Francis Lee, who has died aged 79, can rightly be regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of Manchester City.
Lee was part of the golden triangle of superstars along with Colin Bell and Mike Summerbee that formed the centrepiece of the legendary City side of the late 1960s and early 1970s under the guidance of manager Joe Mercer and charismatic coach Malcolm Allison.
City collected trophies at home and abroad, Lee doing all this while becoming a highly successful businessman and establishing himself as a mainstay of Sir Alf Ramsey’s post-1966 World Cup-winning England team, playing in the tournament in Mexico four years later.
Lee left City in the summer of 1974 to join Derby County, at a time when it was widely believed his best days were behind him, only for him to enjoy a glorious finale to his playing career when Dave Mackay’s side won the title in his first season at the Baseball Ground.
Man City legend Lee dies aged 79
He never lost his love for Manchester City, returning in 1994 for a four-year spell as chairman and owner of the club and was a regular spectator at Etihad Stadium in the new era of glory under the club’s Abu Dhabi-based owner.
Lee forged a fierce reputation as a cocksure, fearsome forward in his early days at Bolton Wanderers but all the obvious bravado was fully backed up by natural gifts, a knack for goals, a formidable force of personality, and self-confidence that was never far from the surface.
If there was the slightest hint of self-doubt about him, team-mates and opponents alike could never detect it.
Lee made his debut for Bolton as a 16-year-old, scoring 106 goals in 210 games, attracting the attention of all the top-flight clubs.
It was to Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s eternal regret that he ignored his own instincts and listened to the advice from others, not making a move to sign Lee as he left for Manchester City in 1967 in a £60,000 deal – the player showing his single-mindedness in a financial disagreement with Bolton that left him willing to walk away from football rather than be treated, in his words, “like a chattel”.
Across at Old Trafford, Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby was equally regretful at not only failing to sign Lee but then seeing him act as the catalyst for success for their great rivals.
City and Lee were a marriage made in heaven, Mercer and Allison presiding over one of the most colourful and brilliant teams to grace the English game.
With Bell and Summerbee already signed, Mercer described Lee as “the final piece of the jigsaw”. And so it proved.
The First Division title was won in 1967/68, Lee scoring in a dramatic 4-3 win at Newcastle United on the final day of the season to confirm the triumph.
City’s European Cup campaign the following season was a calamity, going out in the first round to Turkish side Fenerbahce and only finishing 13th in the league.
The compensation came as Lee played his part in winning the FA Cup in 1969 as Leicester City were beaten by Neil Young’s single goal at Wembley. City followed this up by claiming their first European trophy in 1970, the Cup Winners’ Cup , with Lee scoring from the penalty spot as Poland’s Gornik Zabrze were beaten in Vienna.
The League Cup was also won that season but a fracture in the relationship between Mercer and Allison stopped a great side in its tracks and, even though Lee maintained his brilliance, the true glory days were over.
Mercer left and things were never the same again, summed up by now manager Allison’s purchase of the brilliant maverick Rodney Marsh from Queen’s Park Rangers, late in the 1971/72 season, which disrupted a side that looked odds-on for another title and saw them fall short.