Football: `Old man' Lee still going strong

European Championship: Newcastle's survivor can provide midfield stability against Bulgaria at Wembley today
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The Independent Online
HE IS the great survivor. Reliable, industrious, low-profile, the very antithesis it would seem, despite his boy-next-door good looks, of "sexy football". Yet Ruud Gullit, like Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish, always finds a place on the Newcastle team-sheet for Robert Lee, team captain and a rare survivor of the Tyneside merry-go-round.

Similarly at international level, though not as much a regular, he has seen off a string of midfielders since marking his debut with a goal against Romania four years ago on Monday. Sharing the midfield that day was Paul Ince, in whose suspended absence Lee will probably start against Bulgaria at Wembley today, and the long-gone trio of Matt Le Tissier, John Barnes and Dennis Wise.

Steve Stone, Barry Venison, David Platt and, it seems, Paul Gascoigne have also dropped by the wayside but Lee, now 32 and written off as often as a Far Eastern economy, remains. Should he play today it will be his 20th cap, not bad for an international career that started at 28.

"I've a lot of catching up to do," he said after training at Bisham Abbey. "Some people go on about my age but I didn't start paying regularly in the Premiership until I was 28. I came in late so I am still enjoying it. Now-adays age means very little. It you are good enough you are old, or young, enough. It's never bothered me.

"I don't get a lot of publicity but that's the way I like it. I prefer staying out of the limelight. I enjoy doing what I do and as long as the team manager and Glenn Hoddle are happy with me, then that's fine by me."

Hoddle, against expectation, included Lee in the World Cup 22 which was welcome recompense for his surprise omission from Terry Venables' Euro'96 squad. Lee was only involved in one match, coming on as substitute for David Beckham against Colombia, but at least he was there.

"I'd have liked to have played more," he said. "I thought, as a team, we were unlucky. Luck deserted us when we needed it most. Everybody thought there wasn't a team there that frightened us. We thought we were good defensively and would score goals."

Lee went to Barbados after England's exit to "get away from it all".

He returned to a new season and, very quickly, a new manager. "They have each got different characteristics. Kevin [Keegan] was very outgoing, he loved to have a laugh with the players and the press. It was Kevin who taught me not to worry if I had a bad game, he said `just work hard and give the ball to others who are playing well and you can still do a good job for the team'. I used to worry terribly when I had a bad game, whether I would be out of the team, but as you get older you accept everybody plays badly at times. Since I've had kids I've had more perspective on life rather than thinking football is the be-all and end-all.

"Kenny [Dalglish] was different, he liked a laugh with the players but not the press. He kept himself to himself but away from it the players loved him. I haven't known Ruud too long but the players, the fans and the press all like him. He doesn't say much at the moment but he likes a laugh at himself. He's good for the club's image which is picking up after taking a battering last season."

And Hoddle? "He's a very, very good coach. The players enjoy his sessions. He hasn't changed at all since he took over. The press have a pop at him and the players but we laugh at it, we know if we win the next two games they will love him again. I used to play against him - that's showing my age. I remember the first time was with Charlton in the FA Cup."

It was early 1985 and Lee was not only still at Charlton, who lost the tie to Spurs after a replay, but still playing at centre-forward, the position in which he gained two Under-21 caps.

"It was a long, long time ago. I prefer playing in midfield to wing-back or striker. You can make things happen rather than rely on service. This season I've been playing the holding role as David Batty's been suspended. I'm comfortable doing that, you can still go forward, you just have to ensure someone else sits in."

"He's played in many positions for his club and this year he's been in good form in that central position," said Hoddle yesterday. "We were concerned about the virus he had but he's trained really well this week."

When Lee moved to Newcastle, after 10 seasons at Charlton, many wondered how he would settle. At the time he thought it "would either go well or I'd be home in a month. I was born in West Ham and spent all my life in Hornchurch so it was a tremendous wrench to move."

Six years on only the Geordies' Steve Watson, who seems about to depart, and Steve Howey, remain. As with England, "old man" Lee remains.