Rob Lee: “My West Ham career was short but I’m still delighted it happened”

Rob Lee may have only played 14 times for the Hammers but he is proud to have worn claret and blue

Former England midfielder Rob Lee says he played much of his best at Upton Park – so it is West Ham’s loss that just 14 games in his 23-year long professional career were at the old ground wearing claret and blue.

Lee, a born and bred West Ham fan, played the majority of his career for Charlton, who were temporary residents at Upton Park during their homeless years, and Newcastle, only finally signing for his childhood heroes for what was envisaged to be a fairytale finish to his career, which unfortunately did not turn out quite as planned.

‘Charlton played at Upton Park for my last full season, and also the following one when I moved to Newcastle, and also whenever I came back there playing for Newcastle, I always seemed to do well,’ he said.

‘I’d always wanted to play for West Ham, and when I left Charlton there were rumours we owed West Ham some rent and that I might move. 

‘Billy Bonds, who was a big hero of mine, was manager at the time and Stuart Slater had just gone to Celtic, so if they’d come in for me, I would have gone there, but it never happened.’

Plaistow born and Essex bred, with a mother from Silvertown and a father from Penge – ‘the lone Charlton fan in a family of Crystal Palace fans’ –  Lee was introduced to West Ham by his grandfather, and until his playing commitments took priority, used to go to the ground regularly with a group of friends, many of whom still attend games these days. 

Agonisingly for West Ham fans, they could have had first dibs on the young Lee before Charlton snapped him up. ‘I was at West Ham from an early age, after I was picked up by scout Ronnie Gale playing for a local team called Pegasus, but they cast the net far and wide to get as many youngsters in as they could, so there were too many people there, and I really wasn’t comfortable with it so I stopped,’ he said. 

‘Then I had a trial with Spurs, which came to nothing, and I went back to playing with my mates. Ronnie tried to get me involved again, but I just didn’t fancy it.’

West Ham’s loss was Charlton’s gain – but no thanks to Lee’s friends. ‘When I was about 15, I was playing for a Sunday league team called Sovereign and a Charlton player came to watch us, so before our game, the manager said “behave today lads, someone’s watching Rob”, and within half an hour there was a huge punch-up! But then Charlton’s chief scout came and watched me and soon I was involved with them.’

Lee’s first year at the Valley, where he famously operated the turnstiles, was the last before the club became temporarily homeless, initially decamping to Selhurst Park and later Upton Park. Because of all the challenges both on and off the pitch, it was a valuable formative experience.

‘I had to do the apprentice jobs, but at the age of 17 I was playing in the reserves, which was great, and something I think they should bring back. Never mind playing against your own age, I was playing against grown men, some real hard ones, and that made you grow up so fast.’

In 1992, with Charlton looking to fund their move back home, Lee was sold to Newcastle, or as the team of that era will forever be known, Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle. 

The Magpies of the 90s may not have won any trophies, but few teams in recent years have won quite as many admirers across the football spectrum for their thrilling, ultra-attacking play.

‘Usually no-one remembers who finished second, but everyone remembers those teams,’ said Lee. ‘It was down to club owner Sir John Hall and Kevin, who was an absolute legend at the club as a player, and then came back to be even better as a manager. 

‘He was such a breath of fresh air – he wasn’t all about doing your coaching badges, he just wanted people to attack. 

‘He used to say “I pick good players, buy good players and let them play” – he didn’t try to change people. He played the type of football that I wanted to play when I was a kid, and we trained that way as well – we probably picked up more injuries in training than playing.’

In both 1996, under Keegan, and 1997 under his successor and kindred spirit Kenny Dalglish, Newcastle finished as Premier League runners-up, with Lee captain under Dalglish.

But everything in the garden became a lot less rosey for Lee when Ruud Gullit was next in the hotseat, and made it very clear Lee had no place in his plans.

‘I had just signed a new contract and he was dying to get rid of me, but he couldn’t,’ said Lee. 

For the 1999-2000 season, Gullit, who Lee once described in a Sunday Times interview as having “an ego the size of Amsterdam”, did not even give the former captain a squad number.

But as Lee says, ‘I outlasted him’. After taking just one point from their first five games of that season, including, crucially, losing at home to arch rivals Sunderland, where the home fans chanted Lee’s name, Gullit left, replaced by Sir Bobby Robson, who restored Lee to the squad with the number 37.

Back in the picture, Lee scored in that season’s FA Cup semi-final, where Newcastle lost to eventual winners Chelsea, and enjoyed two more seasons under Robson, before age began to catch up with him, and in summer 2002, he faced a decision over where to go next. Once again, West Ham, now managed by his old friend Glenn Roeder, was a possibility.

‘By this stage I was 36 and knew I still wanted to play, but at that age you can’t play every game in the Premier League, just look at Mark Noble now,’ he said.

‘I’d known Glenn a long time and knew he was interested in me, but quite rightly the West Ham board didn’t want to pay the money Newcastle were asking for a player of my age, so because I got on well with John Gregory, I joined him at Derby instead.’

For someone who had wanted to play for West Ham for so long, perhaps it was wise to give the 2002-03 season a miss, as it will go down in club history as one of the most calamitous, with a team including Jermain Defoe, Joe Cole, Paolo Di Canio, Trevor Sinclair and Michael Carrick somehow managing to be relegated from the Premier League.

Not that things were much better at Derby, though. Newly-relegated from the top flight, despite the presence of big names including Fabrizio Ravanelli and Giorgi Kinkladze, they too struggled and Gregory was sacked before George Burley managed to steer them away from relegation. 

Lee was a regular starter, with his two goals being in the first and last league games, but at the end of the season, he left Pride Park.

Roeder’s invitation to join pre-season training soon turned into a one-year contract offer and finally West Ham got their man.

‘It has taken me 20 years to get to West Ham,’ Lee told BBC Sport at the time. ‘I was linked with them when I was at Newcastle and it has finally come true and I am absolutely delighted.

‘It is no secret that it has been my ambition to play for my home-town club for many, many years. I have been desperate to join them and although it has taken a long time it is worth it.’

Within days of Lee signing, the squad he had trained with and played pre-season friendlies with began to fragment, with Freddie Kanoute joining Spurs and Joe Cole moving to Chelsea, following the departure of Trevor Sinclair to Manchester City. Things were changing, fast, and in less than a month, so did the manager.

‘It’s not like we started terribly, so I really didn’t get why the board kept him for a while and then let him go,’ said Lee. ‘We’d lost six top players at the start of the season, and I understand the club had to save money, but if they wanted rid of him, why didn’t they do it pre-season?’

The match that will always be remembered as the final straw for Roeder was away at Rotherham, where for practical reasons, the team chose to get changed before arriving at the ground, and then lost. However, this was spun as big time West Ham thinking themselves as being above using such a humble dressing room – which Lee says is utter nonsense.

‘It was a hot day and the changing rooms were tiny, so it made sense,’ he said. ‘You make the decision that’s best for the players so I didn’t have a problem with it at all. 

‘It wasn’t that the changing rooms were awful, they were just small – would they have made such a big deal of it if we’d been Southend? No, it was because we were big relegated West Ham – I found it amazing the way it was portrayed.’

Exit Roeder, enter – not for the first time – Trevor Brooking, but only temporarily. 

‘Trevor was brilliant, one of my heroes, and I remember going to him with Christian Daily who was captain, telling him to take over. 

‘The players loved him, the fans loved him and we had a good thing going with him – I think he could have been West Ham’s own Kevin Keegan, he would have made a great manager not by coaching, but just by being who he is. 

‘But you have to have the desire to do it, and sadly, in the long term, he didn’t. That’s such a shame.’

It was more of a shame than Lee may have realised, because once West Ham finally got hold of their chosen successor for Brooking, Lee’s former Charlton team-mate Alan Pardew, very soon, his longed-for West Ham career was over before it had even begun.

‘I knew the writing was on the wall when Alan arrived,’ he said. ‘When a team goes down, there’s always a turnover of players, so Glenn had brought in who he wanted, and then Alan did the same. 

‘A new manager wants his own people in and has his own ideas, that’s what happens. I was 38 and picked up a knee injury which needed minor surgery, and after that I never got a look in.

‘He had me play wide right at the age of 38, because he didn’t have anyone else to fill the space. I told him I’d do the best I could, but I didn’t have the legs any more.’

After two decades waiting to play for West Ham, there was to be no happy ending for Lee. 

‘When you join a club at 38 you know it’s not going to be a long playing stint, so I wanted to help the kids. My plan at the start of the season was to get West Ham promoted then retire, but it didn’t work out that way,’ said Lee, who watched from the stands as West Ham lost that season’s play-off final to Crystal Palace.

Lee did retire, before coming back to play one more season at Wycombe. ‘Someone told me you’re a long time retired, so make it last as long as you can,’ he said. ‘I’m 54 now and still miss it every day.’

Insult was added to injury when Lee’s sons, Elliot and Olly, came up through the West Ham ranks, but were bounced out having barely been given a chance. 

Elliot, now with Luton, made just two appearances, and Olly, currently on loan at Gillingham from Hearts, never got a game.

‘I wasn’t best pleased with the way they released my lads, but that’s more down to individuals, rather than the club,’ he said. ‘It’s not just at West Ham, it happens at lots of clubs. 

‘I’d be surprised if most managers even look at the youth or U23 teams these days, as they know most of the players won’t be there in two or three years. That’s different from how it was in my day – at Newcastle, Keegan controlled the whole club and decided who came through.’

Lee’s West Ham career was short and not especially sweet, but what matters to him is that it happened at all.

‘When they sign, a lot of people say “I always wanted to play for this club”, but with me, it was really genuine. I only did it 14 times, but I did it,’ he said.

‘Charlton was my dad’s team, where I had eight great years, and I never regretted joining Newcastle, but it’s about where you’re born and where you’re brought up, so I always wanted to play for West Ham.

‘Even though it was only a short stint, I’m proud I did it. When I was a kid, Ronnie Gale always tried to get me back to the club. I made it eventually; it was a short walk, I just took the long way round.’

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