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Traynor: FOLLY THE LEADER; Celtic boss got it wrong after Ibrox madness.

Byline: Jim Traynor

THIS man Martin O'Neill is either a quick-thinking genius or a manager of brittle temperament who cannot maintain focus or think straight under real pressure.

So what on earth was Celtic's manager trying to prove at the end of Saturday's bilious Old Firm match at Ibrox when, with Neil Lennon in a stranglehold, he stood before a Broomloan Stand full of Celtic fans?

O'Neill invited Keith Jackson of this very parish to put his own interpretation on the clenched-fist salute, but please, allow me to try.

Truth is I'm just not sure what thoughts were clattering around inside O'Neill's head - a place I've often thought might be interesting to visit but dangerous to linger - although I am convinced of one thing.

Whether premeditated or spontaneous it was an act of folly.

Old Firm matches tend to be combustible with players and supporters loitering on the very fringes of madness and the last thing any of us need is for one of the managers to take a step too far.

Instead of dragging the favourite son, Lennon, towards the fans O'Neill should have been up the tunnel in a flash waiting for his players to enter the dressing room for a severe dressing down.They deserved derision for an appalling lack of discipline,not praise for working up a sweat when reduced to nine men.

I really hope O'Neill, if he has regained his composure, will look back on the match with regret, and not just because his side lost 2-0. However, if he is genuinely proud of what he and some of his players did at Ibrox then it's time to switch the lights off. There's no hope.

Let's get one thing straight.There was nothing heroic about O'Neill's trek to the fans even if it was probably an appropriately inglorious end to another day dripping with hatred and intolerance.

As soon as Kenny Clark blew the whistle for the first time at Ibrox, dignity left in a hurry and we were left to endure the insensitivity of lamebrains on and off the pitch and suffer the awful stench of a stew of hatred and hypocrisy.

Players snarled and snapped.They laid into opponents, but appealed to Clark for protection while their victims lay writhing. And fans on both sides hurled sectarian chants which should always shame anyone with any decency.

The whole thing was amoral and crude in the extreme and if the referee had done his job fully the match would have been abandoned.There simply wouldn't have been enough players left to continue.

Justice smiled on Nacho Novo when his red card from the previous week had been rescinded, but how did he repay the authorities for doing the right thing? In a show of petulence he flicked out a boot at Jackie McNamara then appeared to stand on Stephen Pearson.

Bobo Balde almost lifted Alex Rae off his feet at one point in the first half as mayhem threatened to reign completely just after Rangers had gone two up.Henri Camara could also have gone for a crude challenge on Gregory Vignal.

Then there was Lennon himself. Saint or sinner, that's the question, although O'Neill probably believes his midfield player to be worthy of a halo.

However,the truth is Lennon,who mouthed off at opponents,Alex McLeish and Rangers' fans,could easily have joined - Alan Thompson and Chris Sutton in the dressing room.

Celtic lost only two players, but they were fortunate, even if Peter Lovenkrands should be thoroughly ashamed of his reaction after Thompson jabbed his face forward.Thompson, though, was the real fool because eyes wide open he blundered into the trap so there can be no sympathy for the Englishman, whose lapse sparked a brawl that could have provoked crowd trouble.

Celtic, who had started well, suddenly found themselves two goals down and then these players, who have won in the past because of their controlled aggression and belief, lost control.

Discipline disappeared and the game was over soon after the break when Sutton walked. Rangers were content to hold their lead and close the gap to one point, but the match won't be recalled because of silky or intelligent play.

It might be remembered as the time Celtic and O'Neill cracked under pressure.

It was like watching Norman Wisdom wandering about the Palladium as O'Neill made his way, slowly at first, on to the pitch. He seemed to be working his way towards the officials, who were gathering near the centre circle, but then he just stopped and looked at them for a while.

So, I ask again.What was running through that head as he went one way then another? Eventually he turned towards his own players, one in particular.

He grabbed his fellow Irishman, who, whether he wanted to or not, found himself being hauled in the direction of the Broomloan. A hand was raised, a fist clenched and the fans loved it.

Suddenly they had forgotten about the shambolic performance, the total lack of discipline and the defeat. Reality had been suspended as the fans went wild at the sight of O'Neill and Lennon together before them like two heroic figures against a callous world.

Oh please, dome a favour. One half are just as bad as the other in that they harbour a disgracefully high number of fans who revel in hatred against the other side.

Yes Lennon is abused, but let's not regard every jeer or gesture towards him as sectarian or racist because he is an Irish Catholic.There are too many idiots in this country who would dislike him because of his religion, but that doesn't mean the entire nation is diseased and bigotry riddled.

Lennon is no angel yet Celtic's fans, or a fair number of them, believe he is constantly sinned against.They argue every fan who shouts at him does so because of his background and that makes them all bigots, which is in itself an extremely divisive as well as insulting view.

And it's also bollocks.

Most fans single Lennon out not because of his religion at all, but because he is an influential opposition player, who is fiery and who usually wins his pitch battles.

When O'Neill dragged him towards the fans did he genuinely think he was protecting a lonely, innocent put-upon figure? Did he really believe every Celtic fan inside Ibrox or watching on TV would regard this act as nothing more than a father figure going to the rescue of a bullied child?

Are we to believe O'Neill didn't realise there would be many on both sides of Scotland's disgraceful divide who would regard this act as t women standing defiantly against perceived injustice and persecution?

It was behaviour which would stir the emotions of the lowest common denominator on both sides.

Perhaps O'Neill, who is supposed to be a bit brighter than your average manager, wasn't thinking straight, but maybe we should excuse him.

After all, pressure can do awful things to a person and the heat has certainly been turned up on a Celtic side struggling to pull out of sharp decline as they look to a Champions League match against a rampant Barcelona.

But help might be closer than O'Neill thinks. He had a verbal spat during the game with Fernando Ricksen, but said afterwards in the media conference that he had only asked the Rangers player what psychiatrist he'd been going to.

Hopefully O'Neill took a note of the head mechanic's name.


HAND OF ODD: Martin; O'Neill drags Neil Lennon to the Broomloan Road Stand - but does anyone know why?
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Nov 22, 2004
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