days when Scotland produced an abundance of small and tricky attacking players.  Templeton was outstanding in the opening months of the season, as demonstrated by his stunning solo effort against Hibernian.

STR: David Goodwillie (Dundee United)

Double Young Player of the Year after turning the potential he has shown in previous seasons into goals.  Linked with Rangers in January and will leave Tannadice in the summer.

STR: Gary Hooper (Celtic)

Hooper has had an outstanding first season in the SPL following his move from Scunthorpe United.  A superb first touch, the ability to dribble in tight spaces and 20 league goals suggest that when Hooper does eventually return south, it will be for a healthy profit on his £2.4 million transfer fee.

 

A mention also for some other players who either just missed out, or only played in the SPL for part of the season: Marian Kello, Mark Wilson, Kyle Bartley, Chris Humphrey, Craig Bryson, Craig Conway, Connor Sammon, Kenny Miller, Nikica Jelavic and Adam Rooney.

Little Rays Of Light

2 Jun

Even the most optimistic of Scottish football fans would struggle to find reasons to be positive at the moment: this season has witnessed referees go on strike, the national side appear no closer to qualifying for the finals of a major tournament, and the sickening threats and physical attacks suffered by Neil Lennon continue to dominate the headlines.

Every now and then though, a little glimmer of light manages to force it’s way through the dark clouds which envelop the Scottish game.  Something that makes you realise that, thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom.

On this occasion, the setting is not Hampden, Celtic Park or Ibrox – instead it’s a high school on the outskirts of Glasgow on an unusually warm and sunny Sunday afternoon in April.  I am here to support to my 6 year old nephew as he makes his debut for his local team.  After some ‘encouragement’ from family members, he’s finally fallen in love with the game.  There was some concern that he may never outgrow Fireman Sam, but the yellow hat and the fire engine have been replaced by a ball and a pair of boots.  His new hero is Gary Hooper, with Parkhead and not Pontypandy, now the centre of his universe.

It’s my first real involvement with kids football since, well, when I was a kid.  What I encounter here is very different from my own experiences with the game at this age.  When I think back to my days at primary school back in the 1980’s (no it wasn’t yesterday) my memories are of games played on large gravel pitches, where a scuffed shot could lead to an opposing player receiving a mouthful of the playing surface.  Then there was the legendary Mitre Mouldmaster – even now I wince as I recall the stinging pain inflicted by this monster of a ball after it caught me full in the face.  The playing field at my school had quite a slope and if I close my eyes, I can see team-mates, parents and teachers hastily brushing away the large goalmouth puddle which often formed after a heavy downpour.

Given the timescales involved, pinpointing many of the games, teams and locations is not easy.  However, there is one match that stands out – a league decider in my final year of primary school.  We were a point behind the league leaders (two points for a win) and had to travel to their home turf (or should that be gravel?) for a final day showdown.  My abiding memory is the massive pitch, with the average kid needing public transport to travel from one penalty box to the other.  The torrential rain didn’t help.

What was the score? Well, let’s just say our opponents were far more comfortable with the wide open spaces.

Back in the present, my nephew’s competitive debut bears no resemblance to my own.  There is not a piece of gravel in sight, rather an all-weather sports court where cones are used to mark out small pitches.  The ice-hockey style (and size) goals are ideal for the 4-a-side games which are ongoing.  Small-sided games are nothing new, but they are the ideal method for ensuring that kids receive as many touches of the ball as possible.  Contrast that with days of old – the young lad playing wide left or right, standing freezing with his sleeves over his hands and hoping that the kick he had at the ball 20 minutes ago won’t be his last of the day.

Each match lasts only 10 minutes, meaning there is the opportunity to play against a number of different teams.  Interestingly, there are no formal goalkeepers, instead each player takes a turn of being a sort of keeper/sweeper whose job is to stay back and cover the goal, but also must be prepared to pass the ball out from the back and join in the attack.

By far the biggest difference though, is in attitudes.  The coaches are there to encourage and build confidence and they seem to understand that, with there being no evidence of raised voices or criticism of mistakes.  Likewise, the behaviour of the parents is impeccable – there’s no sign of angry mums and dads brawling with each other or giving their children the ‘hairdryer’ treatment for a misplaced pass.

There are also some humorous moments. One little lad bursts through on goal like a mini Fernando Torres (the Liverpool version rather than the misfiring Chelsea model) and confidently sidefoots the ball towards the bottom corner, but unfortunately, the ball strikes a post and rolls away.  It’s all too much for the distraught youngster as he walks away from goal with his hands over his face.  What he doesn’t realise however, is that one of his teammates has collected the ball just to the right of goal, and is waiting for El Nino to turn around and receive a pass for a tap-in.  The boy’s coach and parents can only chuckle as he continues to walk away from goal, completely oblivious, and the chance is gone.

Another kid is facing the opposition goal waiting for the ball to come back into play, when he is distracted by something on the ground – he stops, bends down to pick up what turns out to be a stone, and studies it while the game carries on around him.

Overall, the day is a very enjoyable experience.  Nobody records the score, and there are no league titles or cups to be won.  Instead it’s just groups of kids enjoying football.

The chances are, few of these kids will go on and become professionals, but that really doesn’t matter.  It’s all about kids being given a proper introduction to the game – by having the opportunity to play football in an environment which suits their abilities, allows them to be genuinely involved and enables anyone with a natural talent to flourish.

With this scene being replicated across the country, there is at least some hope for the future of the Scottish game… even if the present doesn’t provide much cheer.

 

The Fall And Rise Of Paul Lambert

9 May

11th February 2006: A 1-0 home defeat to second-bottom Dunfermline leaves Livingston six points adrift at the foot of the SPL table.  For manager Paul Lambert, it’s the end of the road as he resigns after winning only 2 league games from a possible 26.  His first managerial job has been a minor disaster and his replacement, John Robertson, is unable to save Livingston from the drop.

Given the start Lambert made to his managerial career, anyone who had suggested that within five years he would be one of English football’s most sought after bosses, would have their sanity questioned.  Yet that’s exactly what’s happened with Lambert leading Norwich City into the English Premier League.

Lambert took on the Livingston job at the end of a glittering playing career.  After playing for St Mirren (winning the Scottish Cup in 1987) and Motherwell he made the move in 1996 that would transform his career.  Borussia Dortmund spotted something that nobody else had, turning Lambert from a decent Scottish league standard attacking midfielder, into one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe.  Following impressive performances against Manchester United in the semi-final, he managed to keep Zinedine Zidane quiet in the 1997 Champions League final, as Dortmund swept Juventus aside 3-1.

Due to his wife’s homesickness however, Lambert’s time in Germany was short-lived and he returned to Scotland, joining Celtic early in the following season.  The success continued: four league titles, three Scottish cup triumphs and two league cup wins, with Lambert eventually becoming club captain as well as a mainstay in the Scotland national side.  Lambert also played in another European final, as Celtic lost out to FC Porto in the 2003 UEFA cup final.

Lambert had turned his attentions to a career in management before his playing days were over, travelling back to Germany to gain coaching qualifications.  Given that he had played for, and learned from, the likes of Ottmar Hitzfeld and Martin O’Neill (whom he seems to replicate in touchline behaviour and dress-sense), much was expected of Lambert the manager.  However, his appointment at Livingston came almost immediately after his playing days were over and perhaps it was too soon, as he failed to see out his debut season at Almondvale.

For some rookie managers, this experience would have been enough to convince that a coaching career wasn’t for them after all.  Lambert, however, is made of sterner stuff.  At the start of the following season he returned to the game, as the new boss of Wycombe Wanderers.  The Wycombe board received a glowing reference for Lambert from O’Neill, his former Celtic boss and himself a former Wycombe manager.

Over two seasons, Lambert took Wycombe to the League Cup semi-final (losing to Chelsea) and to the League Two play-offs (losing to Stockport County).  However he again walked away, this time just three days after failing to achieve promotion.  The decision was again his own, with the Wycombe board taken by surprise.  Lambert himself felt “that this is the right thing to do.”

Lambert’s next stop was Colchester United, in October 2008.  After guiding the Layer Road side to a mid-table finish in League One, the following season started in spectacular fashion with a 7-1 opening day win over Norwich.  Delia Smith and her colleagues on the board were obviously impressed as 10 days later, Lambert took over at Carrow Road.

In his first season in charge, The Canaries were champions and they’ve managed to carry on their impressive form, securing back-to-back promotions.  It’s therefore unsurprising that Burnley approached Norwich for permission to speak to Lambert, and he was even mentioned as an outsider for the Liverpool job before Kenny Dalglish’s appointment.

While it’s natural that Lambert’s head will be turned by interest from English Premier League clubs, he would be mad to consider moving on again.  Despite being in charge of four different sides, Lambert has not yet lasted two years in any managerial post.  Switching clubs again in the near future would throw up questions about Lambert’s loyalty, as well as his ability to see a job through.  He’s already at a club with plenty of potential – smaller teams than Norwich City have survived in England’s top flight

In the longer-term, Lambert will have another option if his career continues on its current upward path – Celtic.  While Neil Lennon is still in his first full season in charge and making a decent attempt at challenging for the SPL title, the shelf-life of an Old Firm manager is far shorter than it used to be, even more so in Lennon’s case given the recent threats and the explosive device sent in the post.  Being in charge for four or five years as boss at Celtic Park or Ibrox is seen as a decent run, and failure to deliver the title within two years usually results in being shown the exit door.  Lambert was amongst the bookies favourites before Lennon’s appointment was confirmed, and his name is likely to be close to the top of list if the position becomes available in the near future.

Lambert therefore, could potentially face the same dilemma as experienced by Owen Coyle in 2009 – to take charge of a huge club playing in an inferior league and with limited finances, or try and establish himself in the England’s top flight.  Coyle ignored boyhood allegiances and remained down south.  Lambert will do the same in the short-term but given that his family have remained in the West of Scotland for much of the time he has pursued a career in England, the opportunity of a job in the SPL would provide additional benefits.

The qualities displayed by Lambert as a player seem to be serving him well in management: intelligent, down-to-earth, efficient, and effective.  He described his club’s ascent to the English Premier League as a “miracle”, and while that is perhaps a slight exaggeration, he’s certainly made that short spell at Livingston seem like a very distant memory.

What’s Best For Neil Lennon?

3 May

Neil Lennon should resign at the end of this season.  Regardless of who wins the SPL, Lennon should end his time as Celtic manager and move on.

This is not a sentiment that will be shared by many Celtic fans, but what choice does he have?  The sectarian abuse, the death threats and the attacks (both verbal and physical) Lennon has received during his time in Glasgow have been topped off with an explosive device sent through the post.  Thankfully, the package was intercepted but given the lengths individuals are prepared to go to in order to do him harm, there is simply no prospect of Lennon and his family ever being able to live anything like a normal life in the West of Scotland.

Lennon’s battle with depression is well documented and the current situation must place an incredible strain on him.  He also has a partner and young son to consider – it’s hard to imagine what Lennon must feel when he sees his 5 year old constantly surrounded by Police and bodyguards.

Naturally, Celtic fans will campaign for Lennon to remain in his post, and gestures such as the late-night vigil outside Celtic Park and the 18th minute applause emphasise the remarkable bond that exists between the club’s manager and it’s supporters.  However, rather than cries of ‘Lennon must stay’, perhaps the attitude should be more along the lines of ‘We will support Neil Lennon, whatever he decides’.  Only Lennon and his family can truly understand what they are going through at the moment, and they must consider the possibility that one or more of them could be hurt if they remain in Scotland.

The manager’s commitment to his club cannot be questioned.  He has been subjected to the garbage mentioned above and even remained at Celtic Park after being demoted from First-Team coach to taking charge of the Reserves by Tony Mowbray.  His life would undoubtedly be a lot easier had he left Glasgow many years ago…or never arrived in the first place.  Despite publicly stating he has no regrets about moving to Celtic, Lennon would be forgiven for every now and then thinking about how different his day-to-day existence would be, had he joined a club other than Celtic when he left Leicester City.

There will be those who say that the game needs to take a stand against the bullies – they’re right, but that’s the responsibility of the SFA, Celtic, Rangers and the Police, not Neil Lennon and his family.  It’s easy for third parties to offer such advice from the stands, the press box, a TV studio, or while sitting at a keyboard. 

The vilification of Lennon is nothing new.  Since he arrived in Scotland at the end of 2000, he has been on the end of an unprecedented level of abuse: two males received prison terms after assaulting him in the street, he had to call time on his international career after death threats, and as Lennon details in his autobiography Man and Bhoy, he was almost run off the road by another motorist.  Yet in all that time, the authorities have done little in terms of support or action.  It seems that following this latest incident, many people in Scotland have only now woken up to what he has had to contend with.

Most of Lennon’s detractors will claim that their dislike stems from his fiery, ‘in your face’ personality.  Whilst in many cases that will be correct, for others it’s a shield behind which they peddle their sectarian bile.  Booing or shouting at a player you don’t have time for is part of the game, but Lennon was a marked man before he even had the chance to offend or annoy anyone on the field of play –  banter and criticism being replaced by poisonous hatred.

In his first full season in charge, Lennon has shown he has the potential to be a very capable manager and if he does move on, he will find work elsewhere.  Celtic of course will find a replacement, but it would be natural that prospective new managers may be a tad concerned that the previous holder of the post left due to his life potentially being in danger.

Should Lennon be forced out, it could mark the beginning of the end of Scottish football as we know it.  Those few outsiders who view the SPL as a credible competition may be forced to think again.  There is the danger of a backlash from angry Celtic fans, leading to tit-for-tat threats and intimidation, aimed at Old Firm players and management.  Sponsorship and TV deals could in turn suffer, and the Scottish game could find itself on its last legs.

From his recent comments in the media, it seems that Lennon is determined to stay at Celtic, in the short-term at least.  However, nobody should be forced to endure what he has had to, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if, at some point in the near future, he decides he is better off out of it.

Old Firm Discussion

26 Apr

Some thoughts on the 0-0 draw between Rangers and Celtic on Sunday.

1. A poor first-half followed by a second period which, although lacking in quality, provided plenty of goalscoring opportunities.  The standard of passing however, was truly awful.

2. Nikica Jelavic was again a threat, particularly during the opening 45 minutes.  He continues to improve and will be a key player for Rangers in the years ahead.  Kyle Lafferty was Jelavic’s partner up front and as is often the case with Lafferty, he made a bright start before fading.  During his Ibrox career Lafferty has never come close to justifying his transfer fee – the talent is there, he just keeps it well hidden.

3. Lafferty had Rangers’ best opportunity of the match, and he really should have buried his header after getting ahead of Charlie Mulgrew.  Despite having several clear chances, Rangers rarely tested Fraser Forster.

4. Maurice Edu has plenty to offer but his confidence is so low that the end of the season cannot come quick enough.  An awful performance.

5. In the opening exchanges Celtic looked nervy, perhaps realising what a win would mean.  They only really came into the game after the enforced introduction of Kris Commons, who became the link between midfield and attack.  Why he wasn’t included in the starting line-up, is anybody’s guess.  Scott Brown and Beram Kayal were more influential after the break.

6. Lennon was right to publicly defend Georgios Samaras after the penalty-miss.  However, the striker is now starting to live off his two goals at Ibrox in January.  Anthony Stokes looked more menacing in the short time he was on the field, though he was crazy to take the dive that lead to a yellow card – there appeared to be a clear shot at goal.

7. The penalty award was soft, but they are often given.  The Joe Ledley incident meanwhile, wasn’t a spot-kick as Steven Whittaker had pretty much no time to move out of the way.

8. Once again Allan McGregor showed his class, with two outstanding saves to deny Majstorovic and Izaguirre.  Will a Rangers takeover allow them to keep him at the club?

9. Should they maintain their goal difference advantage, Celtic need four wins and a draw to clinch the title.  The finishing line is in sight, and Celtic should cross it first.  Victory in their next two games, against Dundee United and Inverness CT, would be massive steps towards doing just that.

10. That’s enough Old Firm games for one season.