Lee puzzled by the notion of a poisoned chalice

Manchester City's beleaguered chairman explains to Ken Jones the problems he has had finding a new manager and talks frankly of his own role at the club
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Talk to Francis Lee about the state of affairs at Manchester City and you are sure to hear about the impressive developments that have taken place during the two and a half years of his chairmanship; the towering pounds 12m Kippax stand with its 600-seat restaurant and sumptuous executive boxes; second-to-none training facilities; a turnaround - profits up from a paltry pounds 60,000 to more than pounds 1m - in catering and marketing. "I defy anyone to come here and not feel that this is a very big club," Lee said this week.

Trouble is that the team has not been worthy of the stage -a fact that last night's elimination from the Coca-Cola Cup at the hands of Third Division Lincoln City only served to emphasise.

"We may be better than you think," I remember Lee saying at York races shortly after he returned to Maine Road at the urgent behest of disgruntled supporters. Time proved him wrong. A late burst of form saved City from relegation first time around but the truth of it was made clear last season when they dropped into the First Division.

A year last summer Lee tested the water around George Graham who had yet to be suspended as the result of a "bung" scandal, and Glenn Hoddle before persuading his old pal, Alan Ball, that City had more to offer than Southampton.

Since Ball's sudden departure after a disappointing start to the present campaign Lee has been fishing around unsuccessfully for a manager, the notion of a poisoned chalice made more acute last week when Dave Bassett changed his mind at the last minute. "That's bollocks," Lee stated. "I didn't approach Bassett. He let his interest be known through a third party and eventually I got around to making him a terrific offer. I agreed to written assurances that there would be no interference in team matters and the staff changes he wanted. Bassett wanted to bring in the Luton manager, Lenny Lawrence, as his assistant and I went along with that as well. Then on the morning Bassett is supposed to be here he decides to stay with Palace. Draw your own conclusions.''

If Lee feels used it is understandable. The other day he challenged a group of football reporters to bet on the names of those who had turned down the opportunity of managing City. "Wrong," he snorted when Howard Kendall's name was put forward. "Sheffield United wouldn't allow me to speak with Howard, so that was the end of it." Bassett was dealt with, then Kenny Dalglish who made it clear to Lee that football management no longer appeals to him. "Once I heard that there was no point in making Kenny an offer," Lee said.

Yes, Lee did approach George Graham after reading comments attributed to him in newspapers. A meeting was arranged between Graham and City's solicitor but nothing came of it. "I think George was just keeping himself in the frame," Lee added.

An interesting thing about Lee is that for three or four years before taking up 29 per cent of City's shares he had more or less turned his back on football. Successful in business and turning out enough winners to gain a great deal of respect in horse racing circles, he rarely saw a game. "Can't be bothered with it," he used to say.

A change of heart followed the realisation that he could only further his burgeoning reputation by moving to one of the big training centres. "My business interests simply didn't allow for that and then came the clamour for me to take over from Peter Swales at Maine Road," he said one night over dinner. "Thinking about all the tremendous years I had there as a player, the mess they were in, how disappointing it all was for the supporters, I couldn't resist it."

Lee knew from the start that he was there to be shot at. Not for him the safety net of philanthropic involvement. Here was the return of an outstanding footballer bringing with him the memory of past glories.

Fine, but who could feel comfortable managing City in Lee's presence? Does it explain why the search for a new manager is proving so difficult? Lee thinks that to be an insult. "The suggestion that I interfere in team affairs is absolute rubbish," he said. "When Brian Horton was here he made it clear that I wasn't welcome at the training ground and I respected his wishes. Alan [Ball] didn't mind me showing up so I went along occasionally, but only to watch, never to make suggestions. Because I'm often busy elsewhere on Thursdays and Fridays there are lots of weeks when I don't know what team we are putting out until I turn up for matches."

While Lee admits to an input when it comes to buying players he does not think it unusual. "There's a lot of money involved these days and it would surprise me if any big clubs rely solely on the manager's opinion. We've got some excellent scouts here so the decision has to be collective."

Although Lee understands the frustration being expressed by even the most loyal of City's supporters he rejects completely the idea of conceding to another takeover. "In any case, despite all the talk, nobody has come forward. I'm prepared to make all information about the club available but, as a duty to our shareholders, only if I know who I'm dealing with."

The daftest suggestion is that Lee should put his business interests on hold, clear the decks and manage City himself. "No chance," he chuckled. Meanwhile names keep cropping up; the latest is Steve Coppell. Part of the problem, Lee insists, is the role played in all this by some newspapers. "Alan's life was made a misery," he said. "I simply don't understand guys who think it was a good day at the office when they've helped to get a football manager sacked. How can they live with themselves?"

Every opponent who tried to take a liberty with Lee the footballer learned quickly that he was not easily intimidated. What the louder of City's restive supporters should bear in mind is that time has not changed him.