| Wednesday, August 21, 2002 19:11 EST
Family of team captain asks him not to play
BELFAST -- Northern Ireland manager Sammy
McIlroy said that Neil Lennon, the victim of a paramilitary
death threat, decided not to play in his country's friendly
against Cyprus on Wednesday after taking advice from his family.
McIlroy informed Lennon of the threat which was telephoned
to a Belfast newsroom accompanied by a recognized codeword and
said the player's first instinct was to contact his family.
On consultation, the player decided to withdraw from the game
with the full backing of the manager.
"The first thing Neil did was contact his parents to tell
them what happened and they asked him not to play," said
"He didn't travel with us, he was collected by his father
and taken to the airport to go back to Glasgow."
McIlroy also said that Lennon made no comment as to his
future in the Northern Ireland team.
"There was no indication from Neil as to the future and I
can't comment on that."
Lennon was quoted on the BBC as saying he was "very
disappointed" with the situation.
"I am very disappointed that my desire to play for my
country, and captain my team, has been taken away from me," he
Irish FA president Jim Boyce hit out at the "morons" who
made the threat and laid the blame for the sectarian
undercurrent still running throughout the country firmly at the
door of the country's politicians.
"I am gutted by this, I had hoped that I would never have to
do another press conference like this," said Boyce.
"The moron or morons who made this threat threatened not
only Neil Lennon but the entire team, Sammy McIlroy and the
Irish Football association and we will take every step possible
to put an end to things like this.
"I blame the politicians in the country for everything that
is going on, this is a consequence of all that has been going on
on the streets of Belfast every night.
"These politicians play the blame game and never take any
"Players of both religions did the country proud on the
pitch tonight, but once again Northern Ireland is hitting the
headlines for all the wrong reasons."
The British Government's Northern Ireland Office issued a
statement condemning the threat.
"Once again a handful of sectarian bigots have disgraced
Northern Ireland in the eyes of the world by ensuring that the
captain of the team cannot play in an international game,"
security minister Jane Kennedy said in a statement.
"It is shameful that people cannot go about their lawful
business without intimidation and threats."
Lennon, who plays for the predominantly Catholic club
Celtic, the Scottish champions, was due to captain his country
for the second time in his 41st appearance.
Lennon, 31, almost quit international football after his
family received death threats before a match against Norway in
February last year shortly after he joined Celtic from English
club Leicester City, and he was booed by a minority of
pro-Loyalist fans during the game.
However, earlier this week he spoke of how he was sure he
had made the right decision to carry on and was delighted to be
leading the team out at home for the first time.
"I thought long and hard about whether I should carry on
playing for my country, but the honor of getting the captaincy
makes it all worthwhile," he said.
"Hopefully this will allow me to put the Norway situation
behind me and I hope the fans get behind me."