Five years on and it is still difficult to believe that Gordon Lennon is dead. The Dumbarton club captain was 26 years old when he was electrocuted after a car accident in the June 2009. Lennon’s death still seems unreal – unreal because he had led the Sons to the Third Division championship just five weeks earlier, and unreal because he was one of the most naturally gifted defenders to have played in the Scottish lower leagues in the last decade.
This is not an attempt at mawkish revisionism, using nostalgia to smooth over the seamier aspects of his game; no, Lennon had it. It. The indelible sparkle that marked him above his peers – the vitality, the class and the intelligence – things that a typical centre-back does not normally possess.
What set Lennon apart was his ability on the ball. Most third and fourth tier defenders are nothing more than big lumps, stoppers signed up to make sure the ball stays as far away from their goal as possible. Instead, Lennon was a thoughtful centre-back, a player who would gather possession and shift it skilfully from the backline into the midfield. But it wasn’t just what he did – it was the manner in which he did it. Lennon’s strongest weapon was his pace and anticipation – no sooner had a rival striker made his way towards goal than the ball was suddenly nicked away from their toes. Defence quickly became attack; Lennon would slalom forwards, dropping a shoulder to skirt past an opponent, before moving the ball on. He was a libero in a field of lugs, the kind of player that would make you pause for breath and go: “Woah, who’s that guy?”
Perhaps his greatest quality, however, was his humility. Everyone who knew Lennon – his friends and family, his co-workers, his team-mates, supporters – were unanimous in their opinion of him: he was a thoroughly decent, amiable guy and someone who had time for everyone. I only encountered him once – after Stenhousemuir’s 4-2 win over Albion Rovers on the final day of the 2005-06 season, Lennon and some of his team-mates strode past the Wee Bar inside Ochilview’s Norway Stand. “Gordon, go and sign with us!” I yelled as he walked by. He turned around and grinned at me.
Originally from Larne, Northern Ireland, Lennon’s family relocated to Cardonald and as a teenager, he developed a reputation at Harmony Row boys’ club as a defender of rich potential. A number of senior clubs had begun to show an interest him but in front of several scouts at a match at Airdrie’s Excelsior Stadium, he turned in an uncharacteristically scruffy performance. Robert Watt, an Albion Rovers director, had been tracking Lennon’s progress for some time and saw his opportunity to pounce, duly offering the player terms; Lennon soon joined Jim Chapman’s Third Division side.
Although the Coatbridge club toiled throughout the 2005-06 campaign and eventually concluded the year in eighth place, Lennon’s first season in senior football was marked by personal excellence. In a squad comprising of unremarkable players like Lee Sichi, Danny Black and Scott Friel, he was the team’s diamond in the rough and quickly drew admiring glances from both partisan and neutral observers alike: when was the last time a basement division defender – let alone one from Albion Rovers – played with such skill and composure? On those grey afternoons at Cliftonhill, it was remarkable to watch someone so outstanding perform with such grace.
The Vers improved dramatically over 2006-07 and thanks to Chapman’s canny management, the team finished in sixth. Lennon had become more and more influential and was honored with the club’s Player of the Year award; after just two seasons in the senior game, it was obvious he had already outgrown Albion Rovers. Lennon had been linked with moves to full-time football in the January transfer window (Airdrie United were rumoured to have been knocked back so he could complete a degree in Business Studies) and in June 2007, both he and team-mate Scott Chaplain transferred to Ian McCall’s Partick Thistle.
At the time, the move appeared to make perfect sense. Thistle were an upwardly mobile First Division club and had enjoyed reasonable success with integrating the likes of Liam Buchanan into full-time football following his transfer from Cowdenbeath. With the requisite coaching to better his distribution (the obvious weakness in his game), Lennon could have prospered – he was raw, but there was plenty there to work with already.
During pre-season, the player was tried out at right-back. It seemed like reasonably sound thinking on McCall’s part – Lennon had the pace and the technique to thrive on the flank – but to move him away from centre-back seemed to miss the point and overlooked the qualities that earned him his move in the first place.
While Chaplain ingratiated himself in the first team, Lennon was rarely involved at Firhill, occasionally making the bench but failing to ever play in the starting XI. Had McCall made an error of judgement with the signing? Were he and Lennon incompatible with one another? Was the player unable to adjust to the demands of full-time training? In October, Lennon was loaned out to John Coughlin’s Stenhousemuir.
At the time, the Warriors were an incoherent rabble brought low by Campbell Money’s wayward tutelage leaving an unbalanced, shabby squad of players. Coughlin, Money’s replacement, was acclaimed for securing Lennon on a temporary basis and the defender helped bring about an immediate improvement in the team’s form. He played ten games for Stenhousemuir, winning five and drawing three.
In January 2008, Partick Thistle terminated Lennon’s contract. A number of clubs bid for his signature – Coughlin was particularly keen to keep the player at Ochilview – but he chose to reunite with Jim Chapman, this time at Dumbarton. Chapman was unexpectedly sacked from Albion Rovers in May 2007 because of a “lack of communication” and after a brief sabbatical, he replaced the dismal Gerry McCabe at the Rock several months later. Neither Lennon (quickly promoted to club captain) nor Chapman could reverse the club’s fortunes and they finished the season in eighth, far closer to the foot of the table than the play-offs.
The 2008-09 campaign, however, was an unqualified success and Dumbarton won the Third Division championship, their first trophy in 17 years. The Sons were a decent, unremarkable side and, studying the squads, little better than rivals Cowdenbeath or East Stirlingshire, but an astonishing run of form between March and the end of the season – they collected 32 points from their final 14 matches – saw them secure the title. Although Lennon was a constant presence, he was steady rather than spectacular and was often shunted to full-back to accommodate Mick O’Byrne, Mick Dunlop or the excellent Ben Gordon in the centre. Yet his impact on the squad extended beyond just his footballing ability and his personable qualities were crucial in his side’s achievements. As well as his professional success, earlier in the year he and his partner Kelly Dempsey celebrated the birth of their son Kai.
Dumbarton secured the championship on the final day of the season with a 3-1 win at Annan Athletic. After the trophy presentation, Lennon took the time to meet with the travelling supporters, pose for photographs and allow them to hold the cup for longer than he did. It was a mark of the man, someone who would put others before himself.
Several weeks after the end of the season, Lennon and his family travelled to Inverness for a short holiday with his partner’s sister and her husband James Hampton. The day before they were due to return home, 7 June 2009, Lennon, Hampton and a friend took part in off-road driving on the Brahan Estate outside Dingwall. During the excursion, their vehicle was going too fast for the conditions and crashed into an electrical pole. The collision caused the power lines to drop and one of the conductors became caught on the car’s bumper. The current quickly passed through Lennon’s body and he was electrocuted. Hampton risked his own life to drag him from the car and perform CPR but despite attempts to resuscitate him, Lennon was pronounced dead at Raigmore Hospital.
Following his death, Dumbarton released a poignant statement on their website: “Gordon was an inspiration both on and off the park and his influence will be felt by many both within and outwith Dumbarton Football Club for a very long time to come. He was not just a quality footballer, he was a great man with so many qualities and was rarely seen without his trademark smile.
“He always had time to speak with supporters, of any club, and everyone associated with Dumbarton Football Club are proud that he considered his greatest footballing achievement was lifting the Scottish Football League Third Division Championship trophy as the captain of Dumbarton last month.
“Our condolences go out to his family and as a club we will assist his family in whatever way we can through these difficult times and those that lie ahead.”
Hundreds of mourners visited the Rock to sign a book of condolences and leave football tops and scarves outside the ground. Lennon’s funeral at Hillington Park Church was full half an hour before the service started and around 300 more people had to listen via an audio link from the church hall. Jim Chapman, who spoke at the service, described Lennon as “my friend and my captain”.
Shortly afterwards, a memorial fund was set up in his name and the proceeds from Dumbarton’s 2009-10 pre-season friendlies went towards it. In July 2009, Harmony Row and Knightswood Juveniles took part in a rerun of the 2005 U-21 amateur cup final, a game in which Lennon had participated, and later that year a match between two select XIs was hosted at the Rock in his name. By September 2011, the fund had raised almost £25,000 with the money going to Kelly and Kai.
Reading back what I have written, I feel immensely sad. Sad because of the loss of a talented footballer; sad because he left behind such a young family; and sad because he was one of my favourite players. He was the kind of guy you wanted to have in your side, both as a player and as a person. Everything he did, he did with his impudent grin, and he always looked as though he was having absolutely tremendous fun doing it. Because the very essence of football – the very essence of sport – is about fun.
And Gordon Lennon made football fun.