Lee hoping to haunt his old team-mates

Dave Hadfield on a key player in tomorrow's Silk Cut quarter-final tie
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The Independent Online
As a Salford player still living in his home town of St Helens, Mark Lee has noticed a subtle shift in public opinion since his side knocked Wigan out of the Silk Cut Challenge Cup.

"The day after that, everyone in St Helens seemed to want to slap me on the back," the Salford scrum-half said. "Then, when we drew Saints in the next round, all they wanted to tell me was that we wouldn't be going any further.''

Lee, whose home is only 300 yards from Saints' Knowsley Road ground, is one of the players who threatens to come back and haunt his old club in the quarter-final tomorrow, just as Steve Hampson et al did to Wigan.

After he had battled his way through the colts and reserve sides into the first team, St Helens let him go to Salford six years ago.

"That always puts a bit of extra spice into it, but you don't really need any motivation when a win will leave you just 80 minutes from Wembley.''

It would be a long-delayed return trip to the stadium for Lee, who played there for St Helens Under-11s before the 1979 Challenge Cup final. He was already a specialist at hooker by that age - something that changed, to his own surprise as well as everyone else's, only last season.

"Our coach, Andy Gregory, said that he knew I wasn't a half-back, but he wanted me to do a job for him,'' Lee said.

It was a request, coming from one of the great scrum-halves of the modern era, that could have been daunting, but Lee has handled the switch with some panache.

Always a creative, footballing hooker, he showed in that triumph against Wigan that he could adapt his range of skills to the different demands of the No 7 shirt.

"It's a bit more physical at hooker," he said. "I always thought I enjoyed that - but, to be honest, I haven't missed it all that much.''

There is, in fact, little time for looking back, unless it is over his shoulder at the players queuing up for his place in the side. While Lee can produce the goods in the way he did against Wigan, his rivals will have to wait and an unlikely positional switch will continue.

"A lot of people thought that Mark couldn't do the job," Gregory said. "But if he hadn't been able to, there was no way we would have won the First Division championship.''

No way, either, that Salford could have humbled Wigan in the way they did. The question now is whether they can do the same to Lee's old club.

"Obviously we were really fired up for the Wigan game and all we have heard is how inspired we were that day," Lee said. "But what people don't realise is that we didn't play all that much better than we have been doing for quite a while."

Playing St Helens presents Salford with a different set of problems from taking on Wigan, Lee believes. "There's a sense in which you know what to expect from Wigan, but Saints play so much off-the-cuff stuff. What you have to do is stop them playing.''

Nobody will be more eager to do that than Lee and another former Saint, Paul Forber. St Helens have been warned. The old-boy syndrome could strike again and wipe away the smug smile the town has worn since Wigan went out.