Football: Lee at the centre of Newcastle's intentions: For one player this week's England call-up marked the end of a long wait for recognition. Glenn Moore reports

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TEN YEARS ago Robert Lee was a kid with a bright future. Over the last decade that future dimmed to the point where most people thought it would never arrive but now, better late than never, his time appears to have come.

Last week Lee was called up by England for the friendly with the United States; today, having recovered from the foot injury that prevented an international debut, he plays for the Premier League leaders Newcastle United against Chelsea.

Amid the rejection of 'Goal King Cole' and the fairy-tale call- up of Barry Venison, Lee's England summons went almost unnoticed, even on Tyneside, but it has been a long time coming.

In 1984 Lee was leading the line at Charlton alongside Derek Hales and Mike Flanagan. He was a first- team regular with a hat-trick to his name at 18; he won promotion with Charlton to the then First Division at 20 and gained two England Under-21 caps.

However, as Charlton struggled to retain their status, Lee's career began to drift. He was always involved, and at times he seemed the team's only stable point. You were never sure where Charlton were playing from season to season but you knew, when you found them, that Robert Lee would be playing for them.

Not that you knew in which position he would be. Having started as a central striker he moved to the right wing, then to right midfield, now - in the absence of Peter Beardsley - he is in Newcastle's central midfield.

'I love it there,' Lee said. 'I am involved all the time. On the wing I was reliant on others.'

Charlton's joint-manager, Steve Gritt, who was in the Charlton side when Lee made his debut and later sold him to Newcastle, believes he has progressed to the stage where he could fill in for

David Platt.

'He is one of the better all-round midfielders in the country,' Gritt said. 'He is comfortable wide, up front and in the middle. He has become stronger and learned a lot more defensively. He was always a very good passer with great vision and, being a willing worker and learner, has enhanced his qualities by the environment he has been in over the last two years.'

Lennie Lawrence, who signed Lee as a teenager from Hornchurch and gave him his Charlton debut, feels he is best on the right side of midfield where, he believes, he can do the same job for England as Steve Coppell did.

It was Lawrence's attempt to sign Lee for Middlesbrough that sparked his move to Newcastle two years ago this month. Alerted by the Middlesbrough bid, Kevin Keegan moved in and signed him for pounds 700,000.

It was a reluctant, but financially imperative sale for Charlton. 'I doubt if many teams would sell their best player when they are second in the League to the team leading it,' Gritt said, 'but we had no choice. If we could have held on to him that season . . .'

Charlton slipped away but Newcastle went up as champions and Lee became a fixture as the jigsaw took shape around him - of the team he joined only Venison and John Beresford remain in the side.

'I think he made the right choice,' Gritt added. 'He would have preferred West Ham (his boyhood idols) but they were not in the frame at the time. The only doubts when he moved were whether he would settle - his football and his family are his life - and whether he would score enough goals at the higher level.'

The goals are finally coming - four already this season, although he still awaits a second hat-trick - while his family are already settled.

'I was born in West Ham and lived in nearby Hornchurch all my life,' Lee said, 'so it was a tremendous wrench to move. It was either going to go well or I'd be home in a month. Kevin Keegan was very good, he allowed me to go home a lot. I am quite happy there now, the Geordies are brilliant people. I get recognised a lot and people want to talk to you, but you don't get hassled.'

Lee, who lives in Durham with his pregnant wife Anna and his three-year-old son, Oliver, added: 'People say I should have left Charlton earlier but I was in the first team all the time and enjoyed playing there. The move came at the right time.'

Very much so. Newcastle were in the process of taking off and Lee, more confident, outgoing and mature than he had been when Charlton were in the First Division, was better equipped to deal with their success.

Garth Crooks, the former Spurs striker, now a BBC pundit and chairman of the Institute of Professional Sport, played alongside the young Lee at Charlton and he recalled: 'At the time he was so shy and laid back he appeared to lack the ambition, but that was obviously not the case.

'Any player will blossom alongside better players and he is now playing with players in the prime form of their lives. He is very much a part of what is happening at St James' Park and is starting to hit his true potential.'

Lawrence, now manager of Bradford, said: 'He was short on confidence as a youngster but is now playing in the best team he has ever played in. Their passing and movement is excellent, they are like the Tottenham push-and- run side of Arthur Rowe and it suits his game down to the ground. His call-up is deserved and due. I'm delighted for him.'

So, it appears, is everyone else. He is still popular at Charlton. 'I will be absolutely delighted if he gets his chance,' Gritt said. 'He deserves it, he has worked very hard, especially in the last four or five years, and matured a lot as a player.'

Lee now knows the hard work was worth it. Just as the recall of John Barnes gave hope to those players whose best years appeared behind them, Lee's selection has given hope to those still waiting for them to arrive.

(Photograph omitted)

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