Football: Lee joins the Newcastle success story

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THE WISDOM of enticing Kevin Keegan away from sun-filled retirement and back into football is no longer in dispute, after Newcastle United's runaway start to the First Division season and seven successive victories which have given them a three-point promotion advantage. Yesterday there were further benefits to be had in the transfer market, as Keegan's reputation proved crucial in Robert Lee's decision to move from Charlton Athletic to St James' Park for pounds 700,000, in preference to the rival attractions of Ayresome Park or the opportunity to stay at Upton Park.

'I just felt that Newcastle were right for me,' said the former England Under-21 winger, who was also wanted by West Ham and at the weekend turned down Middlesbrough. 'One of the telling factors was Kevin Keegan - he used to be my idol.' Intriguingly Lee, who has signed a three-year contract, could make his debut tomorrow in the home Coca-Cola Cup tie against Middlesbrough and Lennie Lawrence, the manager who brought him to the fore at Charlton and who assumed the lure of the Premier League would sway the player's decision on his future.

'Middlesbrough is all behind me and I'm sure there will be no hard feelings,' Lee said, while his no longer-idle idol said: 'As far as we are concerned we do not feel that we have poached Robert from Middlesbrough. We did not make our move until we had seen that his proposed move there had fallen through.' Lawrence will also be without his goalkeeper tomorrow, Millwall refusing him permission to use the on-loan Brian Horne.

The money will help ease Charlton's return home to The Valley in December, when not even capacity crowds of 6,000 will put them into a break-even position at the bank. Newcastle's attendances are considerably healthier than that, with figures pushing 30,000, another outstanding feature of their so-far outstanding season.

The Geordie club remain more than pounds 5m in the red, and it is the undying loyalty of their fans that has helped Keegan strengthen what is already proving to be a formidable promotion challenge. 'It's our supporters who have bought Robert Lee. We were only able to go in for him because they have put their money on the table.'

Referees have given scant encouragement to the idea that turning professional would help put a stop to the kind of controversies that marred both Saturday's game at Selhurst Park between Wimbledon and Blackburn, and its aftermath. Both managers, Kenny Dalglish and Joe Kinnear, were outspoken in their criticism of Martin Bodenham, who sent off three players including the recurringly errant Vinnie Jones on his home debut for the south London club.

The managers have put themselves in danger of Football Association punishment by the strength of their condemnation. Dalglish commented: 'That is the worst refereeing performance we've had this season. If my players played as he reffed I couldn't defend them publicly.'

The FA is studying their words and awaits Bodenham's report before deciding whether to charge them with misconduct. Kinnear has added his voice to those calling for paid officials, but Colin Downey, the FA referees' secretary, questions whether the move would by itself raise standards. 'It doesn't automatically give them a magic wand and take away their ability to make mistakes,' he said. 'Professional or otherwise, referees will still be human and prone to mistakes just as players always will be.'

The Manchester City defender, Michel Vonk, may require an ankle operation after pulling out of Sunday's game with Chelsea. A scan will assess the damage, which has failed to mend since the previous game against Middlesbrough. Bryan Robson, almost a permanently injured Mancunian, saw his hopes of a return last night in a Central League game dashed, and his chances of figuring among the substitutes for Manchester United's Uefa Cup return at Torpedo Moscow next week are slim at best.