David Lee was good enough to play 150 league games for Chelsea in the 1980s and 1990s – but was only worth one game for Matt Nation's Sunday league side
It was unclear what exactly Bob Lee said or did to his kid brother in the car park before the match, but it certainly did the trick. After a couple of minutes of Chinese burns, dead legs and threats to tell Mum exactly what was in those magazines on top of the wardrobe, little David came back and agreed that, although he’d only come along to watch and even though he’d just broken into the Chelsea first team, he would deign to make up the numbers for his brother’s Sunday league team after all.
It is pretty certain that Chelsea wouldn’t have approved of one of their assets messing about in a match that they probably couldn’t imagine ever taking place. The pitch was frozen solid and sloped so sharply from side to side that local youths relieved their boredom by pushing supermarket trolleys off it. To a man, the opposition looked like the sort of person who wouldn’t let themselves into their own night club just so they could have an excuse to beat themselves up. If you can imagine Queen Victoria being hauled out of her palace and being forced up a chimney for a 12-hour shift, then that’s how Our Kid must have been feeling.
However, despite his selflessness, there was no skirting around the fact that David Lee’s contribution was minimal. If he hadn’t carried himself a lot better than anybody else on the pitch (and as his running style always made him look though he was still doing thigh-stretching exercises in the pre-match warm-up, it’s not difficult to picture what the rest of us looked like), he wouldn’t have stood out at all. While his team-mates threw themselves about on ruts jagged enough to sink an aircraft carrier, he hung around on the top touchline, with his hands down the front of his shorts to protect them from the wind. None of the spectators on the touchline offered him a cup of soup from their flasks, but he would definitely have accepted it if they had. He never went in for a tackle and, at one point, almost blew his cover by raising his hands and drawing his stomach in to let an opponent past, a movement often seen in professional matches but, to date, never witnessed in an amateur game anywhere ever.
The only thing of note to come from him was an inch-perfect – no, make that an acre-perfect – pass that led to what turned out to be our team’s winning goal. Of course, this was greeted by those spectators who were in on the secret by the type of cooing and gurgling normally heard in residential homes when the fairy cakes appear on a Sunday afternoon. The goalscorer, the opposition player who had given him the ball and the divot that had deflected the pass into the centre-forward’s path were ignored.
The moment of truth arrived at the end of the game. Professional footballers are cushioned by contracts extending over several years, but amateur football is slightly more ephemeral. If the new boy is deemed good enough, he gets asked back; if he isn’t, he doesn’t. David Lee didn’t get asked back. The following week, with our regular right-half restored to the team, we scored five goals against better opposition in worse conditions. David Lee went back to London, to a world of flat pitches, standard-issue mittens to prevent chapping and a ten-year career alongside European superstars.
Yet he’ll still have at least one reason to look back on his amateur career with a wry smile: if he put his pound coin in the subs box on that Sunday morning, then he must have done it when nobody else was looking.
From WSC 193 March 2003. What was happening this month