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Robert Lee Interview

First appeared in the Sunday Times Sun 02.01.00

Lee Back from 
The Wilderness

Even now, four months after the scapegoat's recall from the wilderness, puzzlement pervades Bobby Robson's voice when he answers questions about his No 37. "Well, I've resurrected him, I've given him back his career and he is playing international-class football again, but I can't begin to understand why it happened," mused Newcastle United's manager. "I don't know how anyone could have left Rob Lee out of this team; he's England class."

Ruud Gullit had no such reservations about not only dropping the former England midfielder from Newcastle's first XI but stripping him of the captaincy, refusing him a shirt number, rationing his reserve-team appearances and, ultimately, forcing him to train alone.

"I wasn't one of Ruud's 'Lovely Boys'," explained Lee, now a strong contender for Newcastle's player-of-the-season award. "We didn't have a massive row. We had disagreements rather than rows. The problem was that, because I was captain, I was the one player he really talked to.

"At the start I thought Ruud liked me, we seemed to get on, but he didn't like being disagreed with and, as captain, my job was to put forward the players' viewpoint. By the end, he didn't speak to me at all. He didn't want me anywhere near the training ground."

Conspiracy theorists maintain the erstwhile captain was picked on because he was a close friend of Alan Shearer, a man Gullit spent much of his reign attempting discreetly to offload. "Ruud made Alan captain instead of me, but if he was hoping to affect our relationship it didn't work," Lee insisted. "Ruud loved conflict; he enjoyed being at loggerheads with certain players."

He also hugely underestimated the support Lee would be afforded from the media and fans. Tony Horne, the morning DJ on Metro FM, Tyneside's main commercial radio station, is a friend of Lee's and, much to Gullit's annoyance, ensured that listeners never forgot the midfielder was being treated appallingly. Meanwhile, local newspapers persistently raised the issue.

"Sometimes when a manager makes a controversial decision to drop somebody there's a split among media and fans as to whether it's the right thing, but everyone seemed 100 per cent behind me," Lee said. "I really appreciated it when people went in my favour. Ruud didn't realise that I'd played for Newcastle for seven years, and that counted for something.

"But then other people's pasts simply didn't count in his mind. He had no sense that history might be important. He was just so arrogant. Whatever Ruud Gullit had done or was doing was always the most important thing. Anything you did, you'd always find he'd done something better.

"His ego was as big as Amsterdam, and he didn't even try to disguise it. Ruud had to be top man in every way. I think he wanted the supporters to love him more than Alan [Shearer], but he didn't realise the exceptional support Alan has here. For a time the supporters were divided as to whether they wanted him or Ruud to be the one that stayed at Newcastle but, in the end, they showed they loved Alan more.

"Ruud was a great player but so were Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish. The difference was that you'd never hear Kevin and Kenny telling you how good they'd been unless it was in jest. Just being in charge wasn't good enough for Ruud. He wanted the fans to love him more than any player. He couldn't accept that Alan was a local hero."

Gullit similarly underestimated the northeast's intense parochialism.

"He didn't understand that it was different from cosmopolitan Chelsea," Lee said. "I don't think he ever realised the importance of a Newcastle/Sunderland match; the comments he made about it being inferior to a Milan derby were just unbelievable." Defeat against Sunderland at St James' Park - when Shearer started as a substitute and defiant chants of "Rob Lee" echoed around the stands - proved Gullit's nemesis.

It also made a mockery of those pictures of Gullit and Shearer embracing after Newcastle's 1999 FA Cup semi-final win against Tottenham Hotspur. "That was typical Ruud," Lee said with a grin. "He just grabbed Alan, and Al had no choice; Ruud had to be pictured with the hero of the moment."

Lee was recalled for that Cup run but played out of position on the right wing rather than in his preferred central midfield. Restored to this role by Robson, Lee's high-quality performances - the accuracy, vision and variety of his passing are outstanding - have been forcing journalists into adjectival overdrive.

"I can't afford to have a bad game any more. I'll be 34 in February," he said with a smile. "There's a lot of ageism in football. When you get to 31 and have a couple of bad games people say, 'His legs have gone'. When you're young and play badly they just say, 'He's tired', but over-30s can't risk many average or poor games.

"I feel much better and I know I'm a lot fitter than when I was at Charlton in my 20s, but my position has changed as I've got older. I used to be an attacking midfielder, always getting into the box, but now I'm in a holding role, sitting just in front of the defence."

Such alterations are not restricted to the pitch. "I've changed quite a lot as a person. I have my say in the dressing room now. I praise people, but if I think they aren't doing it I'll tell them." As Kieron Dyer explained: "Rob is always encouraging you, patting you on the back. But if you take liberties he's the first to give you a rollicking."

Lee added: "At Charlton, I used to be very quiet. I didn't get involved in too much off the field or offer opinions about tactics. But when Kevin Keegan bought me he brought me out of my shell. He pressured me to get involved in off-the-field stuff and he wanted my opinion about tactics. Talking more helped me as a player and, as a person, I became a lot less buttoned-up."

These days Lee and his wife, Anna, are heavily involved in local fund-raising projects. "I get asked to do a lot of things and, wherever possible, I try and do them. It's important for football clubs and players to be part of their community. Players at some clubs seem to be losing touch with their fans and it's vital we don't let that happen at Newcastle.

"Anyway, our supporters have been very good to me. I got a lot of nice letters when everything was going on with Ruud. That meant a lot. Thinking about it spurs me on when I'm playing."

Ditto the desire not to betray Robson's faith. "You can't help but like Bobby," Lee enthused. "And everybody respects him, too. It says a lot about him that, when we played away against CSKA Sofia in the Uefa Cup, Hristo Stoichkov - who played for Bobby at Barcelona - came along to our training session especially to see him. Bobby has the knack of being able to handle everybody from a great player like Stoichov to a young lad; that's how he has brought the spirit back to our dressing room.

"He has also made us very hard to beat, but Bobby and Mick Wadsworth, his chief coach, have done it in an interesting way.

"Even though we do a lot more set-pieces now, training is much more varied than under Ruud and we don't always use the same formations in matches."

Whatever configuration Newcastle line up in, their No 37 invariably excels. As Dyer said: "Since Rob has come back, he hasn't lost a midfield battle. He has been our best player and that has been reflected in our improved form. He deserves to be back in the England team in the midfield holding role."

Although flattered, Lee is not exactly hovering by the telephone awaiting Keegan's call. "I wouldn't say no, but I doubt it will happen," he said. "The most important thing is, I'm back in Newcastle's team. A little while ago I feared I'd played my last game here. It wasn't a nice feeling."

Louise Taylor

Page last updated 24 June, 2009