Franny Lee didn’t look like a professional footballer, but then again in the era in which he played who but the lithe Best did? Even amongst the troglodytes and prematurely aged who graced the muddy fields of the 60s and 70s he looked incongruous in shirt and shorts; his Watneys Party Seven chest stretching the fabric to within an inch of its life, his thatch of blonde wispy hair nested atop an uncle’s face. And this was in his prime before baldness set in at the Baseball Ground.
His squat, muscular physique was that of a Tiger comic hero usually attributed to a nickname such a ‘Thunderboots’ or ‘Hotshot’, yet there was certainly venom behind each rasping effort and enough brute force behind every shoulder-barge to prompt a speech-bubbled ‘ouch’ from the crowd. Lee also possessed a deceptive amount of style and flair to his forward play.
As part of the Holy Trinity that mesmerised Maine Road he terrorised defences with a combination of power and subtlety they were simply unused to dealing with, and whilst it was Bell and Summerbee who enjoyed the accolades for their graceful, intelligent movement, it was often Lee who dropped deep and laid off a deft flick to begin proceedings – a false number nine decades before it was even considered as such.
Lee was a rare and majestic talent who to younger readers can be most accurately – and controversially considering his sky blue jersey – compared to a certain Wayne Rooney; a roaming, bustling force of nature with the ability to pull of the fantastical.
He was a man ahead of the game, a chubby time-capsule sent back from modern times advancing the arts of a striker. In every conceivable way.
Like the con-merchants of today who have been denounced for sullying the beautiful game Lee’s technique was to leave a leg trailing and hope for the merest of contact
In the aftermath of a strange and wonderful Premier League season where it appears that diving has suddenly been invented, offending the sensibilities of a nation unused to such unsportsmanlike behaviour, it should also be remembered that the man who went on to become a millionaire through selling bog rolls and eventually became chairman of MCFC was conning officials for fun back in his heyday.
In the 1971-72 season Manchester City were awarded a record amount of fifteen spot-kicks, all of which were rammed home by Lee, most of which were won by his habit of tumbling from the slightest of contact in the box. It earned him widespread derision from rival players and the not-so-politically correct nickname of Lee Won Pen.
Leaving aside for the moment the morality of his actions, seeing such a hefty frame thrown to the ground was a weirdly compelling sight, like a sack of Christmas presents dropped down an attic hatch. If the theatrics of Ashley Young has been compared to the elegant Greg Louganis - this was a Barnes Wallace bouncing bomb.
Like the con-merchants of today who have been denounced for sullying the beautiful game Lee’s technique was to leave a leg trailing and hope for the merest of contact. Failing that there was always the touch with an arm that reduced a man with noticeable upper body strength to fling himself through the air.
His first gambit could sometimes backfire, such as the infamous incident against Leeds in 1975 where Lee – playing for title-chasing Derby – planted his foot into the turf anticipating a challenge from Norman Hunter that never came. Hunter was too savvy. Lee’s reputation now too ingrained. Even so, an exaggerated sprawl to the deck resulted in a pen, a decision that so inflamed Hunter the pair later came to blows, a trading of haymaker punches that saw each see red.
Franny Lee went on to become a millionaire through selling bog rolls and eventually became chairman of MCFC, but he was conning officials for fun back in his heyday.
Diving in football is all too easily viewed as a modern phenomenon, an unsavoury habit brought over by those cheating foreigners from the continent. Not only does the actions of Stevie ‘Starfish’ Gerrard and Ashley ‘Louganis’ Young disprove the xenophobic geography but Lee Won Pen’s swan-dives of the 60s and 70s dispel the historical inaccuracy too.
Diving, or cheating, or whichever terminology you wish to use, is also seen as proof that we have lost something precious from our bygone age. A sense of fair-play and decency. I agree to an extent – having witnessed yesterday a remarkable piece of footage showing Sir Matt Busby congratulating Joe Mercer on Manchester City’s 1968 title win, an act of magnanimity that was reciprocated by Joe wishing United all the best for their forthcoming European Cup final. It is sadly undeniable that such gentlemanly class has gone from the game. But that can also be said of society as a whole.
Whereas diving, simulation, going down easily and gaining an advantage has been prevalent in domestic football since before most of us were born.
As the Euros approaches we can expect to see a raft of such incidents. They deserve due condemnation certainly, but let’s not put on rose-tinted glasses and delude ourselves that we’ve ever known any different.
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