Neil Lennon Interview: Old Firm rivalry never diminishes – but it does go too far

Neil Lennon Interview: Old Firm rivalry never diminishes – but it does go too far
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Neil Lennon rode football’s emotional rollercoaster both on the pitch and off it: first as a player, then as a manager. How many players are idolised for their clubs, yet booed by their own country’s fans? Or in his own case, much worse. But that’s exactly what happened to the flame-haired midfielder, who was forced to end his international career with Northern Ireland at 31 after he was sent a death threat – his ‘crimes’, merely Catholic roots and Celtic ties.

Later as a manager Lennon’s fine success during two spells at Parkhead rivalled that of his own mentor Martin O’Neill, and the legendary Jock Stein. But things change fast: by the end, the 50-year-old had become Public Enemy No.1 with a section of Bhoys fans, and he resigned last February en route to a rare, trophyless 2020-21. 

For all the ups and downs of a life in professional sport, though, Lennon’s CV remains one of the modern game’s most impressive; certainly, there have been far more highs than lows in his highly decorated career. From humble beginnings at Crewe, to seasonal finals and a pair of League Cup triumphs for O’Neill’s plucky Leicester, the Ulsterman then became a serial winner across seven glorious seasons at Celtic Park: European finals, famous giant-killings and all. 

Lennon always did like the fight, and now he’s itching for one more ride on that rollercoaster. But first things first: there’s your questions to answer...

Neil Lennon Interview: Old Firm rivalry never diminishes – but it does go too far

Neil Lennon enjoyed two spells as manager of Celtic (Image credit: Getty Images)

Is it true that as a young teenager in Lurgan, you trialled for Rangers?
Tony Fearon, via Facebook

I didn’t, but a Rangers scout did invite me over when Jock Wallace was their manager – me and my dad watched an under-16s match at Ibrox with another couple of kids. Jock then sent me a letter saying they’d be keeping tabs on me, but it was never going to happen because of my background.

You, Danny Murphy and Robbie Savage in Crewe’s mid-90s midfield. That wasn’t bad, was it? Was Robbie still as annoying back then?  
David Fishlock, Crewe

They were great days for me, and it was a wonderful football education – just what I needed after struggling for game time at Manchester City. We got promoted from the Third Division to the Second, then made the play-offs. A year later, they reached them again and went up to the First Division, but by then I’d already moved on to join Leicester. 

Quite a few of us went on to have a lot of success from that team: Danny at Liverpool, then Robbie joined me at Leicester. Robbie Savage was a character even back then, and I’m not surprised he’s gone on to work in the media. He had so much confidence, a distinctive dress sense and a great sense of humour, but he backed all of that up with a great work ethic. Mind you, I’ve told him that I don’t know who talks more crap on the 606 phone-in: him or Chris Sutton...

Neil Lennon Interview: Old Firm rivalry never diminishes – but it does go too far

With old team-mate and BT Sport pundit Chris Sutton (Image credit: Getty Images)

What’s the funniest prank you ever saw as a player?
Paddy Fernley, via Facebook

[Laughs] Too many to mention! And quite a few which shouldn’t be in a respected magazine like this one... At Celtic, Alan Thompson and Chris Sutton were in competition to see who could wind the other up – and they both succeeded most of the time. There’s one that immediately springs to mind, though, which had everyone in stitches.

Garry Parker was always up for a prank, and brought a really hot chilli to a bar one day – when anyone left his drink to go to the loo, he’d rub the chilli around the rim of the glass. You can imagine the reaction when the poor lad took his next sip – it ruined his entire night because his lips were swollen for a couple of hours.

Go on, then: why did you headbutt Alan Shearer’s boot that time?
Michael Butler, via Facebook

I wish I had a fiver for every time I’m asked this question! But I’ll give the same answer I always do – Alan and I didn’t have, never had, and still don’t have a problem with each other. We’ve met up many times since that match [in 1998]. Because he was England’s No.9 and the World Cup was coming up and was such a top player, a lot was made of the incident – but to be honest, it probably looked worse than it was and I just brushed it off.

What happened was quite out of character for Big Al, so you’ve just got to take his word that it was a complete accident. I know a lot of people are quite disappointed that my answer is so boring – sorry...

Neil Lennon Interview: Old Firm rivalry never diminishes – but it does go too far

'You have to take Al's word that it was just an accident' (Image credit: Getty Images)

Please tell me it’s true that you told Ronaldinho “you’re not so f**king good now” after beating Barça in the 2003-04 UEFA Cup last 16?
‘’, via Instagram

Yep, it’s true! Mind you, he probably didn’t understand a word. [Laughs] There was a bit of bad blood after the first leg that Celtic won 1-0, but that game is probably best remembered for the three red cards – including our keeper Rab Douglas and the scuffling which broke out at half-time, when some of their guys set upon Bobo Balde in the tunnel. They were favourites to go through at the Camp Nou, so it was very satisfying holding them to a 0-0. But looking back, I guess we were all a bit naughty!

Can you put into words what it’s really like being embroiled in the Old Firm rivalry? Does it go too far?
Ed Saunders, Leeds

I’ll answer that last one first. Yes, it does go too far at times, but you’ve got to experience it to understand it. The rivalry never diminishes. There aren’t too many places in the world where passions run so high, and that won’t change because it’s passed on through generations.

As a player, winning was great and losing really hurt, but as a manager it then goes up a notch. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no better feeling than beating Rangers, but there’s also this overriding sense of relief. As for losing, it’s a feeling of utter loneliness and you just want to spend the next few days in a very dark room. Even then, though, it’s all about the next one and the chance to put things right.

It’s been long enough, Neil… tell us what Ally McCoist said in that Old Firm game you fell out in?
@FKMPodcast, via Twitter

[Laughs] Funnily enough, I’ve just finished playing five-a-side with him! We were on the same side and I’ll tell you this – he still knows how to stick the ball in the back of the net, don’t worry about that. We play a couple of times a week and are very good friends. That incident was all about two winners in a very competitive environment coming together. There wasn’t anything insulting said – it just came down to a difference of opinion on the day. It happens all the time and it’s quickly forgotten.

Neil Lennon Interview: Old Firm rivalry never diminishes – but it does go too far

Exchanging views on the touchline with old friend and Old Firm rival Ally McCoist (Image credit: Getty Images)

Celtic’s doomed 10-in-a-row season: what exactly happened? Why were you so reluctant to resign even when things really weren’t working out to say the least
Martyn Carey, via Facebook

The COVID pandemic really stopped us in our tracks. We were flying before that – we won in Rome and were also on an unbelievable run in the league, winning nine out of 10 games after the winter break and moving 13 points clear of Rangers. The league was called in May and we were deservedly crowned champions. But when football came back after that long lay-off, we were never the same again and that was it. I remember when the players returned after three months away, it just felt different. A few of the lads wanted to leave and there wasn’t the money to go out and replace them. Everything was flat, and unfortunately there was a bit of ill-discipline with players breaking COVID protocols and stuff like that.

What’s next for you in the game, Lennie? What kind of job are you looking for now
Craig Matthews, Glasgow

Well, I’m certainly not ready for retirement. The hunger remains, the fire in my belly is still there and I’m in love with the game as much as I’ve ever been. I’d love another crack at management – and even if I say so myself, I don’t think my CV’s too bad...

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1