City Watch Interview: Francis Lee CBE

There are certain players who require no introduction but such is their immense contribution to the game it would be entirely remiss not to offer one anyway.

Francis Lee is one such name. A stonewall Manchester City legend his bustling adventure gave older generations of Blues days to cherish while the trophies he won in a truly remarkable side offered younger Blues vicarious pride through the dark times.

His physique was that of a Tiger comic hero usually attributed a nickname such as ‘Hotshot’ yet though there was certainly ample venom behind each rasping effort and enough brute force behind every shoulder-barge to prompt a speech-bubbled ‘ouch’ from the crowd he also possessed style and flair in abundance.

How much would he be worth today? We couldn’t afford him.

Ahead of this weekend’s Capital One Cup final Stephen Tudor caught up with the City great to talk Pep, David Silva and why, like the Boomtown Rats, he didn’t like Mondays…

CW: You played in so many of the club’s most iconic matches – from the Newcastle title decider to the Ballet On Ice. But for you personally what would you say is your greatest performance in a City shirt?

FL: I’d like to say most of them (laughs). There is the odd game that does stand out because of the conditions or the way the game was going. Everyone says one of the best games I ever played was in the League Cup final. It was just one of those days when you know yourself that everything is going your way and everything you do comes off. Despite the fact that it was an atrocious pitch.

Another game where things just seemed to fall into place was the European Cup Winners Cup final in Vienna. I thought I played quite well that day.

CW: It must be a wonderful feeling to know everything is going your way in a final…

FL: It’s a sensation, a feeling you get. You can’t get too much of the ball. You don’t feel tired. Give it here and let me do this. You just know it’s one of those days that come around now and again. One of the finest games I ever played in was the match to win the league up in Newcastle. Every time we scored they scored. They had nothing to play for but they were playing like it was the World Cup. There were seven goals and all were cracking goals. There might have been one or two disallowed as well. That was a day that was something special in the history of Manchester City because for all the players who played that day at St James Park it was the first time they’d won anything.

CW: When you look back on your seven successful years with the club we’re guessing that’s right up there as your happiest memory?

FL: That was the start of the happy memories. All my days at Manchester City were happy memories. I used to enjoy every day there in training apart from Mondays when we were running track. I used to enjoy everything about the club until latterly in the last three or four months when things went wrong.

CW: You once said you were “lucky enough to play in an era when there was so much fun and laughter.” Do you think the fun aspect of football is becoming lost these days?

FL: Yes. You would have your strife with people and pitches weren’t as good but you had some fun. The players were usually good lads and it was a different time because we were just coming out of the maximum wage era where players could earn very little and suddenly you could earn eighty, ninety quid a week which was unbelievable.

CW: Is there a modern-day player who reminds you of yourself?

FL: Sanchez at Arsenal plays the game very similar to how I played. He runs at people and beats them. My first instinct when I got the ball was to turn on people and run at them. Always commit the defender. Make them do something. Make something happen.

I was a forward and I could play out on the wing but my best role was as a support striker to a big centre-forward like Geoff Hurst or Wyn Davies. That was my best position but unfortunately I only had one season at Bolton with Wyn and one season at City with Wyn where I played alongside him and scored a lot of goals. All the other seasons I played on the wing or centre-forward which is a bit difficult when you’re only 5 foot 7.

It was fantastic though really because you knew when you were up against a big strapping centre-half that didn’t want to be playing against you. They don’t like small nippy forwards.

CW: The imminent arrival of Pep Guardiola is understandably getting Blues very excited and presumably the players too will be relishing what’s to come. Having played under an innovative coach in Malcolm Allison what can such an inspiring and astute figure do for a player?

FL: The great thing about Guardiola coming to Manchester City is this – Some players will dramatically improve. He will work with them and work on them and they will improve. Others won’t and then it’s up to him to move them on.

Malcolm was like that with a lot of players. He got the best out of them and got them running through brick walls for him. This guy is a very similar coach and I think you’ll see two or three members of the squad become much, much, much better players.

CW: Would you have got in to this current City side? We say yes 100% by the way!

FL: (laughs) I haven’t really thought about it. What position would you like me to play?

CW: Anywhere across the front three please.

FL: I could play on either wing or centre-forward or support striker so if I couldn’t get in the side I think I’d be first reserve.

CW: If you were playing today which of the current side would you enjoy linking up with the most?

FL: It doesn’t matter because you would lock into the good players that are in the side now. It would take you about five minutes. There is an intuition and it’s very easy to lock on to that. When I arrived at Manchester City it took me about two games to settle in. When I played for England it took me a game. At Derby County I slotted straight in. If you play with good players there is no problem because you read and understand one another. You don’t need to speak and there’s no language barrier. It’s a natural thing transmitted between two people.

If you’re playing football with David Silva you would know from the moment he flashed his eyes that he’d seen you and you could expect the ball. That’s all the giveaway it would be, a little glance.

CW: We appreciate it’s impossible to directly compare due to the game changing so much but in terms of pure quality how would the City side of your era fare in the Premier League?

FL: I think we’d be challenging for the league. We had a very, very good side. We were a strong side and a good footballing side and we’d play well in any era. The only difference is the pitches are a lot better which would suit us and the ball is a lot lighter so we’d score a lot more goals.

CW: The City side from the late 60s/early 70s has rightfully gone down in folklore with many of the players – yourself included – considered some of the finest of that, or any, generation. But is there a team-mate from your time at City who you think never received the recognition he deserved?

FL: There were one or two players who never received the recognition for the job they did but the one stand-out guy in the City squad that we had was Glyn Pardoe. He got a very bad injury at the age of about 22 and Glyn was going to be a star, star full-back. He was quick and read the game well and it was a great tragedy when he got his injury. He would have been an international player. He was a natural player.

CW: You share the record for the most goals scored in a Manchester derby. Did it always feel more special scoring against that lot down the road?

FL: Not really. When we first started playing United it wasn’t normal for us to beat them but that championship season was the turning point. We thought after that we could always beat them.

I played in about fifteen derbies and I think we only lost two. We had the advantage over them because we were a very fit and powerful team but also a good footballing team.

CW: What would represent a successful season for Manchester City this year?

FL: If we could win the League Cup to start off with and then top that off with the league championship. It’s a big ask to win the Champions League but if you get lucky in the draw and avoid Barcelona and maybe take out Real Madrid or Bayern Munich you can find yourself in a final and then it’s anybody’s game that day. We have shown in Sevilla – I went to that match – and in Kiev that when we put our best foot forward we’re pretty hot in Europe. If we could transmit that form to the league we’ll come very close to winning it.

CW: Finally, each club likes to think of themselves as unique but in City’s case there is certainly a character that is unlike any other. What qualities define Manchester City do you think?

FL: It’s the fear of losing among the fans. They always think we’re going to lose! I played at Derby where they hadn’t had anywhere near as much success as City but at Derby the fans always thought they were going to win and were dumbfounded when they didn’t. With City they don’t believe they’re going to win until the final whistle.

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