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.
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McIlroy informed Lennon of the threat which was telephoned to a Belfast newsroom accompanied by a recognised 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 McIlroy. "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 said. 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 responsibility.
"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 honour 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."
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