HE is real enough, Neil Lennon. He bleeds, he hurts. But the Hibernian manager has also become what anyone wants him to be, a wall to be daubed on in Scotland’s poisonous culture wars.
“Neil Lennon has become a cypher,” says sociologist and Hearts supporter Michael Rosie, “For some he is an angel, for some he is a devil.
“Too many of us forget that he is human and somebody who does not deserve to be routinely abused. “But that gets lost in the whataboutery.
“And this is Scotland where we have so many levels of whataboutery, it is like peeling an onion. “And we all know what happens when we peel an onion.”
Mr Rosie was at Tynecastle on Wednesday night to watch his team host their arch-rivals, Mr Lennon’s Hibs. He is a fan. He was also a member of the Scottish Government’s advisory group on tackling sectarianism – and still advises authorities now. So he has seen this all before.
Mr Lennon was one of several victims in what police sources describe as a “toxic” match.
Mr Lennon as a player
The former Celtic player was hit in the head by a coin. The Hearts goalkeeper and match officials were also targeted. On Friday, Mr Lennon, now 47, and a veteran, understands the blank canvas he represents for friends and foes.
“My thoughts are my own but people second guess them and most of the time get it totally wrong,” he said. “Again this is the way you are portrayed, because I am an Irish Catholic who played for Celtic I’m this and that and the other, it’s their problem, not mine.”
READ MORE: Neil Lennon won’t be driven out of Scotland by racists and is proud of what he achieved with Celtic
His attack was also football’s problem, and Scotland’s.
The heat is back in game, reckons Mr Rosie. On the pitch, neither of the two biggest clubs, Rangers and Celtic, are quite where their supporters want them to be. But it is not just the Old Firm. Words have been ramped up on referees across the game.
Big issues, such as bringing back alcohol to stadiums, are back in the news. So are Orange marches in Glasgow ,after an assault on a priest during one. A legislative attempt, always controversial, to tackle sectarianism at football has been repealed.
“Football is never on its own. It is always mixed up with other stuff, “ Mr Rosie explains. And today that means issues are played out through social media in an endless loop of outrage and anger.
“I don’t think we can just point the finger at social media,” the academic says. “These anxieties were always there. There were always racists and there were always bigots.”
READ MORE: Ultras and pyros: Police Scotland on the new threats football faces
Yet Mr Rosie sees some grounds for optimism. After previous flare-ups, such as the ground invasion at the Rangers v Hibs Cup Final and the “Shame Game” between Rangers and Celtic in 2011, that whataboutery was at fever pitch.
“The clubs positioned themselves in very defensive ways,” he says. This time round the tone has been different, with Hibs and Hearts issuing a joint statement. “Both were unequivocal,” he said. “That is something we can build on. There is no love lost between these two clubs. But they have shown they can rise above that.
“It would be good to see the SFA or the SPFL [football’s two main governing bodies] show similar leadership. They have been talking about pyrotechnics for years. But flares are now seen routinely at big matches.
“They were burning at Murrayfield on Sunday [when Hearts played Celtic in a cup tie] and at Tynecastle on Wednesday.
“Just imagine what would happen if a smoke bomb went off when crowds were going down stairs leaving a match. This problem is not brand new. But we have not got a handle on it. So what has been tried has just not been working. So what does football propose?”
“We can say the same thing about tackling sectarianism?”
Elsewhere in Europe clubs have been made to pay for the crimes of their fans. The theory? Supporters will self-police if they think their team will have to play behind closed doors or be docked points. Scottish clubs, including Hearts and Hibs have voted against this. Mr Rosie’s advisory group wanted such a scheme. “If not strictly liability, then what?” he asked, not for the first time. “ We have never had an answer to that. I don’t think they have done anything.”
Fans groups have called in Henry McLeish, the former footballer – and first minister – to try and bring together stakeholders. Mr McLeish stressed the game was better than it has been but warned of “lingering concerns”. He too points at clubs and governing bodies.
He said: “What needs to happen is that those in charge of the game have to take responsibility and not leave it to the police and the courts.”
Mr Rosie agrees: “As the police say, we have a problem with a ‘very small minority’. But what if we do not get across the message that that trouble is ‘not on’? Football is a rich sport and its leaders are paid a lot of money. So the ball is in their court. “Because cypher or not, nobody should go to work and have a coin thrown at them.”
Charity: ‘Some football clubs want to sell alcohol. They will need a licence’
NIL by Mouth has been arguing for ‘strict liability” for years.
The charity’s campaign director Dave Scott reckons Scottish football has been running away from its sectarian problem for years.
The Scottish Government turned to policing to fix religious bigotry on the terraces with an act – widely criticised and now repealed – to deal with offensive behaviour at grounds.
Mr Scott does not think the repeal means the problem has gone away. He wants clubs to be made responsible. However, he does not see this as being necessarily quite as painful as football’s leaders fear.
He said: “Strict liability means there is nowhere to hide. We have had an absolute failure for decades to tackle problems like sectarianism.
“Nobody does anything. There are just phantom meetings nobody minutes.
“But strict liability does not have to mean drastic measures like closing a ground or docking points. It could be a bit more like a licensing board.”
Scottish football, after all, wants to sell alcohol again, 38 years after yet another shame game that brought the country in to disrepute.
Clubs, if they get their way, will have to be licensed.
That means behaving in the responsible way publicans have to – or lose their licence.
Could this be a model for something close to strict liability to which clubs could sign up?
Their actions could be judged by something like an independent licensing board, reckons Mr Scott. So if there is trouble at a game, such a board would look to see if the club had done all it could to prevent it. And to see if they behaved responsibly after an event.
Hearts and Hibs issued a joint statement on Thursday. Their respective managers both highlighted how unacceptable Wednesday’s trouble was. without singling out the other side. A board might judge they were behaving like responsible licence-holders.
What if a club played a tune to its fans it knew had alternative sectarian words? Or if club officials or players used dog-whistles or suggested match officials were biased against them? Would that pass a licensing regime?
Mr Scott said: “I think such a system would re-assure fans.”
Source : HeraldScotland