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'I don't think Lennon should get out before Rangers come back'

Life seems pretty tranquil for John Hartson these days.

John Hartson (centre), Murdo MacLeod (right) and Frank McAvennie at the launch of the John Hartson Foundation celebrity golf day.
John Hartson (centre), Murdo MacLeod (right) and Frank McAvennie at the launch of the John Hartson Foundation celebrity golf day.

The only thing that was loud yesterday was the pink bunnet and the matching troosers he sported at the launch of his own foundation's charity golf outing amid the sombre, majestic surroundings of those bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.

"I'm living in a nice area of Swansea, I can take my dogs for a walk in the afternoon, I can go to my village pub and have a couple of pints, I can play darts on a Monday night with the lads," said the Welshman as he pondered an enjoyable existence that seems as calm and contented as a Hindu cow under heavy sedation. There was a telling addition to that list of leisure, though. "And I don't get any threats."

That final point was particularly pertinent, of course, in a week when Scottish football's darker side cast another, grim shadow over affairs. The mindless abuse directed at Neil Lennon by Aberdeen supporters, as the Celtic manager took in the League Cup semi-final on Saturday at Tynecastle, was another sorry episode in a long series of unedifying, shameful incidents that Lennon has been forced to endure.

"It quite possibly would have broken weaker men by now," added Hartson of his former Celtic team-mate. "When he talks about having a 24-hour bodyguard, well, that's no way to live your life. He's had threats to his life, he's had bombs through his letterbox, he's been beaten up on a public street and abused at games as we saw last weekend.

"I know he's strong willed and he's a strong character because I sat next to Neil in that Celtic dressing room for five years. But you just wonder how much more he can take.

"He loves his job, it's a dream job for him having captained the club and played six or seven years there. But with all the outside animosity and problems that come up all the time? There seems to be a six-month period where it's quiet and then something else happens. You would wonder if Neil would have a gutfull of it at some stage."

Lennon himself has questioned his own future in an often suffocating, menacing environment that makes the tight confines of a goldfish bowl look like the vast expanses of the outback.

As the Welsh dragon Hartson roared fire up front during his playing days at Parkhead, and helped steer Martin O'Neill's side to the 2003 UEFA Cup final, Lennon was the combative, no-nonsense grafter in the engine room who became the target for increasing torrents of venom and vitriol.

"I don't buy in to the chat that you bring it on yourself," insisted Hartson. "There was no-one worse than myself when I played in terms of physicality. I used to get stick and get booed, but in management there has to be an element of respect. As a manager you have to move away from how you were as a player.

"Look at Terry Butcher. Terry is a different character now to when he was a player. As a player he was a monster. He'd have taken your head off. He was an animal when he crossed that white line. As a manager you have to temper that.

"I think Neil was quite irate as a manager but has certainly calmed down. He sits a lot now. You wouldn't have seen that in his first few years as he was up and down all the time. He has matured into the job."

With Rangers slowly clambering their way back into the domestic game's upper echelons, it was suggested to Hartson that Lennon may be wise to jump ship before the full-blown Old Firm rivalry, and all the baggage th at comes with its furious tumult, has the opportunity to reignite itself. The Welshman was having none of that, though. In fact, he believes Rangers' return to the top flight, whenever that may be, could just keep driving on Lennon.

"I don't think he should get out before Rangers come back," Hartson said. "I'm sure Neil will look forward to the challenge when Rangers do eventually get back into the Premiership.

"There are challenges for Neil to win trophies and he may well be thinking long term and the fact he could be here for the next 10 years and then he can break all kinds of records.

"He might well be thinking about titles. Rangers are not going to be back for another two or three years so by then Celtic could have six titles in a row.

"In 50 years' time no-one will question Neil's title wins and say 'ah but Rangers were out of the league at that point'. No-one will point that out if Celtic win 10 in a row. Gordon Strachan won three in a row, but the books don't add that Rangers were a poor side under Paul Le Guen and dropping Barry Ferguson as captain.

"Strachan goes down as a three-in-a-row manager. They tell me that when Rangers won nine in a row they were very strong and splashing the cash. They had the Gascoignes, Laudrups, Goughs and Sounesses of this world. No-one mentions the fact Rangers were in a stronger place as a football club than Celtic. Lenny may well be thinking along those lines. He could make himself an absolute legend along the lines of Jock Stein or Walter Smith."

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