I recall a few things from my first-ever away trip with the Imps. I know it was January 30th, 1993 as I’ve just looked it up.
It was away at York City and we went there on the back of three wins in four, a run that saw us bag nine goals. I’m not sure why that became my first-ever away trip, whether Mum was working and Dad had got lumbered with me, or perhaps he was fired up enough from taking us to watch City beat Carlisle 2-1 in midweek, but whatever it was we went.
I recall vividly Dad encouraging me to half-suck Polo mints and then throw them at his boss, a man he called ‘Doosie’ stood several rows in front of us. I remember the poignant image of the David Longhurst Stand, recalling the day he passed away on the field against us. I remember having to run for my life after the game as a group of York fans, aggrieved at our supporters singing songs about miners, chased us. They didn’t realise the little ginger 14-year-old with all the street smarts of a three-legged blind kitten, wasn’t really up for a fight.
I also remember one Jason Benedict Lee going one on one with their keeper, drawing his foot back to shoot and realising he’d left the ball ten feet behind him, prompting my line to my father; ‘But he hasn’t got the ball, Dad’. That’s how I remember Jason Lee.
The official club site has today celebrated his debut back in 1991, mentioning how he played 106 times and scoring 22 goals for the club. One in four isn’t terrible by any stretch and what he went on to achieve is noteworthy too. He earned himself a decent move from the Imps to Southend United for £150,000 in September 1993. He later appeared in the Premier League for Nottingham Forest, rather cruelly becoming known more for his hairstyle than his ability, before featuring for the likes of Watford, Chesterfield, Peterborough United, Boston United, Northampton Town and Notts County.
Whilst at County and Boston he was a familiar sight playing against us, all elbows and often with a goal or two. If memory serves, without checking, I think he nodded home a Paul Gascoigne cross in a 2-2 draw we shared with the Pilgrims back in Keith’s days. He even came back to work for the club, albeit briefly, as a matchday host in what might have been seen as an early embryo of the Former Players Association.
What moved me to write a little bit here was some of the responses under the tweet the club put out, which I’ll repeat here for you:
Quality player ?
— Dan Norton (@Dlnorton150879) March 2, 2020
OH E JASON LEE
— SteveNEZZY® (@NEZZY80) March 2, 2020
Great player on his day. Got some good ?for him too. Obviously pre ?
— Andy (@sincilbank) March 2, 2020
The reason they are of interest to me is that I don’t recall Jason like that, not at all. I remember the lumbering forward with no real instinct away at York. I remember barren spells such as the two he scored in 13 games after the York fixture, or the six in 33 he bagged the season before. I remember what I was told as much as anything back then, my Dad never really taking to him and telling me what a terrible player he was. The shock in our household was almost physical when we got a six-figure sum from Southend for him, with both my Dad and I surprised it wasn’t for Peter Costello, someone referred to as a ‘proper footballer’ round our way (seven in 22 that season, but injury-hit otherwise). He could have been a top player if injuries had not cut him down (in our opinion at the time), but Lee? He’ll never do anything.
Of course, history proved me wrong and with hindsight perhaps our family were very unfair on Jason Lee. Looking at him now, he’d be perfect in this division, maybe even as our number nine. He was a big unit, never afraid to do battle and if the right player had played off him, maybe we could have been more successful. In the 1992/93 season he netted 12 in 36 league matches, whilst playing off him Peter Costello begged seven in 22 and Neil Matthews (another underrated player) hit 11 in 21. That’s 30 goals from 79 outings, just over a goal every other game from a strikeforce. He can’t have been that bad, scoring and providing, right?
In that season we finished eighth, level on points with Bury who went into the play-offs, winning just two of our final nine matches. I suppose we could talk about what might have been; Steve Thompson left his job as manager at the end of the campaign and Lee didn’t play again. Neil Matthews got seven in 31 the next season, Peter Costello started just six more games.
I suppose this is almost an apology to Jason Lee for being a short-sighted youngster back in the day, clouded by the one horrible moment at York (and probably a few others as well, given that Danny Nez mentions how important toughened glass was in the hospitality area). Clearly, Lee had plenty to offer a side playing football a certain way and his long and varied career is a testament to his professionalism and his condition. There are likely a lot of 50-something defenders out there with misshapen noses thanks to Mr Lee.
It’s also worth bearing in mind, particularly for our younger supporters, when talking about the likes of Jason Shackell in such derogatory terms. It is easy to forget the positive things a player did during his time at the club when a certain memory (such as an own goal) sticks in your mind. I’ve seen lots of reports about Shackell scoring an own goal and conceding a penalty against Accrington, but not much mentioning the penalty was missed and he scored at the other end as well. Perception is an interesting thing and I confess I don’t get it right all the time. Few do.
Lee’s career also serves as a lesson in ‘banter’, given the ridicule he suffered as a result of Baddiel and Skinner’s Fantasy Football League. I loved that show, but looking back at their blackfacing and comments about his haircut, it was the sort of entertainment that would never pass now. Lee has claimed it never affected his career, but time has served to prove that the entertainers were out of order. With the focus on mental health and how players are affected by situations and comments, it’s a surprise Lee managed to have the career he did after being stigmatised for nothing other than the style of his hair.
“They were very defensive about it,” Lee said of the impact the ‘banter’ had on his family. “There would be racial stuff. In the end, I would tell them not to come. It can’t be nice, supporting your child or partner and seeing him get so much abuse.”
“I’d ask them if they realised the significance of what they were doing,” he said, having never actually met either man. “It was, looking back, a form of bullying. I work in equalities now, and it can affect different people in different ways. I don’t think people appreciate the possible harm it can cause. Not everyone has the make-up to deal with that, and they shouldn’t have to.”
Jason Lee, a player we hated playing against, a player with a decent scoring record for us and yet someone who is likely to always be remembered, by me at least, for one embarrassing moment away at York City in 1993.