Celtic's Neil Lennon and Rangers' Ally McCoist tune up for new era

Celtic's Neil Lennon and Rangers' Ally McCoist tune up for new eraWhile there is an argument that the behaviour of players during Wednesday night's Old Firm derby was not as maniacal as subsequent reporting has suggested, events on the touchline carry obvious significance.

The sight of Neil Lennon being physically restrained after a word in the ear from, and subsequent finger‑jabbing to, Ally McCoist was unwelcome but also pertinent. Amid a rising sense from within Celtic Park that the club's directors are already convinced Lennon is the man to manage the team beyond this season, and with McCoist's promotion to succeed Walter Smith at Rangers confirmed, focus on the pair is guaranteed to intensify when they meet for the first time as direct counterparts.

Smith has shrugged off any suggestion he must warn McCoist about the danger of sideline excesses. "I don't think I need to say anything to him," the Rangers manager says. "Alistair knows the situation. Every one of us involved in football management has our moments. I have had a few myself. Sometimes when it happens in a high-profile game it goes out to a wider public. But I can't go preaching to anybody about behaviour in a dugout."

The public blame culture surrounding what happened in midweek has been typically tiresome. Sceptics will point to an upcoming Scottish election as motivation for politicians to wade into a football debate. Smith's acceptance of responsibility for Rangers' role in proceedings was a welcome glimmer of light. As he enters his final weeks in office, it seems the 63-year-old is fed up with the Old Firm's backdrop.

Lennon was consigned to Celtic Park's main stand for the meeting with Hamilton on Saturday, the first of a four‑game touchline ban. With the Scottish FA's chief executive, Stewart Regan, having directly implicated Lennon and McCoist in a statement released in the aftermath of Wednesday's fiery Scottish Cup tie, further sanctions may well follow.

Regan's words were stronger than they needed to be. Peter Lawwell, the Celtic chief executive, deliberately praised the behaviour of his club's players when nobody had called it into question. To complete the unhappy trio, Martin Bain of Rangers pointed the finger back at the Old Firm referee and Celtic themselves.

Given that it took the association four months to resolve Lennon's last misconduct case, it will be interesting to see if the latest affair can be put to bed before the Open Championship begins.

A spell away from the dugout may be of value to the 39-year-old. In a notable contrast to his persona away from a football field – Lennon is intelligent, calm and engaging – Celtic's manager snaps and snarls for 90 minutes when on the front line. In his defence, such a policy seems to have had no detrimental effect on Celtic's form – quite the opposite, in fact – but Lennon's behaviour has riled match officials and opponents. He remains, basically, a young, inexperienced manager; another point routinely forgotten.

The spark for Wednesday's altercation with McCoist was Rangers' annoyance at Lennon for speaking, and not in friendly terms, to their players around and during Old Firm games. Sledging – within reason – is part of professional sport, with Lennon vehemently denying the claims of a whispering campaign over exactly what he has said to those in blue and white.

What is directed at Lennon himself is often more sinister. The latest suspicious package addressed to him – this time, made out to resemble an explosive device – was intercepted on Friday. Security has been stepped up around the former captain of Northern Ireland; if Lennon was not so desperate to succeed in his consuming job, suggestions of him seeking alternative employment in the summer would carry more weight.

Before then, Celtic and Rangers must face each other twice. Lennon and McCoist have ensured general attention will not be diverted fully towards the pitch; something they had better get used to.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ewan Murray, for The Observer on Saturday 5th March 2011 22.40 Europe/London

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