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FOOTBALL: 'Hoax'death threats mean I'll only go back home if I really have to.

Byline: Michael BAILLIE

ON August 21 2002, Neil Lennon's world turned upside down when he received a death threat as he prepared to captain Northern Ireland.

The Celtic star immediately retired from international football after the BBC in Ulster took a call from someone claiming to represent the loyalist paramilitary group the LVF, just a few short hours before he was due to lead out the side against Cyprus at Windsor Park.

Only now, a month after the dreadful event, is Lennon's life beginning to return to something resembling normality.

Normally an effervescent character, he admits he still feels paranoid and reluctant to go out since the events in Belfast.

For now Lennon - whose parents Gerry and Ursula still live in Lurgan - will not even set foot in the country of his birth for fear of another death threat.

Lennon said: "The last week or so my life has finally settled down and I've got back in the normal routine

"You obviously feel a bit paranoid. I went into a wee bit of a shell for a time, which is not my natural persona. I just wanted to take stock of things and have a look at things long term.

"I have not been in the city centre as much. I just started last week or so going back and eating in a few restaurants.

"I've mainly been staying in the West End, with all the Partick Thistle fans. But I've put it behind me and I'm really enjoying my football and the training again.

"The impression people have of me is a happy-go-lucky type of guy. But when something likes that happens, it has nothing to do with football, whether it was a hoax or not, I don't know but I could not take that chance.

"It turns out the LVF released a statement that it was a hoax but that did not come out on the night but the next day and by then I'd already made my mind up.

"I've not been back to Northern Ireland since it happened.

"I worry that even on a personal visit it may happen again. It's a case of out of sight, out of mind. So I've just kept out of the way.

"I'd only go back to Northern Ireland if I really have to - at this minute.

"I've had loads of letters of support from both sides, from all over Britain, even from MPs.

"It's been flattering to receive them but it still does not take away from the fact that there is no guarantee it won't happen again.

"It just took the focus away from what was an international game, if someone had scored a hat-trick it would have made about a paragraph in the papers. It took the whole focus away from the game."

The bigots have, of course, targeted Lennon because he plies his trade for Celtic.

He acknowledges that unless he moves from the champions the problem will never go away but he is determined not to give in to the mindless idiots.

Lennon added: "Even if I was to leave Celtic I will probably be tainted with what has happened anyway.

"I know what people are getting at when they say as long as I'm at Celtic I'll always be a target.

"As long as it does not really cross the line and gets to the point when I feel I have to quit the club.

"I'm quite happy here, I like living in Glasgow.

"Sammy McIlroy has left the door open for a return, if I ever change my mind, he'll welcome me back with open arms which is really great of him."

Lennon, who went under the knife in the summer to cure a knee injury which dogged him in the second half of last season, has so far struggled to regain his fitness.

And he has been criticised for his poor performances, especially in the Champions League qualifier against Basel.

Only now, into the ninth game of the league campaign, does Lennon feel he is near to recapturing his best form.

He said: "I feel my fitness is coming. John Clark told me after his knee operation it took him three or four months to get back his rhythm and I know where he's coming from.

"But in the last week I feel as if I'm coming back to myself.

"And I'm really enjoying this season more than any other because it's a real test for us this year."

Celtic entertain Kilmarnock at Parkhead this afternoon and Martin O'Neill will be without the suspended Bobby Petta, long-term injury victim Johan Mjallby and Magnus Hedman, who has been ruled out with a thigh injury.

The Celtic manager revealed he will use video evidence before deciding to discipline Petta, who was red carded for violent conduct during an under-21 game with Aberdeen.

O'Neill said: "I'm going to see the incident myself. We've got Celtic TV and they had a camera there so I will look at it.

"He put up his defence, but if I feel he warranted it then I will discipline him."

HEAD TO HEAD

JAN 26 2002 Kilmarnock 0 Celtic 2

JAN 12 2002 Kilmarnock 0 Celtic 2

OCT 27 2001 Celtic 1 Kilmarnock 0

AUG 4 2001 Kilmarnock 0 Celtic 1

CAPTION(S):

TARGET: Lennon has had to endure sickening graffiti, left, and inset, being booed by Northern Ireland supporters against Norway; VIDEO REPLAY: Martin O'Neill
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUN
Date:Sep 28, 2002
Words:906
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