The City critics have Lee on the back foot

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The Independent Online
There were times when Francis Lee had the care-ridden look of a man sitting on a keg of gunpowder. Something might go off, and it was not hard to imagine who the splattered victim would be. Being the chairman of Manchester City has never been easy - yesterday it was well nigh impossible.

It was the club's annual meeting at Maine Road and for PLC you could read Plenty of Local Criticism. Words were bandied about like "unhappy" and "depressing" - and those were just the ones that Lee used. The smaller shareholders were about as seething as you would expect from innocent partners in a football disaster which sees a club which likes to regard itself as "big" in the First Division relegation zone and pounds 26m in debt.

There was good news, a rights issue that will provide pounds 10m for transfers and increase the shareholding of "white knights" Stephen Boler and John Wardle but, if that was designed to deflect the fire, then City's powerbrokers were disappointed. "What we see on the pitch is a disgrace", one man said. Another asked: "When are we going to get a manager?" To cap it all, one supporter reported Nicky Summerbee for swearing at the crowd. Lee, who promised to fine the player if the allegation was true, was by this time looking thoroughly fed up.

"I get blamed if the toilets in the North Stand are blocked," he said, trying to spread the blame, "or if Andy Dibble drops the ball. The tabloids have it that everything is Francis Lee's decision but decisions are made at board level. We're a democratic club."

This seemed to strike a chord and his mistake was to expand the theme to lambast wealthy detractors who have not followed up criticism with investment. "We have a lot of people who say they want to put money into the club but when it comes to it they will not put money where their mouth is."

Elliot Rashman, the manager of the pop group Simply Red, whom Lee numbered amongst this group, counter-attacked in a manner the players would do well to emulate. "You have made ridiculous decisions," he said by way of an initial hand- grenade, "like allowing managers to buy players three days before they are sacked. You have brought the club to the brink.

"The people who made this club are the fans and they are entitled to criticise until you get it right. Alan Ball [the manager who took City down from the Premiership in May] was a disgrace. You might not think so, but everyone else does."

Lee kept his own counsel about that, although 24 hours after committing his long-term future to the club the non-stop criticism seemed to be hitting home. "Believe me," he said, "I'm as upset as you are. I don't get much pleasure going to football matches these days and I certainly didn't enjoy 25,000 Wolves fans taunting me last weekend. All I can promise is to give it my best endeavours and if that's not good enough we might have to look at it in 12 months."

And what will the club's finances be like if City get relegated this season? "I wouldn't know," Lee replied, "because I'd have jumped off the stand." Judging by yesterday's meeting, he will not be alone.

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