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Football: Lee laments lack of praise for home grown players

You could be forgiven for thinking the England players have become a prosaic backcloth to show off the stellar talents of exotic foreigners. Take the Footballer of the Year award, for example. This year's winner was Gianfranco Zola, in 1996 it was Eric Cantona, in 1995 Jurgen Klinsmann.

It is enough to make a patriot weep, yet the players themselves are not convinced and not just because they are piqued at being overlooked in the rush to applaud the likes of Juninho, etc. Not a single overseas player featured in the Professional Footballers' Association's team of the season and Robert Lee, for one, believes that assessment is correct.

Indeed Lee, a team-mate of Faustino Asprilla, David Ginola and Philippe Albert at Newcastle United, was positively gushing about the qualities of his compatriots as he prepared for England's friendly against South Africa at Old Trafford on Saturday. He insists his peers got it right to vote Alan Shearer player of the year and the football writers wrong to give their award to Zola.

"People underestimate how good English players are," Lee said. "They go on about the foreigners who have come over here and done well. But look at the David Beckhams, the Paul Gascoignes, and players like that. We've got players just as good.

"I didn't pick any foreigners in my team. Zola was outstanding in a lot of matches, but in some he went missing. Over a year I think the players got it right. Alan Shearer should have got the writers' award for what he did in the European Championships and for finishing top scorer despite missing a third of the season through injury. That was a remarkable achievement."

Lee, a midfield player who has forced himself to the forefront of Glenn Hoddle's thinking with compelling displays against Mexico and Georgia in the last two months, fears that the English game might suffer in the rush to import mercenaries. "Some of the foreigners, like Zola and Juninho, are world-class players," he said. "The problem is that if you bring too many in who are not, then there's trouble for the young players coming through.

"We don't make enough of our own players. When you see a foreign player do something, like in the Cup final when Zola flicked it back for Newton to score, there's such a fuss. John Motson was going mad about that but Paul Gascoigne could have done that with his eyes shut. It was just a back flick.

As for Lee himself, his emergence from a player discarded for Euro 96 by Terry Venables to England's best performer against Mexico has not diminished speculation he might leave Newcastle for London. His original contract at St James' Park included a get-out clause in case he got homesick and he has been linked with a move to West Ham as Kenny Dalglish starts his summer renovations.

Lee, who has two years left on his contract, said: "I've had speculation about wanting to go back to London since I was at Newcastle. It's out of my hands. If Kenny wants to sell me there's not a lot I can do about that. Ideally, I don't want to leave, with the European Cup coming up, and we're a very big club. But it's not down to me any more.

"Nothing surprises me in football, except Eric Cantona retiring. Everybody knows there will be changes at Newcastle."

The fee for a Lee move is estimated at pounds 2.5m, huge for a 31-year-old but, as he puts it, "cheap for an England player". He is delighted that his international career has been revived, having, this time last year, kicked his heels on England's Far East tour only to omitted from Venables' squad.

"When I was left out I thought it was the end," he said. "It was a big blow. If I had expected it, I could have prepared myself for it. I played against Hungary and then I was due to play against China, but I was injured and told to rest my injury. I thought I was resting it for Euro 96 but it turned out I was resting for a lot longer.

"I feel as fit as I've ever been, a lot fitter than I probably was when I was at Charlton and a lot younger. I only moved into centre midfield three years ago and it's a new lease of life. It's like starting from scratch."