Francis ‘Franny’ Lee was the unstoppable winger today’s Premier League clubs are always trying to find. Nowadays, £70m will buy you only bits of what Lee brought to Manchester City’s wide attacking. And he was the shrewd entrepreneur many current players would love to be.
“A fighting cock of a player, dynamic and pugnacious,” is how the late James Lawton described Lee in his book, Forever Boys, a description borne out in late 1960s footage of him not only bamboozling Bobby Moore with his positional sense but knocking the England captain flat on his back in a challenge.
Lee, who has died aged 79, is often cast as the bridge between City’s earthy Maine Road past and the Pep Guardiola era’s showbiz. This is stretching a factual point (Lee’s formal involvement with the club ended in 1998) but spiritually it felt true. Lee carried a swagger (and a fashion sense) that evoked City’s first golden age in the 1960s and 1970s under Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison.
Lee crammed many lives into his 79-year trajectory: Bolton, City and Derby barnstormer, England star at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, toilet roll tycoon, City chairman and successful racehorse trainer. His essential nature was unchanged by personal reinvention or wealth. His was a relatable generation of household names. They liked a drink and lived by anecdote. Time has swept away many of the great footballers of the 1960s and has now come calling for those of the 70s.
Every now and then the game loses a great player whose type is badly missed in today’s Premier League. Lee was a destructive, aggressive winger capable of barrelling past three opponents. But then he would charge inside and fire rockets off muddy ground past goalkeepers. That combination is rare now, when speed and a few stepovers have turned some wingers into £80m buys.
Lee scored 148 times in 330 appearances for City. He won the league with City and Derby and the FA Cup, League Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup while at Maine Road.
Self-doubt wasn’t in his make up. Researching a biography of the England men’s football team, I asked him whether Alf Ramsey’s 1970 side was better than his 1966 World Cup-winning one. “Yes, because I was in it,” he said. I assumed he was joking, until encountering his account of Allison tapping him up in the Bolton social club. Allison told him he would make him a “great” player, to which Lee replied: “Well, thank you very much, but I think I’m pretty good right now.”
And he was. All 11 players chosen by Ramsey for the 1970 World Cup game against Brazil achieved immortality with the quality of their play in a tight, thrilling game. Geoff Hurst once explained the value of getting the ball to Lee: “He’s a very positive player. He gets hold of the ball and goes straight at people very, very quickly. He’s very, very strong and courageous. People can’t knock him off the ball and he’ll take two or three on.”
Related: Francis Lee: a life in pictures
In business, Lee was no less enterprising. In the Manchester City Football Book (1968) he wrote: “I was once told that you cannot successfully mix business and soccer. I didn’t believe it – and immediately set out to prove my point. One thriving wastepaper concern, a launderette and hairdressing salon later, plus England honours and a First Division Championship medal, I think I have rammed home the message.”
At a golf club dinner, Lee met a window cleaner called Peter James whose “honesty” impressed him. In bad weather, James would collect wastepaper to maintain his income. Soon Lee was donning overalls and driving a lorry to collect discarded paper. “Phase two” as he called it was launderettes, followed by a “woman’s [sic] club-cum-boutique” in Bolton, with “sauna baths, hairdressing salons, scope for every kind of beauty treatments, one or two shops and relaxation rooms, and a dining room”.
It was, he admitted, an “ambitious” plan. But a historian of health clubs and wellness could call him a pioneer. He was a millionaire by 30 – highly unusual in his profession. More pertinent to football is the confirmation these tales provide of Lee’s restlessness and grit. His punch-up with Norman Hunter stemmed from his refusal to be halted by intimidation or the threshing machine of English tackling in his era.
“You just give him the ball and let him do the rest,” said Colin Bell, who was no slouch himself in possession, as the most stylish, rangy player in that City side. Lee, Bell and Mike Summerbee were City’s answer to Manchester United’s holy trinity of Best, Law and Charlton. Blessed were the football watchers of Manchester when all that talent and charisma was not only on display but still rooted in the community.
The “Francis Lee surge”, as it was known at the time, was a thing of terrible beauty. Often referred to as stocky, Lee nevertheless carried menacing pace and soft feet towards the barrier of brutal defending, on which he sometimes took revenge by diving.
In December 1974, he returned to Maine Road as a Derby player and scored beautifully from 20 yards in a 2-1 win. Barry Davies framed his most immortal commentary around that surge. “Interesting – very interesting!” is a line that entered popular culture. It also perfectly describes Franny Lee’s life.