Middle man in his prime

Kevin Keegan calls him the best player in the country. Now Robert Lee hopes to prove the point at international level; Ian Ridley talks to a player of panache who profits from adaptability
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The Independent Online
THE way Robert Lee has been playing of late he could almost lend his name to an adverb. To play roblee: to cover the whole pitch with verve and versatility; to support the defence; to tackle with crispness; to pass the ball and glide through the midfield; to score goals.

There have been more eye-catching talents in Newcastle's august autumn - Ferdinand, Ginola, Beardsley - but latterly it has been Lee quietly driving them on, so much so that his manager, Kevin Keegan, described him last week as the best player in the country. His corporal had become General Lee, he said, to the player's embarrassment and good-natured dressing- room ribbing.

The silver-haired and tongued Keegan is a master builder of his players' confidence, but Lee is cementing it all with some panache. Should he survive today's match at Wimbledon, Lee's unassuming virtues are a certainty for the England squad to be announced by Terry Venables on Tuesday for the match against Portugal at Wembley a week later.

The appreciation for and of him also hints at the re- emergence of the midfield player, even if the English game is still paying the price for some insularity and ignorance of the recent past. Going, it seems, are the dim days when the English, isolated by their absence from European competition, wanted their midfield men just to get the ball forward quickly in the direction of a target man and then be ready for the knockdown. It is one reason why Paul Gascoigne stood out so prominently, why some of us agonised over his medical bulletins as the hapless Geoff Thomas or Carlton Palmer took up one of England's central midfield places.

"While we were out of Europe, back fours were told to squeeze up, and often the midfield player did not have the space to play in," Don Howe, England's assistant coach, said. "You'd hear people shouting 'hook it on', and 'win the second ball', to a midfield player, which is something you wouldn't hear from a continental coach.

"Football goes through tactical fashions. We have had direct play and long ball. Perhaps not qualifying for the last World Cup changed attitudes. Now we are back in Europe, we are also seeing the best teams starting to build it up and pass it through the midfield. But I do think it starts with the back four. If they are comfortable with the ball, they will bring midfield players in instead of lashing it forward."

Lee himself sees another benefit. "We're attracting the very best players into our game now, like Cantona, Ginola, Juninho and Bergkamp, because they know they are going to be able to show off their skills. They wouldn't have come here if the image was still long ball. We did have a spell of just trying to get the ball into the area and the crowds started to disappear."

It is Lee's adaptability that has seen him flourish with both Newcastle and England as the highest level of the game now demands that players transcend position and unsettle opposition with movement.

As a young player with Charlton Athletic - one of those clubs, like Crewe, that school their players properly - Lee was given a variety of roles, mainly as a striker and a winger, and indeed was seen as a wide man on the right when Keegan bought him for pounds 700,000 three years ago.

At the time, the story was that Keegan persuaded the Essex boy that Newcastle was closer to London than Middlesbrough, whose manager, Lennie Lawrence, also wanted his former Charlton charge. "Well, Kevin did say that it was quicker from the centre of Newcastle," Lee said. "People may have thought of me as a cockney who knew nothing about north of Watford, but I do have a basic grasp of geography."

Lee's first year in the North-east - house still to sell in London, new baby - was difficult, he says, and when Ruel Fox arrived at St James', it seemed that he might struggle to retain a place and pine for a move back home. Such has been his development, exposed to the slick passing drills at Newcastle's Durham training ground, that selection is now automatic. As a person, too, he feels settled, along with his wife Anna and two small sons in their house near the training ground.

"I think those experiences at Charlton are helping me now as a player," Lee said. "As a lad, you just want to play, you don't think about where. But when you have had that variety it helps you understand the game. You know how a striker wants the ball delivered and what sort of pass a wide man wants. Kevin Keegan also likes the opposition to be guessing where you will play."

He was seen to best effect for England against Switzerland last month. He began the game on the right then moved inside to accommodate Steve Stone after Jamie Redknapp's early injury. It was more a holding role, not his favourite, he said. "But I think I have improved defensively. And when Gazza's doing his bit on the ball, you have to have someone looking to fill the gaps.

"I know Stone was made man of the match but, no disrespect, I thought Rob was," Don Howe said. "He just got on with it, was disciplined but still got up in support. He took in all the instructions. When you've got lads like that you've got a chance. I see him as an old-fashioned inside forward, like Peter Broadbent or Johnny Haynes, people who could pass the ball and get forward."

Lee has always been a late developer. At the age of 12, he was considered too small by Tottenham and later, as an associated schoolboy, left his first love of West Ham as he thought he would not make the grade. Then Charlton saw him playing for Hornchurch at the age of 17 when Lee was working at his father's shipping business. Perhaps his own job description of "general dogsbody" hinted at the flexibility to follow.

"His move from Charlton came at just the right time," Lawrence said. A group of London clubs, notably Tottenham and West Ham, had looked again at him but either made no move or would not pay the fee. Now, at 29, Lee is probably at his peak. His first cap came late, just over a year ago against Romania, when he made a goal- scoring start as deputy for the injured David Platt. Now he may be ready to succeed him.

Lee's own assessment that he is fitter and stronger than ever, coupled with the former Newcastle coach Derek Fazackerley's assessment of him a year ago as being "athletic, with good control and vision" makes a nonsense of his early experiences of the game. Indeed, his stature, both physical and figurative, now mirrors that of Newcastle.

Last year, Lee scored 11 goals in 11 matches at the start of the season, including a hat-trick of headers against Royal Antwerp, but as the team faded in November so did he. He scored only three more all season. This season it is six in 17 matches but, as with the club's potential for trophies, you sense more to come.

"If you look at Kevin Keegan's signings, Shaka Hislop, Warren Barton, David Ginola and Les Ferdinand, they are all strong physically," Lee pointed out. "We are not going to be intimidated any more." At Wimbledon this time last year, defeat was a sure sign that the wheel bearings were coming loose. "They won't bully us out of it this time," insisted Robert Lee. Robustly.

Battle for middle England: The other playmakers competing for Euro '96 places

Darren Anderton

Tottenham Hotspur

Age 23 Caps 9 International goals 3

BECAUSE of his close control and pacy, curling delivery of a cross, Anderton has always presented himself as a wide player but he may yet develop into a central midfielder if not quite in the mould of Peter Beardsley, playing off a main striker. Anderton also has a feel for the pass-and-rotate game of Venables's attacking midfield players, allied to a capacity for work and belief in collective effort that keeps him well ahead of such as Matthew Le Tissier in the coach's affections. He also proved, with a stunning debut against Denmark, that he slips comfortably into international football. Now recovering from persistent hernia trouble. Venables will wait.

John Barnes

Liverpool

Age 32 Caps 78 International goals 11

BARNES has become a different player since his long-term Achilles injury, changing from a winger who could go past defenders and deliver an incisive cross or shot into a midfield player who cohesively links a team, giving and getting the ball to those more able to penetrate. He is still criticised as an underachiever, but he no longer deserves it. Against Newcastle at St James' Park recently he gave a masterly display of unselfish passing, completed with a composure that might yet serve England well. You do feel that if the English game is to develop, then attitudes must change towards the quietly effective new Barnes in the last few years of his career.

Mark Draper

Aston Villa

Age 25 Caps 0 International goals 0

A MOVE from Leicester City to Aston Villa, which enabled him to stay in the Premiership, has given Draper the profile he needs to compete with the growing competition for England places. His fondness for running with the ball and shooting is reminiscent of Gascoigne, but he does not have quite the same touch. A good passer nevertheless and in Venables's thoughts after impressing during a get-together for fringe players in April. The questions about him relate to his finishing - he takes up good positions but fails to convert enough chances - and his stamina; he can drift from the game for periods, particularly in the second half.

Paul Gascoigne

Rangers

Age 28 Caps 34 International goals 6

IT seems the debate about Gascoigne will pursue him to the end of his career: can England afford to build a team around him? Venables, a natural pragmatist, no longer thinks so, given the player's injury history. But he retains the belief that his favourite son is worth persevering with because of his ability to give a team a unique dimension. Sometimes a liability defensively, Gascoigne is still adapting to the limitations imposed by his last injury, a broken leg, but a goal for Rangers against Steaua Bucharest after an unconvincing performance against Switzerland last month showed he can still unlock a tight defence with a penetrating run or pass.

Paul Ince

Internazionale

Age 28 Caps 16 International goals 2

INCE is at present in limbo with England, and he is serving a suspension from his club as he seeks to come to terms with the less physical, more sophisticated football of Serie A. His England prospects were affected when he withdrew from last summer's Umbro Cup when wearied by a long season and a court case relating to his part in the Cantona affair. He may yet figure in Venables's plans if he settles in Italy or returns to England and rediscovers his form as a driving force. But to do so he must convince the coach that he can cope with the heat of a high-level game as well as tackle less feverishly and distribute the ball more carefully.

Paul Merson

Arsenal

Age 27 Caps 14 International goals 1

REJUVENATED after rehabilitation from alcohol, gambling and drugs, Merson has been in outstanding form for Arsenal of late. Energy and industry have been the least of his contributions; his touch, control and passing have returned and are perhaps improved. He has played in four positions - wide on both flanks, striker and latterly in central midfield - which suggests the type of versatile player sought by the England coach. Venables gave him one appearance before the ravages of his addictions brought him to his "rock bottom". Now developing consistency and ready in the queue should injury or loss of form strike the regulars.

David Platt

Arsenal

Age 29 Caps 55 International goals 26

IS HE to become what Kevin Keegan was to Bobby Robson and Gary Lineker was to Graham Taylor - a big-name casualty who was closely associated with the previous era? Platt is still seeking match-fitness after knee surgery and has not yet looked his old mobile self since his return a month ago. We wait to see if he will again get up and down the pitch with the same ease. A doubt about him has always surrounded his passing ability, but his goals, often scored with a late run reminiscent of Bryan Robson, have made the nominal captain a difficult man to discard. The team's three goals against Switzerland may have changed that perception.

Jamie Redknapp

Liverpool

Age 22 Caps 3 International goals 0

THE hamstring Redknapp pulled in the early minutes against Switzerland has interrupted what was developing into an encouraging start to his England career, not to mention his club's own season. Redknapp's main asset is his composed passing, allied to a powerful shot that brings him a reasonable return of goals. So far for England, understandably, he has concentrated on doing the simple thing well, with much sideways fetching and carrying; the next stage will be looking for the more ambitious forward pass. Venables believes Redknapp is capable of it, seeing him either as complement to Gascoigne or a replacement, should he be injured.

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