The sectarian abuse that forced Celtic legend Neil Lennon to retire from international football marked the “turning point” that transformed the sport in Northern Ireland, the Irish Football Association (IFA) director has claimed.
Lennon, a Catholic, was due to lead Northern Ireland out as captain for the first time in a match against Cyprus on 21st August 2002.
However, just hours prior to what would have marked his 41st cap for the side, the midfielder, who was born in Lurgan, Northern Ireland, received a death threat from a loyalist paramilitary group.
An individual phoned BBC offices and warned the player that if he took part in the game against Cyprus he would “get hurt”.
Lennon, who at the time was playing for Celtic, took notice of the warning and decided against playing and flew back to Glasgow. He never played for Northern Ireland again.
Marking the recent 20th anniversary of the IFA’s Football For All project, which commits to tackling sectarianism and racism at Northern Ireland games, Michael Boyd, director of football development at the IFA, branded the moment a “turning point” that transformed the game in the country.
The Football For All campaign had been slow in its progress, with the image of Northern Ireland football suffering due to the issues of sectarianism and racism. Prior to the campaign being launched the team was struggling to get a sponsor for the kit because the image of Northern Irish football was so bad.
Recalling his own experiences at Belfast’s Windsor Park, the home of the national team, Mr Boyd admitted that the atmosphere was not family-friendly. He also said the issues and image were so bad that the national team couldn’t even sell out the stadium in 1999 against then-World Cup champions France.
“The real turning point for us was the Lennon incident,” Mr Boyd said.
He revealed how it led to then-manager of Northern Ireland, Sammy McIlroy, and the players contacting those behind the Football For All campaign and pledging their support for its message. A press conference was then held where the strategy was read out.
“It felt like a symbolic moment because people began to get behind the campaign,” said Mr Boyd.
Now, as the IFA celebrates 20 years of the campaign, Windsor Park has a completely different feel.
“It’s totally transformed. Every match is sold out and families are happy to come here. Tickets before the pandemic were like gold dust and we haven’t lost the atmosphere,” said Mr Boyd.
“It’s noticeable how many children and women there are at games now. We reach about 70,000 young people on a regular basis and the number of supporters clubs has grown to over 70 worldwide.”
The Football For All campaign now continues to evolve into other areas of equality and tolerance, with ongoing support from the current Northern Ireland squad.
Picture: Neil Lennon.