Football: FA Cup focus - Lee winning the mind game
A former Tottenham man can improve career prospects by plotting Arsenal's demise
Thursday 21 January 1999
On Sunday, Lee's Wolverhampton Wanderers side will try to break Arsenal's hold on the FA Cup in the fourth round at Molineux. As well as giving the First Division club a chance to avenge last year's semi-final defeat by the eventual Double winners, the tie has stirred memories for their manager of his previously undocumented "career" as a Gunner.
Now 42 and in charge of Wolves since the autumn departure of Mark McGhee, Lee was a 16-year-old centre-forward with Bristol City when Arsenal asked whether they could borrow him to play in a youth tournament in Madrid. Frank Stapleton had broken an arm, so Lee made the trip.
"I did all right," he recalls. "We got to the semis before losing after having two lads sent off by a diabolical referee. Before one game we watched bullfighting on television. Liam Brady was like a matador with the ball that night - no-one could get it off him. Glenn Hoddle was the best player I ever played with, without doubt, but Brady was close."
When Lee did arrive in north London, it was with Spurs. Amid the drama of his debut, when he scored four times in a 9-0 rout of Bristol Rovers, the Highbury connection was overlooked. "I kept it quiet!" he laughs.
In a sense Lee has come full circle since his Spanish adventure. For he is again holding the fort, having been told that the position will be reviewed at the end of the season. This time, however, he is no mere understudy. Should he guide Wolves into the play-offs, let alone the Premiership, the job would surely be his for the taking.
The reluctance of the chairman-owner, Sir Jack Hayward, to commit himself more fully to Lee probably owes more to a determination not to be stuck with another lame duck than to any doubts about his ability. The former No 2 has made a reasonably persuasive start, his 13 games producing six wins and four draws.
His record certainly compares favourably with McGhee's last 13, only two of which were won, and with Lee's own unhappy introduction to management. After adding Chelsea and Brentford to his playing portfolio, he was coaching with Watford in 1990 when he was thrust into the void left by Steve Harrison's sacking.
"It was a time of great upheaval at the club. I took over in March but Elton John sold up that summer and I ended up having to sell the best players. The next season started badly and the new owner wanted his own man in, so I was out by November. With hindsight, it came too early for me. I don't know how quickly Sir Jack thinks we can turn it round here. He hasn't told me we have to get up this season. I think he realises we had a mountain to climb. When Mark left we were in mid-table, so it was a difficult situation to pick up on."
Was he disappointed not to be taken on permanently? "No, but I do think I'm under pressure. I've got so many games to get so many results, and try to earn the security of a contract. But all managers are temporary in a way."
Lee characterises himself as "a thinker"; not for him the crockery-throwing histrionics of some managers. He listens to tapes of Bill Shankly and is fascinated by the process of subtle but constant evolution the great Scot instituted at Liverpool. Of those he served, the most influential was John Neal at Chelsea, "a man of few words, but when he said something it carried real authority".
Intriguingly, given the imminent arrival of Arsenal, George Graham is the contemporary Lee most admires, for his "disciplined approach and the way he motivates players". He detects similar attributes in John Gregory.
Wolves-watchers view Lee's switch from three at the back to a four as an attempt to impose his style on the team. He insists the change was forced on him by injury, illness and outgoing transfers. "The squad today is arguably not as good as when Arsenal beat us (1-0) in the semi-final because we've had to let a lot of people go.
"We've lost Steve Froggatt, Dougie Freedman, Don Goodman, Robbie Slater and Steve Claridge since then, plus Steve Bull with a knee problem. But we've got great spirit and commitment. If Arsenal play as well as they can, they'll get through, no doubt about it, because they've got better players. But it could be one of those days when it doesn't quite happen for them. They might come here not expecting such a hard game, knowing they've beaten us recently. Then again, they got such a shock against Preston that I think that's unlikely."
Rather than go to Deepdale, Lee watched Wolves' reserves. He then passed up the chance to see Arsenal play Liverpool in order to assess Watford ahead of last weekend's game at Molineux. Promotion, it seems, holds a higher priority than giant-killing glory. "Definitely," he says. "The Cup will come and go. The League goes on until the end."
Wolves' prospects on both fronts have received a timely boost with Lee's first major signing, Haavard Flo. The Norwegian striker has the aerial power to provide an ideal foil for the ground-level wiles of Robbie Keane, the Irish prodigy reputedly coveted by Arsene Wenger.
Before paying Werder Bremen pounds 700,000 for Flo, Lee could be judged only on his organisational and tactical prowess. Perhaps now, with Sir Jack's purse strings loosened, he will feel less like a caretaker.
"I've been so focused on the team and the need to get results that it hasn't quite sunk in yet that I'm actually the manager of Wolves," he reflects. For Arsenal's erstwhile teenage temp, Sunday should bring it home with a vengeance.
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