Blast from the Past no.25: David Lee
Reviving the Premier League players you forgot existed…
David Lee doesn’t come up if you search for his name on Google. There’s an estate agent, a basketball player, an IT consultant and a man who accidentally stabbed himself in a Pittsburgh Walmart who are deemed more important David Lees in the modern age.
But Google clearly doesn’t get everything right, because no matter how many houses David Lee the estate agent has sold, it’s not as good as sending an inch-perfect, 60-yard cross-field pass into the path of Gianluca Vialli.
While the internet may have forgotten about David Lee the footballer, there are plenty of Chelsea fans who never will.
Just as the world existed before Google, Chelsea also existed before Roman Abramovich. For the thousands of followers the Blues have gained in the past decade, 14th place in the league and an out-of-form Eden Hazard might seem like the most tragic predicament imaginable. But more long-serving Blues fans can remember seasons when 14th was quite acceptable, and when they would have expected to see aliens arrive at Stamford Bridge sooner than a player of Hazard’s calibre.
When Lee broke into Chelsea’s team in the 1988/89 season, the club weren’t even in the top flight. The ball-playing centre-back made his debut as a lanky teenage substitute in a Division Two match against Leicester, scoring the winning goal in front of a Stamford Bridge crowd of 6,156. Nowadays the Blues gain that many Twitter followers every day.
“An Englishman that tried to play sweeper was a novelty,” recalled one Blues fan on The Shed End website. “Lee’s long passing became legendary. He was never a Gullit or a Leboeuf but everyone loved him because he tried and did things that others didn’t have the guts to.”
Chelsea were promoted as champions in Lee’s breakthrough season and then finished fifth on their top flight return, with the 20-year-old becoming a first-team regular with 35 appearances.
Most endearingly of all, everything Lee did, he did it while simultaneously looking exactly like Rodney Trotter from Only Fools and Horses. He was no plonker though.
“Rodney was a very under-estimated player and he could really hit a ball,” said another supporter, while a fellow Blue called him “a fantastic passer from the back who was ahead of his time in many ways”.
Despite his progressive approach, Lee drifted in and out of the starting line-up. His languid manner was not to the liking of manager Ian Porterfield, who sent him on loan to Reading and Plymouth in 1992, with temporary spells at Portsmouth and Sheffield United following in later years. But back in those days, Chelsea’s fans demanded panache more than they demanded trophies, and Lee was always welcomed home.
“Rods was a great servant who rarely let the team down, made even better by him coming through our youth team. Remember when we used to have loads of youth coming through the ranks?” quipped one fan.
And although it’s natural to draw parallels with fellow defender John Terry, the club’s sole youth success in a generation, Lee’s playing style had more in common with former Blues centre-back David Luiz. In addition to the majestic long balls, there was also a tendency to dive in to challenges.
All things being relative, Blues fans are careful to keep Lee’s prowess in perspective, given the underwhelming nature of that Chelsea side.
One fan described him as “ridiculously skilful for a centre-half but a bit like a poor man’s Matt Le Tissier”, while another likened Lee to “a really s*** Rolls Royce in a car park full of Cortinas”.
But after years of mediocrity, Chelsea’s clapped out motors looked set for the scrapheap when Blues-supporting millionaire Matthew Harding invested in the club in 1994.
Although not quite an Abramovich-sized revolution, Chelsea’s fortunes were nonetheless transformed. From signing Scott Minto and Paul Furlong one summer; they were bringing in Mark Hughes and Ruud Gullit the next.
Lee’s status at the club was under threat, but he rose to the challenge, earning a place in a lop-sided but strangely effective back three with Gullit and Frank Sinclair.
“Rodney was a very decent, skilful player who was more than good enough to play with the likes of Gullit and co,” adjudged one fan.
One of Lee’s most memorable contributions in a Chelsea shirt would also be one of his last. After Harding was tragically killed in a helicopter accident, Lee scored a penalty against Tottenham at Stamford Bridge four days later.
“It was a very emotional day for all,” recalled one member of the crowd. But the occasion would be especially significant for Lee, who broke his leg in a challenge with Spurs’ Sol Campbell. He faced an 18-month injury lay-off and would only start one more game for the club.
After almost 200 appearances and 10 years in west London, Lee moved to Bristol Rovers on a free transfer in 1998. The remainder of his career resembled a tour of English football’s nether regions, taking in the likes of Forest Green, Weston-super-Mare, Yate Town and Mangotsfield before Lee hung up his boots in 2004 - the year of Jose Mourinho’s first title triumph.
Chelsea have become a very different club since Lee left, and it’s hard to make a case for him being good enough to have cut the mustard in the Abramovich era. But for those 6,156 Blues fans who can proudly answer the popular terrace query, “Where were you when you were s***?”, his legend is undimmed.
“A great player and a wonderful passer of the ball. Saw him a few years ago and he hadn’t changed a bit. Still the spitting image of Rodney,” said one supporter.
From now on, at least if you type “Rodney Trotter lookalike David Lee” into Google, he’ll take his rightful place on the first page.
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