May 12, 2011

Lennon Target Again After Fan Stages Touchline Assault

Neil Lennon the target again after fan stages touchline assault, Celtic's manager, Neil Lennon, was attacked by a supporter during his team's Scottish Premier League victory at Hearts last night in the latest incident involving the Northern Irishman this season.

Lennon, around whom security levels are tight after threats to his life in recent months, was targeted after Celtic's second goal in their 3-0 win. A man, who sprinted from Tynecastle's main stand, grabbed hold of Lennon on the touchline before being wrestled to the ground by a combination of the Celtic coaching team, stewards and police. Lennon kicked out at his attacker while the man, who was led away by police, lay on the turf.

Celtic's manager was unhurt but visibly affected by an incident that continues a turbulent 2011 for him and Scottish football. In January a package containing bullets and addressed to him was intercepted in Northern Ireland. Two months later he was involved in a furious touchline row with the Rangers assistant manager, Ally McCoist, at the end of an Old Firm derby; a political summit was held partly as a consequence of that fracas.

Since last month Lennon has been under 24-hour security after a viable explosive device intended for him was halted in the post but last night marked the first time he has come into direct danger when carrying out his work.

Condemnation instantly arrived from across Scottish football. "It was an utter disgrace," said the Celtic coach Johan Mjallby, who took care of post-match media duties on Lennon's behalf. "It was shocking and I have never seen anything like it at this level. This is a dark day for Scottish football. You never know what the guy could have had in his hand."

Lennon's assailant was arrested and is due in court. Mjallby recalled the moment the man came into view. "I saw it out of the corner of my eye, that someone was beside the dugout. [Celtic's coach] Alan Thompson was the first to react and to get hold of the guy. Neil was surprised and shocked. He is OK but shaken."

Hearts, who are certain to face sanctions from the Scottish football authorities, vowed to co-operate with whatever investigations take place into the volatile encounter. Immediately after the attack on Lennon a section of the Celtic support fought with the police.

Hearts said in a statement: "An investigation into events which took place in the second half of tonight's game against Celtic is now under way. Hearts is a club which prides itself on its 'football for all' policy and these sorts of actions have no place in the game of football. We will give our full support to the stewards and police authorities in the ensuing investigation into the events at tonight's match."

Both teams had players sent off during a Celtic win which keeps alive Lennon's faint hopes of winning the Scottish Premier League championship in his first full season in charge. Stewart Regan, chief executive of the Scottish Football Association, and his counterpart Neil Doncaster at the Scottish Premier League issued immediate responses to the ugly touchline scenes. "The SPL deplores the actions of the individual involved," said Doncaster.

"This type of behaviour has no place in Scottish football.

"The SPL will undertake a full investigation and will be reviewing reports from the SPL match delegate, match officials, the police and the clubs." Regan said: "Clearly this behaviour from supporters is wholly unacceptable.

"The safety of players, club officials and match officials is paramount on or around the field of play, and this clear breach of security is a matter I will be discussing with SPL chief executive Neil Doncaster tomorrow."

As after the Old Firm game in March, Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, felt obliged to express concern: "This sort of behaviour is utterly unacceptable."

A Lothian and Borders police spokesman said: "A number of incidents took place during this match including some violent disorder.

"Lothian and Borders Police will fully investigate all of the incidents that occurred at the match this evening and will work closely with both football clubs and the SPL."