Blast from the Past no.17: Jason Lee

Premier League footballers are prey to all manner of occupational hazards, from Twitter abuse to paparazzi intrusion to scrutiny of their every move by Robbie Savage. But there’s only one player in history who’s had to deal with the inconvenience of being represented on national TV, without prior consultation, by a blacked-up Jewish intellectual with a pineapple on his head. And that player is Jason Lee.

This unique predicament befell the former Nottingham Forest striker when Britain’s premiere football-inspired comedy duo of the mid-1990s, David Baddeil and Frank Skinner, decided to make Lee one of the stars of their popular BBC Two show Fantasy Football League. But rather than celebrating the buccaneering style that had made Lee something of a cult hero during his first year at the City Ground, Baddeil’s tropical fruit-influenced portrayal of the centre-forward focused more on the glut of goalscoring chances he had recently missed. That and his haircut.

The distinctive dreadlocks that spilled majestically onto Lee’s cheeks from a tight bun woven atop his head were the first things Forest fans had noticed about the player when he arrived at the club in a £200,000 move from Southend United in March 1994. The second was that he was not Stan Collymore. Lee had replaced the lavishly gifted Forest forward at Southend the previous summer, but now they were being paired in attack as Frank Clark’s side pushed for promotion to the top flight.

“Jason Lee was always unfairly being compared to his ex-Southend colleague. Unfortunately he couldn’t compete skill wise, and being thought of as a second-rate Stan Collymore probably affected his career and progression at Forest,” said one supporter on The Forest Fans Network.

“Once scored from the corner flag and claimed it wasn’t a cross,” said another of Lee, while a fellow fan summarised, “Tried hard, wasn’t very good, daft haircut.”

Nevertheless, Lee bagged a couple of important goals as the Reds sealed their return to the Premiership after a one-year absence. The following season, Dutch international Bryan Roy was added to the Forest attack and his explosive partnership with Collymore propelled Clark’s side to a third-place finish. It remains the club’s best season since the days of Brian Clough.

Lee’s role as capable understudy to Forest’s dynamic duo was one that suited him, with his impressive workrate and knack for the occasional goal making him a valuable squad member.

“He was a proper old-fashioned footballer. Hardworking, honest and scored a few goals too. Putting Collymore to one side, he was all right,” said one Forest fan, while another praised the striker’s “clumsy but effective runs” and another confessed they would “take him in a heartbeat now”.

However, when Stan the Man was sold to Liverpool that summer, the balance in Forest’s attack went askew. New signings Kevin Campbell and, especially, Italian flop Andrea Silenzi proved inadequate replacements for Collymore, meaning Lee was thrust into first-team action.

It worked out nicely at first, as he bagged six goals in seven Premiership games during an autumn purple patch. But as the goals dried up, the combination of Lee’s profligate finishing and unorthodox appearance piqued the attention of Baddeil and Skinner.

The chant, “He’s got a pineapple on his head”, always sung with affection by Forest’s fans, had meaner undertones when adopted by opposing supporters, and it became the soundtrack to Lee’s increasingly hapless form.

“At times he did demonstrate his true potential and ability with some excellent runs and finishes, but the teasing did slowly affect him and it showed as his performances for the club deteriorated,” according to one City Ground regular.

Although manager Clark memorably dismissed Skinner and Baddeil as “middle-class wide boys”, Lee later admitted that the situation had become “a bit embarrassing”. After leaving Forest in 1997, a journeyman career in the lower leagues beckoned - but not without success. Watford, Peterborough, Falkirk, Boston United and Notts County were among the beneficiaries of Lee’s uncompromising forward play. What he may have lacked in star quality, he made up for in longevity. By the end of Lee’s career, he had scored more goals than Collymore.

Despite a common perception that Baddeil and Skinner destroyed Jason Lee, it’s the striker’s courageous response to being ridiculed that earned him most respect among fans at Forest and beyond.

“A good bloke who wore the badge with pride - head and shoulders above the modern player attitude,” said one Reds supporter, while another described Lee as “a true professional for taking the abuse and brushing it off”

Never was this more evident than during a match at Chelsea in 1996, when Lee bagged a last-minute Forest equaliser and celebrated by tugging defiantly at his own flamboyant hair while Blues fan Baddeil watched uncomfortably from the Stamford Bridge stands. It proved to be Lee’s last Forest goal. But after being the butt of the joke for so long, there was no better moment to have the last laugh.

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