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Francis Lee obituary

The footballer Francis Lee, who has died aged 79, was a prolific striker who won the First Division title with Manchester City in 1968 and then did the same with Derby County in 1975. Up front in various positions for England he was also a highly effective operator, including at the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico, where he appeared in celebrated matches against Brazil and West Germany.

Short and stocky, golden-haired, self-confident and tenacious, Lee also won the FA Cup, the League Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup during a glorious period with City, for whom he was the leading goal scorer across five seasons, partly thanks to his great ability at winning and taking penalties. For England he scored 10 goals in 27 appearances between 1968 and 1972.

Once he left football Lee became a successful businessman, and in 1994 used his money to take control of City as its chairman during a time when the team was foundering. Although his arrival was warmly welcomed by the fans, he failed to deliver any significant improvement and stepped down after four years, although he kept his substantial shareholding for more than a decade and continued to be well loved at the club, where he is still regarded as one of its best ever players.

Born in Westhoughton, near Bolton, Lancashire (now Greater Manchester), Lee went to Westhoughton secondary modern school and Horwich Technical College. With the encouragement of his father, a manager in a cotton mill, he left it to sign for the nearest First Division football club, Bolton Wanderers, where he played upfront with Nat Lofthouse and scored on his debut in 1960.

Francis Lee in 1971. He was short and stocky, golden-haired, self-confident and tenacious.Francis Lee in 1971. He was short and stocky, golden-haired, self-confident and tenacious. Photograph: PA

He was Bolton’s top scorer in 1962-63 and 1963-64, and then again, after the club were relegated to the Second Division, in 1965-66 and 1966-67, by which time he was agitating for a transfer. To do so quite openly was a controversial course of action in those more subservient days, but Lee’s wish was granted in the summer of 1967, when he moved for a club record £60,000 to City, having scored 106 goals in 210 appearances.

At Maine Road the City manager, Joe Mercer, who had built a formidable team featuring Tony Book, Mike Summerbee and Colin Bell, described Lee as his “final piece of the puzzle” – an assessment that could hardly be denied as his new signing went on to register 16 league goals in 31 appearances as City won the title in his first season there, sealing it with a thrilling 4-3 away win against Newcastle in which he scored. It was only City’s second top-flight win, their first having come way back in 1937.

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The following year Lee figured prominently in City’s run to the 1969 FA Cup final against Leicester, which they won 1-0, and in 1970 the Guardian described him as “indefatigable and nigh irresistible” in the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup versus the Polish side Górnik Zabrze, which ended in a 2-1 victory thanks to a decisive Lee penalty in the 43rd minute.

The same scoreline against West Bromwich Albion also delivered a League Cup winners’ medal that year, before he moved on to Mexico in the summer for the World Cup finals.

Francis Lee: a life in picturesRead more

England, the reigning world champions, were considered to be an even better team than the 1966 winners, thanks partly to the addition of Lee. He played up front with Bobby Charlton, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst in the opening 1-0 win against Romania, and again in the same combination against Brazil in a brilliant match that was lost 1-0. After being rested for the final group game against Czechoslovakia he returned for the dramatic quarter-final against West Germany, which England contrived to lose 3-2 in extra time after having had the tie in the bag at 2-0 up after 49 minutes.

Usually phlegmatic in defeat, Lee took that result harder than any other in his career. “Normally for me, after a game, by the time I got back in the dressing room it was all forgotten,” he said. “There would be lads around me moping and I’d say to them: shut up, you had your chance, it’s gone, move on. Nothing hung around me long. But by Christ that has.”

Having made his England debut under Alf Ramsey against Bulgaria in 1968, Lee had quickly become a mainstay of the team, but within two years of the 1970 finals he had fallen out of favour, and in 1972 he played his last international at the age of 28.

By that time City, no longer with Mercer, were beginning a long slide into mediocrity, and in 1974 Lee was sold against his wishes for £110,000 to Derby County, having scored 148 goals in 330 appearances. He was initially displeased with the move, but Derby had finished third in the First Division the previous year and under the manager Dave Mackay they won the title in 1974-75 as Lee, Kevin Hector and Roger Davies proved to be a formidable frontline combination.

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Alf Ramsey, right, leaving the field with Colin Bell, left, and Francis Lee after the quarter-final match against West Germany at the 1970 World Cup.Alf Ramsey, right, leaving the field with Colin Bell, left, and Francis Lee after the quarter-final match against West Germany at the 1970 World Cup. Photograph: John Varley/Offside

The following year, as Derby finished fourth, Lee’s most talked-about contribution was a ferocious televised brawl with Norman Hunter in a match against Leeds, sparked by the not-uncommon contention that Lee had won a penalty with a dive.

A subsequent off-the-ball confrontation ended with Hunter punching him to the floor and the two players being sent off – after which Lee, presumably reasoning that he had nothing much to lose, re-engaged with his opponent and knocked him to the ground in retaliation. Condemned in official quarters, the fight nonetheless went down among ordinary fans as one of the most exciting in English footballing history.

Lee ended his career at Derby in 1976, having made more than 60 league appearances for the club, and went on almost immediately to success in business with a toilet roll manufacturing company that won major contracts supplying supermarkets around the country. He sold up for more than £8m in 1984, after which he became a racehorse trainer at Little Stanneylands stud farm in Cheshire, saddling 149 winners on the flat and 32 over the jumps over a 13-year period up to 1997. He then concentrated on making money through property deals.

Francis Lee at his home in Cheshire in 2017.Francis Lee at his home in Cheshire in 2017. Photograph: Phil Tragen/Alamy

His chairmanship of City had begun with a flurry of optimism in 1994 when he bought £3m of shares from the previous owner, Peter Swales, pledging to restore the club to former glories. However, his appointment of his former England team-mate Alan Ball as manager in 1995 failed to work out, and with the team teetering on the brink of the third tier in 1998 he stepped aside to be succeeded by David Bernstein, selling his shares nine years later to the controversial former prime minster of Thailand Thaksin Shinawatra.

Despite his lack of success as an owner of the club, Lee’s disarming honesty, self-deprecating sense of humour and patent love for Manchester City ensured that he remained a popular figure there, and was able to share happily in its recent triumphs under a different regime.

He is survived by his wife, Gill, and their children, Charlotte, Jonny and Nik.

Francis Henry Lee, footballer and businessman, born 29 April 1944; died 2 October 2023