Last season Manchester City made an incredible comeback in their final match against QPR to win the league after 44 long years. Club legend Franny Lee was a key member of the squad when Manchester City won the league back in 1968. Even on that day City had to beat Newcastle in the final game to win the league and they won it 4-3.
Back then Lee was the club transfer record holder and manager Joe Mercer called him “the final piece of the jigsaw“. He would go on to become the league’s top goalscorer for four consecutive seasons. He also holds the English record for scoring the most number of penalties in a season, which won him the nickname Lee Won Pen. He ended his career at Derby, where he once again won the league in the 1974-75 season.
In 1994, Lee ousted Peter Swales to become Manchester City’s owner. But his stay at the helm of the club was not too sweet as the club faced relegation to third tier of English football. Later on he sold his shares to Thaksin Shinawatra (City’s previous owner), but still is widely credited with ‘the’ move which helped in City gaining the present financial status. His negotiations with the City council helped in City getting the new stadium which was constructed for the Commonwealth games (2002). The new stadium helped in attracting investors and is said to be the first building block of City’s present status.
Apart from football, Francis Lee was a more than accomplished cricketer and even played the game after retiring from football. He was also a well-known race horse trainer but eventually gave it up for his commitment towards his business. He also made fortunes from his paper-recycling industry (toilet rolls).
But above all, he has been a Manchester City fan through-out. He is perhaps the bridge between City’s golden days in the past, then the phase when the club nearly went bankrupt and to now, when they are one of the most competitive teams in Europe.
“This will be the happiest club in the land. The players will be the best paid and we’ll drink plenty of champagne, celebrate and sing until we’re hoarse” – A famous line he said when he was the chairman of the club.
He was there in the stadium when Aguero completed that heroic comeback, not as a player, not as the chairman and not as a business tycoon, but perhaps just as a fan with tears in his eyes.
TheHardTackle caught up with the former England international, who was kind enough to answer our questions. The topics ranged from the unfair accusation he faced, to the experience of playing against Pele and why City should at least make it to the Quarter final stage of the Champions League this time around.
Amlan : You started off your footballing career at Bolton, but before that you were also playing cricket, so how did change in sporting career take place? How did you come to choose football over cricket?
Francis Lee : Football was always my preferred sport and the one I felt I could go furthest with, although I would have attempted to pursue a career in cricket if it didn’t work out with my footballing career. I am a natural ball player and have been pretty good with every sport I have tried, I still play golf regularly to this day off a handicap of 8.
Amlan : Joe Mercer signed you for Manchester City for what was a club record transfer fee back then. How would you compare City’s financial capabilities back then to the present scenario (after Sheikh Mansour took over)?
Francis Lee : Well the current owners are in a completely different world financially to anyone ever in the English game, and there was nowhere near as much money in football back then. It has grown immensely. Back when Joe Mercer bought me it was a lot of money; not sure how much it would be today, a few million I guess.
Amlan : Do you find any similarities between the present title-winning squad and the squad in 1967-68 season? Any key player of the present squad who reminds you of someone from the squad back then?
Francis Lee : Definitely, we were a team of winners who fought together. The team spirit looks similar to ours and they have grown in stature as a unit over the last 12 months especially, acquiring the ability to come back when behind and playing badly. Gareth Barry reminds me very much of Alan Oakes, a reliable unsung hero who rarely puts a foot wrong.
Amlan : There are also lot of similarities between the way Manchester City won the league in these two eras. Back in 1967-68 season, you had to win your final match against Newcastle ( a match which finished 4-3) similar to how they won it last season by beating QPR (3-2) in the dying minutes. Can you tell us something more about that match against Newcastle, and you scored a very important goal in that match.
Francis Lee : It was similar in terms of scoreline, but the drama against QPR was a different level, it was an amazing sporting moment. We were never behind against Newcastle and dominated the game in many respects, it was a great occasion for everyone involved at City as for all the players it was their first major honour in the game. It was a very special day, as was the QPR game; I will never forget either of them.
Amlan : You hold the English record for most number of penalties scored in a season and off course the nickname of Lee Won Pen followed that feat. Is it something of a sort of dubious honour considering the fact that lot of journalist labeled you as someone who won penalties ‘unfairly’? Even former referee Keith Hackett once said “Lee had a reputation of falling down easily”. Back then did you ignore these allegations or was it something that disturbed you and wanted to prove people wrong?
Francis Lee : The ‘diving’ accusations is something that tarnished my career in many respects. You have to remember I didn’t win all the penalties I scored, I just took them for the team. My argument on the diving front would be its an easy excuse for defenders to say I (or any attacker) dived to win a penalty, how many defenders do you hear saying “it was my fault”or “it was a fair decision” – very rarely do you hear that.
Amlan : Your fist fight with former Leeds United legend Norman Hunter, is often highlighted as one of the most spectacular dismissals in the sport! How did the brawl start? What exactly did he say to you? What was your manager’s reaction to that? Did you and Hunter ever confront each other after that incident?
Francis Lee : Norman punched me and split my mouth open which I had to have stitched up after the game. He did that before the brawl. That’s why it kicked off.
It was something that I regret and its a shame people remember that moment after both me and Norman had very successful careers. Dave Mackay the manager knew I wouldn’t have done it for no reason, but still that doesn’t excuse my actions. Me & Norman made up a long while ago and have no problems with each other, it was just one of those things.
Amlan : You represented England in the 1970 world cup in Mexico. You came up against two of the most talented national teams of that era, Brazil and West Germany. How was your experience of playing against the likes of Pele and Beckenbauer? Is there any special memory that you still cherish from that world cup?
Francis Lee: Pele is the best player I played against, and the best ever in my opinion he was wonderful. Beckenbauer was an awesome player as well. The whole tournament is a fond memory, representing your country when they are World Champions is great experience and to play against Brazil 70, one of the best teams ever is a special memory. I just wish we had held on against Germany and gone further in the tournament.
Amlan : You won the league with Derby County as well in 1974, but it is known that you weren’t happy with Manchester City’s decision to sell you. What exactly happened back then – how did this transfer take place?
Francis Lee : They wouldn’t pay me what I deserved after such loyal service & after being one of their top performers for many seasons. Key decision makers at the club wanted to get rid of me. I would loved to have stayed at City but it was best for me and my career to move on and my decision was justified after playing a key role in Derby’s title win. I had a great time at Derby.
Amlan : You been with the club through thick and thin, from the time of winning the league in 1967/68 to becoming the chairman of the club in 1994 and now even as a supporter of this present Manchester City team. Which has been the most delightful moment so far in this long journey? And which been the toughest as well?
Francis Lee : Winning the league at Newcastle and being a part of that great team was so special. Aguero’s winner this year is one of the most amazing things I have seen in football, it was like a comic or a Hollywood film – nobody would have believed that script! The toughest was when I was chairman, it was very hard for me to sort out off the pitch & on the pitch problems. I fought one battle off the pitch and did well, on the pitch things didn’t go to plan. But at least I had the guts to take the challenge on, no regrets.
Amlan : Many people believe that your negotiations with the City Council that helped in gaining the ownership of the new stadium (which was incidentally built for 2002 commonwealth games), was actually the first building block to this new Manchester City era. How important was that stadium was for City?
Francis Lee : It wasn’t just me, many people were involved. In particular Howard Bernstein and other members of the Manchester City Council deserve plenty of credit. The stadium was without doubt a major factor in Sheikh Mansour buying City, taking a club on and having to build a new stadium makes the task even harder, it made the club a lot more attractive to buy.
Amlan : You scored the winning penalty in the UEFA cup winners cup back in 1970 against Górnik Zabrze, which still remains City’s only European trophy till now. Champions league is the final frontier for Mancini and his man – do you think this squad can go the distance this year in Europe, considering their performances last year?
Francis Lee : We weren’t bad in Europe last year particularly the Champions League, we had a hard group and if we could have just got one better result we could have gone through – fine margins. We will be stronger this year, hopefully we get a better group. You always need a bit of luck in cup competitions, as Chelsea showed last season. I expect us to get to the Quarter Finals at least.
Amlan : Retaining the title is perhaps more difficult than winning it. With United strengthening their squad and Chelsea looking strong as well, how do you rate City’s chances in the league?
Francis Lee : We are favourites, so if you look at that we have a great chance. I think we will strengthen the squad this week with maybe 2 or 3 signings before the window shuts, they could be the difference. Chelsea look very good, but haven’t had a top opponent yet, and United will be there or thereabouts. I think we will do it, but it will be tight.
Amlan : Coming to the transfer market, Manchester City have been unusually quite in this transfer window and Mancini has been really frustrated with the lack of transfer activities. What do you think is the reason for it? Is the proposed Financial Fair Play got anything to do with this?
Francis Lee: I don’t know anything about City’s transfer policy and the FFP, it isn’t my position to say. But it seems we need to get a few big earners off the payroll before we make any more signings, that seems reasonable. We were never going to keep spending like we have been doing, that was all about building a title winning squad. We did that, so the odd tweak here and there will be what I expect over the next few windows.
Amlan : And finally, If you would have been the manager/chairman of Manchester City last season – would you have kept Carlos Tevez in the squad after what he did?
Francis Lee : Again this isn’t really something I know a great deal of facts about a lot of what we hear in the papers is hearsay, so I couldn’t comment on what I would have done. What allegedly happened in Munich was disappointing for the fans, the club, the manager and his fellow professionals. But Mancini is the boss and if he is happy for Tevez to be a part of his plans then that will do for me and it will do for most City fans. Tevez looks as fit as ever, he looks hungry and he is a player who will always give 100%, he has started the season very well with goals against Liverpool, Southampton & Chelsea, long may it continue.