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Man and Bhoy

Many a footballer goes out of his way to claim notoriety in what is always a brief career, yet Neil Lennon is not among their number.

However, that has not stopped the current Celtic captain from being vilified by those who believe attacking a sportsman who has never wished to be part of an age-old religious debate is fair game.

To those of us outside the goldfish bowl that is Northern Ireland politics, it is all too easy to dismiss the abuse that has been part and parcel of Lennon's life for the last six years, but from where the man in the eye of the storm is standing, these imbeciles have to be viewed as something much more sinister.

Lennon's chief crime in life was to be born a catholic and play for Celtic, yet when you read his fascinating new autobiography, 'Man and Bhoy', you realise the combination has been a recipe for a life few in the game have experienced down the years.

During his time as a humble Leicester City midfielder in the late 1990s, Lennon was portrayed in the media as little more than an affable character who had few enemies of note, yet all that changed when he signed on the dotted line for Celtic in December 2000, the club whose association with Irish Catholicism runs deep.

Forced to retire from international football after a death threat from a loyalist thug in 2002, it was an incident that turned this affable figure into something akin to a political football that all the key players in the Northern Ireland peace process decided to have a kick at.

He has also hit the headlines following a series of off-field incidents that have generally been blown out all proportion by the Scottish media, with so-called nightclub brawls being complimented with attacks in the street by so-called human beings who believe spitting in someone's face enhances their sad daily existence.

In an exclusive ESPNsoccernet interview, Lennon admits the image that he has promoted himself as a hard man on and off the pitch forced him to write his book which he believes he has set more than a few records straight.

'I have a clear conscience and nothing to hide, so the time had come to tell the truth behind all the headlines people have read and make sure there are no grey areas left,' he begins. 'You can read this book and take from it what you want, but there is a great story to be told there and I hope people enjoy it.

'To be honest, I have never been able to talk about what has gone on in my career in the past. You are always holding back because you don't want to upset people. You have to be diplomatic, I suppose, but I'm nearly finished in the game now and wanted to get my version of events out there in black and white.

'The public perception of Neil Lennon is not a fair one. I think people see me as some kind of hard man who goes out looking for an argument, but nothing could be further from the truth. I hardly ever got into trouble with referees on the pitch and anything that has happened away from football has not been caused by me.

'The media up here in Glasgow have not helped my cause. They have created this image that I'm a thug who likes to throw my weight around, but that's just irresponsible journalism in my opinion. People who know me will tell you that I have never been like that. I hope people read my book and see I have never tried to portray myself as a thug or a hard man. In fact, I've gone out of my way to do the opposite.'

Your correspondent must make a personal confession by admitting that my association with Lennon dates back over a decade and to my mind, he is one of the most approachable people in the game. Never one to seek financial gain when agreeing to give an interview, Neil is one of the game's more amiable professionals and he should be commended for making the very most of his talents on the field.

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to get to know him down the years appreciate that his prime motivation has always been to succeed as a footballer and the idea that he is some kind of beacon of Irish nationalism sends a shiver down his spine.

A proud father Neil's only crime down the years may have been to trust journalists a little too much and give them the ammunition they needed to stitch him up, but he should not be castigated for such naivety.

In fact, you suspect that if Lennon had his time again, his career would follow a very similar path, though he admits he may have been tempted to avoid all the Northern Irish troubles had an offer come from the Republic of Ireland to play international football in the mid-1990s.

'I would love to have had the chance to play for the Republic at Lansdowne Road, it would have been great, but it never became an issue I had to think about,' he confirms in a statement that is bound to capture many a headline.

'I was playing for Crewe when the chance to play for the Northern Ireland under-21s came along and it was a great opportunity for me. It raised my profile big-time and it was a very proud moment for me every time I played for my country. I would never knock it, even though there were obviously some problems along the way.

'Jack Charlton was the Ireland manager at the time, but he never made any approaches to me, so I was honoured to represent Northern Ireland and by the time people were asking me whether I wished I was playing for the Republic it was too late. Big Jack was very good at finding players who qualified to play for Ireland back then, but he must have been off fishing the day someone called him and said Neil Lennon might be worth having a look at.

'Still, I don't sit back now and think about what might have been. To me, playing for Celtic is just as good as pulling on the Republic shirt and that fact that I'm captaining this club to trophies and winning games in the Champions League means I can have no regrets.'

In the form of his life as he leads Celtic both in the Scottish Premier League and the Champions League at the age of 35, Lennon admits he has already begun to think about life after he hangs up his boots. 'I'm doing my UEFA 'B' coaching badge now and I'll look at getting the 'A' licence after that,' he adds.

'I've probably only got a year or two left as a player so management is something I'd like to have a go at. I look at how quickly Roy Keane got into coaching after he gave up playing and it makes me think about my future. Maybe I will get a chance to do that some time soon.'

After a football career that has been anything but ordinary, you suspect the updated version of Lennon's autobiography will make equally compelling reading in the years to come.

Lennon will be in Ireland to sign copies of his book, 'Man and Bhoy', at Waterstones in Drogheda this coming Friday at 4.30pm, at Hughes and Hughes in Dundalk on Saturday at 12.30pm and at Eason's in Tallaght on Saturday at 4pm.

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