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Friday, 9 March, 2001, 15:54 GMT
Lennon vows to play on
Celtic midfielder Neil Lennon has vowed to continue playing for Northern Ireland despite suffering sectarian abuse from a small minority of supporters in a recent friendly.
Lennon was jeered by a section of the crowd during the match against Norway at Windsor Park last week.
"Following lengthy consideration, I have decided that I wish to continue to play at international level with Northern Ireland," Lennon told Celtic's official website.
"The level of support I have received from all sections of the community has been overwhelming and very touching and has played a major part in my decision."
Lennon admitted that he had taken his time over the decision for the sake of his family and friends.
"The decision I have made was not taken lightly as I felt it was important to consider the feelings of my family and friends as they had been through a very traumatic experience," he said.
"Obviously I hope that they and myself do not have to suffer under these circumstances again.
"I am proud to be a Celtic player and I am enjoying my time at the club very much.
"I hope that in the future I will be given the opportunity, as a Celtic player, to also enjoy my international career.
"I would urge all Northern Ireland supporters to come and give the team their full support for our forthcoming match against the Czech Republic."
Northern Ireland manager Sammy McIlroy and Celtic boss Martin O'Neill both welcomed Lennon's decision.
McIlroy said: "I'm delighted that he says he wants to keep playing - because we need all our best players available, and Neil is one of our best players.
"I'm sure the whole team and everyone connected with Northern Ireland soccer will be just as pleased as I am."
McIlroy would like to draw a line under the whole unpleasant affair, but the acid test will come on 24 March when Lennon runs out at Windsor Park for Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifier with the Czechs.
McIlroy wants all of the crowd to get behind the entire team.
"Understandably the booing Neil received upset him and his family," he said.
"Hopefully that's gone now, and we can all get on with playing football.
"That's all Neil ever wanted to do, and he just wants to play football for his country.
"Let's hope all the crowd get behind the whole team and cheer us on," added McIlroy.
Irish Football Association president Jim Boyce was just as pleased as McIlroy and he appealed for all the fans to cheer Lennon on against the Czechs.
"Following Neil's announcement, the message loud and clear from the Irish Football Association is `we don't want these kind of people at matches who bring the country into disrepute'.
"I hope the proper fans will come along and give Neil the kind of support he deserves at our next match for making this decision."
The IFA hope to eradicate sectarianism from Northern Ireland matches and they intend to announce a raft of measures at a press conference on Wednesday.
Boyce said: "We want to rid this cancer from our midst once and for all."
However, the IFA's anti-sectarian drive could be inhibited by the ending of a European Union grant-aided programme which has been in place for the last two years.
Funding for the IFA and Northern Ireland Community Relations Council initiative runs out at the end of March and money may not be made available to continue the scheme.
Lennon's club manager O'Neill, for whom he has great respect, had advised the midfielder to carry on.
"He asked my opinion - that's all he asked me and I said to him that I maybe thought he should continue and saw how it went," said O'Neill.
O'Neill, who also represented Northern Ireland in his heyday, praised Lennon for the way he handled the situation and responded by producing the goods for Celtic.
"I'm more pleased that he's made the decision now than letting it drift on and on and the decision then might have played on his mind, but he's made his decision now and I'm pleased.
"Now I think he can get on with things although I didn't honestly think it was effecting his play for Celtic," added O'Neill.
07 Mar 01 | Northern Ireland
IFA set to tackle bigots
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02 Mar 01 | Northern Ireland
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01 Mar 01 | Northern Ireland
IFA urged to ban bigots
28 Feb 01 | Northern Ireland
Lennon to think over NI future
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