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Friday, 23 August, 2002, 06:30 GMT 07:30 UK
Lennon quits international football
Neil Lennon
Lennon (centre) has played 40 times for his country

Northern Ireland's Neil Lennon has confirmed his retirement from international football after receiving a death threat prior to the friendly against Cyprus.

Speaking to BBC Northern Ireland from his mother's home in Lurgan where he spent Wednesday night, the Celtic midfielder was saddened by what happened.

I've decided that I probably won't be going back to play for Northern Ireland
Neil Lennon

''It's a real pity that it all has to end like this,'' said Lennon.

"Obviously I can't put them (his family) through this every time. So I've thought long and hard about it and I've decided that I probably won't be going back to play for Northern Ireland," he said.

Lennon, who was due to captain the side, received the threat from a paramilitary group shortly before kick-off and decided to pull out of the match on Wednesday evening.

But on Thursday the death threat was strongly refuted by a senior figure in the Loyalist Volunteer Force.

The call was made to BBC Northern Ireland, but was not accompanied with a code word.

Lennon has been the target of sectarian abuse in the past because he is a Catholic and plays for Celtic, who have Catholic connections.

I hope to talk to him after the weekend and hopefully we can get him back
Northern Ireland boss Sammy McIlroy

The Community Relations Council has said it is vital Northern Ireland soccer rises to the challenge of confronting sectarianism through its Football for All campaign.

The council's Ray Mullen said the incident highlighted the importance getting intimidation out of sport.

He said if the campaign was successful, football in Northern Ireland could look forward "to a brighter future".

Irish manager Sammy McIlroy had hoped Lennon would continue to play for his country.

"We all thought this sort of thing was behind us, but it's still there," McIlroy said.

"But we won't let them beat us. Northern Ireland football will come through this and hopefully Neil Lennon will still be part of the side."

The threat was strongly condemned by politicians and football officials.

Northern Ireland security minister Jane Kennedy said: "A handful of sectarian bigots have disgraced Northern Ireland in the eyes of the world."

Deputy First Minister Mark Durkan said everyone had a role to play in defeating sectarianism.

A death threat against a player is a death threat against the whole of the Northern Ireland team
Irish Football Association president Jim Boyce

"There is no coded message about our response to this threat," he said.

"We are very clear, unambiguous and unequivocal in standing against sectarianism.

"A threat to one is a threat to all."

First minister David Trimble condemned those responsible for issuing the threat.

Trimble, Unionist Assembly member for Upper Bann, said: "This is a sinister and serious development which I condemn without reservation.

"The safety of Neil Lennon and his family is the major consideration and it is a sad day for football.

''This has come through 30 years of violence, in that such an incident can put one of the province's top players in a position of fear.

''It is totally unacceptable. The action also undermines the commendable efforts of the Irish Football Association to combat sectarianism in the game.''

Ulster Unionist Party MP Jeffrey Donaldson also condemned the death threat and said the vast majority of football supporters in Northern Ireland would be appalled.

Mark Durkan: Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister
Mark Durkan: "Unequivocal in standing against sectarianism"

"Anyone who is decent and believes in respect would condemn this death threat," he said.

"The individual who issued this death threat speaks for no-one."

However, Boyce said the onus was on politicians to solve the problem.

"Sectarianism and bigotry are a plague on our society, a plague on our country," he said.

"What makes me very angry is that every night on television I see the highly-paid politicians coming on with blame and counter-blame with what is happening on our streets.

''Quite honestly, until they sort out the problems on those streets, we are never going to eradicate those terrible problems that exist in our areas."

NI captain Neil Lennon
"I can't put my family through this every time"
IFA chief Jim Boyce
"This was a threat against the whole team"
BBC News' Alan McKay
"Lennon has Martin O' Neill's backing"
See also:

22 Aug 02 | N Ireland
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