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Tuesday, 2 October, 2001, 20:10 GMT 21:10 UK
Lennon answers the doubters
Neil Lennon
Neil Lennon says he still wants to play in internationals

Neil Lennon has dismissed as "rubbish" suggestions that he does not want to play for Northern Ireland.

Lennon's commitment to Northern Ireland is being questioned by some fans after he withdrew from Saturday's World Cup game against Malta with a groin injury.

This will be the fourth game in succession Lennon has missed either through injury or suspension and the sixth out of Northern Ireland's last 12.

He sat out the previous two matches against Denmark and Iceland at the beginning of last month with the same groin injury.

There is no way I could play
Neil Lennon

However, he was fit enough to play the full 90 minutes for Celtic against Dunfermline three days later.

Lennon's latest cry-off comes after he played in the whole of Celtic's 2-0 Old Firm victory over Rangers on Sunday.

This has led some supporters to believe that the midfielder has lost his desire to play for his country.

Lennon, who has won 39 caps, is irritated by such talk and he insists he remains committed to Sammy McIlroy's team.

The 30-year-old says the simple truth is he cannot play against Malta because he is injured.

"People can say what they like, but I can tell you that's rubbish really," he said.

Groin problem

"My position on playing for Northern Ireland hasn't changed. "I'm injured - it's as simple as that.

"This groin problem is something I've had for a while and I've just been getting through games.

"I felt it again after Sunday's game against Rangers game and there's no way I could play."

The fans' uneasiness over Lennon dates back to February when he considered quitting international football because he was booed by a small section of Irish supporters during a friendly against Norway.

They were angry at his transfer from Leicester to Celtic and his statement that he would like to play for an all-Ireland side.

Sammy McIlroy
Sammy McIlroy has lost star players

After much soul-searching Lennon decided to carry on and played in Northern Ireland's next three matches.

Lennon was voted International Personality of the Year by the Northern Ireland Football Writers Association because of his decision not to give in to the boo boys.

However, there are likely to be some who will continue to question his commitment until they see him pull on Northern Ireland's green and white jersey once again.

In addition to Lennon, McIlroy has lost Keith Gillespie and Aaron Hughes through injuries.

The NI manager's plight worsened further over the weekend when Norwich duo Philip Mulryne and Paul McVeigh pulled out.

Mulryne, who has scored twice in Northern Ireland's last three matches, has withdrawn because of a groin injury, while McVeigh has a bruised foot.

McIlroy is sorely disappointed to lose Gillespie, Hughes and Mulryne after they were outstanding in Northern Ireland's 3-0 win over Iceland in their last outing.

"I thought those three were our best players against Iceland and I was really looking forward to playing them again," he said.

Called up

"But that's the way it has been throughout this campaign and we will just have to get on with it."

McIlroy has called up under-21s Grant McCann, Ciaran Toner and Owen Morrison into the senior squad.

Under-21 coach Roy Millar has also lost Warren Feeney to a leg muscle injury and Maurice Harkin to an ankle problem.

He has drafted in Morecambe's Ryan Zico Black, QPR's Richard Graham and Terry McFlynn of Woking.

Both NI squads assembled at a Heathrow airport hotel on Tuesday night and were due to fly out to Malta on Wednesday morning.

See also:

01 Oct 01 |  World Cup 2002
Lennon missing again
26 Sep 01 |  World Cup 2002
Kirk recalled for Malta game
05 Sep 01 |  World Cup 2002
Irish drink in 3-0 victory
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