Without question, Francis Lee was one of the most naturally gifted strikers in English football throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was a player with a low centre of gravity and his jinking turns and deadly strikes in front of goal made him a defender’s nightmare during this period. Lee always was surging at the heart of an opposition defence and unleashing powerful shots.
Instantly recognisable and impossible to ignore, Lee was one of those players who was either loved or hated. A short and stocky player, Lee combined power, pace and unflinching bravery to become one of the countries leading forwards for nearly a decade. Never unduly complicated he was undeniably effective.
Born in Bolton, Lancashire, Franny started his career with his local side Bolton Wanderers. Before the age of 16, he made his first team debut for Bolton and his talent was evident even at that early stage in his career.
By 1964, and despite his obvious talent and enthusiasm, Bolton were a club in decline and suffered relegation from the top flight. Lee remained loyal and continued to torture sides in the Division with his darting runs, ever rapid appearance and deadly strikes in front of goal.
Eventually becoming tired of Bolton’s lack of ambition in 1967 after three seasons of almost single handed beating sides on his own, Lee handed in a transfer request which lit up the eyes of many footballing managers of the time.
With the application submitted, the Wanderers’ board refused his demand, but the determined Lee would not budge. After weeks of talks, the board opted to let him go, and he moved to Manchester City for a fee of £60,000.
City had had a miserable spell over the previous fifteen years, spending three years in the Second Division. But optimism remained high, and under the leadership of Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison, they were assembling a young, exciting team including Mike Summerbee, Neil Young, Colin Bell and Tony Book.
Lee made his Manchester City debut in a 2–0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers at Maine Road, and scored his first Manchester City goal the following week at Fulham.
In his first season at the club, he scored 16 League goals in 31 appearances, playing a crucial role in City’s push for the 1967–68 League Championship. Joe Mercer described him as “the final piece of the jigsaw”.
At the end of his first season at Maine Road, City were crowned league champions for the first time in 31 years, dramatically edging out neighbours Manchester United during the last couple of weeks of the season. The title was decided on the final day of the season with City requiring a win at Newcastle United. City won the match 4–3 with Lee scoring one of the goals and were crowned champions.
The following season Lee was part of the City team which won the FA Cup.
In the 1969–70 season Lee was Manchester City’s top scorer, an achievement he would subsequently match in each of the next four seasons. His tally that season included one of the most important goals of his career, a penalty in the final of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup.
He won his first England cap in 1968 and went to the World Cup in 1970 as part of the nation’s side that was aiming to try to retain the crown they had won only four years previously and was the first English player ever to receive a card in a World Cup. Despite a decent goal-scoring record for his country (ten goals in twenty-seven appearances) the World Cup in Mexico was largely the highlight of his international career.
In the 1971–72 season Lee set a British record for the number of penalties scored in a season – fifteen of his thirty-five goals. This is a record that still stands to this day. Some journalists, holding the opinion that Lee gained many penalties by diving, used the name ‘Lee Won Pen’.
Lee was upset at Manchester City’s eventual decision to cash in on him with a transfer to Derby County, and in December marked his return to his City by scoring the winning goal against them.
Derby County paid £100,000 to take the striker to the Baseball Ground in 1974, and a rejuvenated Lee proved a sound investment. Just as at City seven years earlier, Lee helped his new club to the league title in his first season. He was again phenomenal in front of goal and led Derby to their second League title giving him the second championship medal of his career.
Retirement in 1976 ended the career of one of the most formidable strikers in the game.
Francis Lee is rightly proud of his achievements which includes the record for the most goals in Manchester derbies, scoring 10 in all against United – a tally that equalled Joe Hayes’ record.