Football: Maine line to nowhere for Lee

Manchester City's latest casualty was supposed to be the club's saviour, writes Guy Hodgson
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The Independent Online
THERE have been many reasons to feel embarrassed to be a Manchester City supporter in recent seasons but the biggest, surely, is that there was once a fans' movement by the name of "Forward With Franny". From the moment Francis Lee became chairman at Maine Road the direction, unerringly, was backwards.

When he announced his resignation yesterday, a little over four years since flight BA254 brought him from Antigua to the City boardroom, Lee said he went with his character intact, which shows how power can delude even as it ebbs to nothing. A man worshipped as a player (112 goals in 249 League appearances) had become the chairman who was openly despised. BA, as in bad to awful.

"While I wish Joe Royle well in a task equivalent to nailing jelly to the ceiling," one supporter wrote recently to The Pink, Manchester's Saturday sports paper, "he should be on his guard as long as Franny Lee is in charge. City fans are entitle to suggest the problems go much further than poor team spirit. Was Frank Clark ever in charge?" Or Brian Horton, or Steve Coppell, or Alan Ball... the list of managers under Lee was an embarrassment, seven in all. And yet things just got worse. In Peter Swales' last three full seasons, City finished fifth, fifth and ninth in the top division. In Lee's seasons the story was 18th in the Premiership, relegation and 14th in the First Division. Today they are in the relegation places and the new board could soon be trying to extricate themselves from the Second Division.

Lee arrived as a messiah, but one without the means to work miracles as, from the start, the problem appears to have been money. A wealthy man by most standards, he does not have the resources of a Jack Walker and simply could not find the cash or the backers to turn around a poorly managed club with delusions of matching Manchester United. At yesterday's press conference, the new chairman, David Bernstein, said City had been "undercapitalised and overborrowed" for years.

Looking through Lee's pronouncements, they suggest he had no idea of the depth of the problems when he took over in February 1994. Two weeks later he said: "This will be the happiest club in the land. The players will be the best paid and we'll drink plenty of champagne, celebrate and sing until we're hoarse."

He was right about one thing: fans got hoarse shouting abuse. His reign was marked by departing players rather than stability and you could build a fine team round Tony Coton, Terry Phelan, Keith Curle, Niall Quinn, Garry Flitcroft and Steve Lomas. The replacements, Georgi Kinkladze apart, have not been as good and the club has more than 55 professionals, an indictment of the buying policy.

The indication was that, for all the fine words, City were far deeper in the red than Lee had imagined and he did not have the resources to do anything about it. He had to sell to ease the wage burden.

There was also, as the above letter exposed, a suspicion that Lee tried to manage the team as well as run the club. It was something he vigorously denied, saying the only matter he had an input on was transfers. "There's a lot of money involved these days and it would surprise me if any big clubs depend solely on the manager's opinion."

The quick departure after 33 days of Steve Coppell, who claimed he quit because of a mental breakdown, was never properly explained, however, and supporters have always believed it was because Lee was interfering.

Now he is gone and although Lee is keeping his 11 per cent shareholding in the club, it is unlikely he will be back for some time.