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Robert Lee article

From the Daily Telegraph newspaper Sat 11th Jan 2002 


THERE was one image of Alan Shearer and Robert Lee this summer that made the glossy part of the newspapers. On holiday with their families they were photographed wading out of the shallows by a beach that looked like it was a long way from Whitley Bay. But even miles from home there was something to remind these two old friends of the job they had to return to: strapped round Shearer's knee was an enormous medical support.

Lee Still in the thick of it - December 2001

When you have participated in the last 10 years of the Premiership, the perfect holiday tan sometimes has to be sacrificed. Today's game against Leeds United finds Shearer no longer in pain from a knee that has seen him through 24 games already this season. Lee has been named in the squad for the first time since he began to feel the whispers of a groin strain against Manchester United after New Year. 

But his story is a little different.

For Shearer, today's game marks the pursuit of another record. If he scores his seventh goal in seven games, he will equal a Shearer sequence from the 1996-97 season. When you have scored as many goals as the former England captain, the records you chase tend to be your own. For Lee, 35, the season has not yet yielded up that for which he so dearly wishes; a new contract to replace his present deal, which runs out at the end of the season.
Until the deal is done, the faithful at St James' Park may have to reconcile themselves to Lee's departure at the end of the season. There are many who believe that Lee, on his pre-Christmas form, could leave with the club's player-of-the-year award tucked under his arm. Above all, he would take with him one of the last links with the Kevin Keegan team of 1995-1997. A side that trampled a few famous reputations as they dragged the Premiership race into the North-East.

"I don't like making comparisons because I think that the team we had under Kevin Keegan in 1996 was a fantastic team - so when I judge them people just tell me that I'm biased," Lee said. "We're doing very well. The team we've got is exciting and good to watch. We work very hard and nobody can ask for any more.

"My role has changed dramatically. In those days [1996] I would support Alan and Les [Ferdinand] and go forward and get goals. I certainly don't do that any more. It's changed, but I enjoy what I do and feel like I'm decent at it. There's a time in your career when you have to let the younger players do that. Barry Venison and Paul Bracewell used to do it for me."

In a career that includes 21 England caps and 56 goals for Newcastle, it is worth remembering that Lee was forced to spend part of his time at St James' Park in the wilderness. Exiled by then manager Ruud Gullit without even the dignity of a squad number, Lee had to wait for the arrival of Bobby Robson to get back his licence to roam the midfield.

"I've got no regrets about my career at all because I've done most things apart, obviously, from winning domestic trophies," Lee said. "I've played for England, played in the Champions League and FA Cup finals. All the things I dreamed of doing, I have. My only regret perhaps is that I would like to have won the League in 1996. 

Lee came back into Robson's team with the biggest number he had ever worn on his back. The title of his autobiography, Come in Number 37, refers to the two digits he was forced to carry round as a reminder of the time Gullit left him to watch Newcastle from home. A year from now, birthday number 37 will be two weeks away. It is not something that concerns Lee.

"I think in this day and age people are too worried about your age," he said. "It's not how well you play, it's how old you are. I find it strange because if you're performing well then you should be playing. It seems like these days you can't have one bad game when you get older. There's more pressure on you to play well every single game. When you're younger it was always, `He's a bit tired, give him a rest for a little while'. Now they say your legs have gone. Football is an ageist game.

"Alan and I look after ourselves and we train hard. I think over a long period of time if you're a decent player - or in Alan's case a great player - you don't lose that all of a sudden. Gradually you're going to get slower but Alan will never lose the ability that he has to score goals. What he will lose eventually is his pace. People have said that he has never had great pace, but they say the same about Teddy Sheringham and he's still a fantastic player."

There is little doubt that Shearer will belong to St James' Park for some time yet. On the future of Lee, Robson was rather less certain as the player's injury heals and the end of the season edges ever closer.

"I think West Ham are interested, there's no doubt about that," Robson said. "The position with Rob is that he's under contract until the end of the season, and as far as the club is concerned we're telling him to honour that contract. If he's valuable to West Ham, then he's valuable to us."

The real money value of Lee drops to zero at the start of the summer. If London opens its arms to a son of Plaistow on a Bosman transfer, Newcastle will lose a player that they cast out once before. This time he might go for good.

"My transfer request was turned down and there's no sign of a new contract, so this could be my last year," Lee said. "I know I've got a lot to offer but whether this club think I have or not is irrelevant really. I know I'm a good player, so maybe it will have to be somewhere else - I'm not sure."

Sam Wallace 

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