Football: City messiah comes back down to earth: Seven weeks into his reign, Francis Lee has relegation very much on his mind. Ken Jones talked to him

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The Independent Online
WHEN Franny Lee took over as chairman of Manchester City seven weeks ago and began to acquaint himself with the problems, to use his own words they got bigger and bigger. . .and bigger.

Even bigger now. Fourth from bottom in the Premiership, just nine games left, not a week without bad news on the doorstep, the bleak prospect of relegation. So much for messianic entrances.

If the new knowledge threatens an unhappy alternative to what Lee had in mind for what was left of this season, he does not regret taking on the challenge. It was irresistible, an opportunity to put his mark on the club but not for personal glory. 'I'm doing this for the supporters,' he said. 'They deserve a successful club and to be looked after because for years and years they have been used and abused.'

Three years ago, when the idea was first put to him, Lee drew back, no longer sufficiently interested in football. 'I said that I had too many commitments in business (while still a player he set up F H Lee, a company producing paper products, and subsequently became a leading shareholder in a major food company) and racing for it to make any sense, but this season things at Maine Road began to get ridiculous. Yet another manager, and when Peter Swales wasn't able to attend matches because his safety couldn't be guaranteed, I felt obliged to get involved. The supporters wanted me to do it and they have been right behind me from the start, which is very important. It's going to be a long, hard job but their enthusiasm makes me confident that we can succeed.'

The imprint of his boyhood has never left Lee. 'I started playing football when I was two years old,' he said. 'I was a professional at 15. I was always striving to get on. Getting into the reserves meant more money, getting into the first team even better money. Then playing for your country. Money wasn't the only thing in my mind but what better way to improve your standard of living than by something you do well and find enjoyable.'

Lee was a tenacious, pacy attacker who with his young athlete's body, his intelligence and courage and drive, learned what he wanted. His energy is remarkable. Getting by on little more than four hours sleep, he normally rises at six o'clock to supervise the training of 15 racehorses before attending to business affairs. 'It doesn't stop me from going to reserve matches, doing other things beneficial to the football club,' he said.

Probably, it was the realisation that he could not progress further as a trainer that led Lee back into football. His percentage of winners to runners was more successful than most but expansion demanded upheaval. 'Without moving to one of the large training centres, Newmarket or Lambourn, which isn't possible because of my business interests in this area, I wasn't going to become one of the big trainers. I still give it 100 per cent, trying to get as many winners as I can, but I'd rather be a small trainer getting a bit of fun out of it, giving his owners a bit of fun, and get into something that's achievable.'

It remains to be seen what Lee can achieve at Maine Road with a plan to attract large investors. As the former international footballer become wealthy chairman, he is uniquely situated. As he puts it, the Manchester City players are not looking at some rich guy indulging a whim. 'I hope they respect me for what I achieved in the game as I will respect them if they are doing it for the club. But they have to earn my respect.

'I played with and against the best players in the world, so I know what is going on out there. I've seen the great applicators, all the con men, seen everything in the game that can be seen. Sometimes I'm guilty of looking for perfection, but I certainly won't stand for people who don't give everything, week in and week out.'

An attitude all too prevalent in the Premiership appals him. 'I see talented players who simply haven't got the dedication, the drive to become a great star. The game now suits Mr Average. He can earn a bloody good living by doing next to sod all. Then when his contract comes up for renewal he is looking for a loyalty bonus. I won't stand for any Manchester City player going down that road. Whatever happens here this season we're going to have a big team, exciting players, but I'm not chucking away investors' money on people who aren't guaranteed to do it for us.'

Results of late, only one point taken from home matches against Wimbledon and fellow strugglers Sheffield United, have set back City's cause to the point where Lee may be steeling himself against the prospect of relegation. 'It would be a blow,' he said last week when attending the Cheltenham Festival, 'but there's plenty to play for. Whatever business you're in, you don't know all the key answers. If a horse doesn't come up to expectations and the jockey is blameless, it is necessary to ask questions of yourself.'

Ominously, he relates this to City's predicament. 'To get the result the guys in blue shirts should get a lump in their throats and say, right, we're going to battle. If that happens then fine, if not, questions might not produce the right answers for some of the people concerned. They might try to kid the manager but they can't kid the pair of us.'

No manager could feel comfortable with the situation at Maine Road but Lee, deflecting speculation, continues to insist that Brian Horton will be judged entirely on results. 'He gets well paid to manage the team and dictates the way it plays. I don't interfere. I don't offer an opinion unless he asks for one. I'm not about to go banging on his door. Unless the manager invites me I won't show up at the training ground.'

However, Lee cannot avoid suggestions that his involvement beyond the board room is bound to be intimidating, especially the practice of showing up in the dressing-room on match days, a silent but inevitably significant presence. He insists that it is not in his mind to be a hands-on chairman. 'If things go wrong all along the line I'm there to put it right, but much as I sometimes want to, I can't be seen as the guy shouting at the team from the touchline.'

The full effect of Lee's motivational powers may not be felt for some time but for some they already carry serious implications. 'If the crowd, the staff and the players are all behind us there is no way we can fail,' he said. 'But if there are kinks in that chain we will have to take them out and recouple, and leave some people behind.'

With a new stand scheduled for construction later this year and the sale of season tickets climbing steadily, Lee is inclined to be optimistic, pointing out that City draw more supporters from the Manchester area than their great rivals at Old Trafford. 'Get everything in place, and of course that includes a good team, and we'd be looking at attendances of 35,000 and more,' he argued.

Assertive as a player and in business, what Lee needs to do immediately is provide the belief that relegation can be avoided. If it comes to a derby at Old Trafford on 25 April he will take heart from the form line. In 17 games against United he was only twice on the losing side.

(Photograph omitted)