By Joe Behan
One of the most publicized footballers of the last century was Northern Ireland’s George Best. Fans around the glove were familiar with the superstar. The Casanova of his time dated Miss Worlds, drank expensive champagne and had the looks of a Beatle. At the end of the day, everybody loved George Best, and still do.
Many great footballers come from the North of Ireland, but none had the impact that Best had on the game. The trendy teenager from Belfast almost became a cult. Down south, a midfield dynamo named John Giles was making a lot of noise. Giles was one of the best passers of the ball in Europe when he played for Leeds and he took no prisoners when it came to close quarters on the field. The Best/Giles era was perhaps the start of Irish players being recognized as world class. They were soccer sensations. After Best and Giles came Whiteside and Brady, but the original act was tough to follow. Today’s north and south story is about two smashing midfielders in Roy Keane and Neil Lennon.
Keane does not have the passing range that Giles had, but the Corkman’s all around game is simply second to perhaps only George the Belfast Boy. While Lennon is not at the level of Best, Keane and Giles, he is an excellent midfielder. He especially proved his high standards when he played for Leicester. City won cups and remained in top flight for a nice few years.
The Lurgan-born Lennon, 31, is now cleaning up with Celtic and hoping to make his name with the Hoops in Champions League. He isn’t playing for his native Northern Ireland any longer, however, not after receiving death threats in the run-up to last week’s friendly against Cyprus.
Keane, on the other hand, has made one of the biggest individual impressions at Manchester United and in the EPL. But after leaving Ireland’s national team after a dispute with manager Mick McCarthy, he has now penned a tell-all book with journalist Eamonn Dunphy that is raising eyebrows everywhere. Keane takes shots at coaches and claims there are a lot of bluffers in the game.
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While Keane tome is entertaining fodder for the public, Lennon’s plight offers a sobering perspective of the intrusion of politics and social unrest on what should be nothing more than a game, a pleasant diversion from the rigors of day-to-day existence.
Indeed, Keane’s decision to leave the Republic seems so trivial, so petty when compared to Lennon’s death threat. For all the talk that Keane is a professional who plays the game as though his very life is on the line, Neil Lennon is actually living with that threat. Under the circumstances, Keane’s book is looking more like a trashy pulp novel.
Celtic coach Martin O’Neill was clear that he had no part in Lennon’s decision to retire from his international career. O’Neill assumes that Lennon was threatened because Lennon is Catholic and plays for Celtic, a huge Catholic-based club. But we must be careful not to label countries and clubs as the evil doers here, because they are not. The idea of threatening Lennon originated with one person. But it harms us all and it does make coach O’Neill reconsider signing Northern Irish players. The very sensitive O’Neill claimed, “I hadn’t thought about that,” referring to signing players from the North, “but those sort of thoughts [threatening calls] will enter the player’s head. It would be a concern if that situation arose.”
The former Northern Ireland captain has also experienced troubled times, recalling when his country avoided playing at home in Windsor Park. Back then the North worked their way into the quarterfinals of the World Cup by beating the host nation, Spain, 1-nil. It was a mixed side then when Gerry Armstrong scored the winner. But for Neil Lennon, it’s a different ball game. “Lennon,” O’Neill said, has the added burden of playing for Celtic,” fierce rival of Rangers, who are supported by many Northern Protestants.
Nonetheless, O’Neill had no problem selecting Lennon for the game against Partick Thistle last weekend. In the 64th minute at 0-0, O’Neill took Lennon off and brought on John Hartson. Within 10 minutes, the offensive substitution paid off. Chris Sutton found Hartson who played Henrik Larsson in close range on the far post. Once again Larsson came to the rescue and the 1-nil result was a tough win. It was a tough one for Neil Lennon as he continues to put on his boots and play football.
Celtic are four-for-four as they keep a two-point lead on Rangers and a four goal difference. That goal difference is always worth that extra point, but at this early stage it might not be considered. Goals-against are always the significant stat to look at and Celtic has only let in one while Rangers have let in three. Hearts are in third and let’s hope they stay with the pace. But it’s a tall order to keep up with the Old Firm. The most telling games are always one of the biggest clashes in the Scottish Premier League and the world, and it’s Rangers vs. Celtic.