RONALDO WAS IN MY WAY!
He scored on his debut for United but Kieran Lee had a problem...
TAKING on Cristiano Ronaldo for a place in the team at Manchester United was never likely to end well for Kieran Lee.
He left Old Trafford shortly before his 20th birthday, but the Sheffield Wednesday player acknowledges how training with a superstar will hold him in good stead for tonight’s Capital One Cup quarter-final against Stoke.
‘Everyone could see straight away what Ronaldo had, but the work he put into his game was something we’d never seen before,’ says Lee, who scored on his first-team debut for United in a League Cup tie aged 18 and is now just two rounds from what would be a first major cup final at Wembley.
‘When training finished at United, we’d all go inside to have food. After that, the young lads would go back out and do our jobs like collecting the balls. Ronaldo would still be out there on his own doing skills.
‘He’d stay out to be the best. And he became the best. Not me, I was waiting to go home! But he left an impression on me, that work ethic. I’ve never seen anyone like him, before or since.’
Lee played three first-team games for United, scoring in the League Cup against Crewe in 2006 before featuring in an embarrassing defeat in the next round at Southend.
Ferguson’s squad at Roots Hall included Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Ryan Shawcross, who would have captained Stoke tonight but picked up a red card against Sunderland at the weekend.
With Ronaldo blocking his path on the right-hand side of midfield, the long-term prospects looked bleak for Lee. A loan spell at QPR was unsuccessful largely because the Stalybridge- born youngster was homesick. There were also concerns he wasn’t vocal enough on the pitch. ‘The reserveteam manager Brian McClair was a big one for that. I’m just a laidback person,’ recalls Lee.
When he and Sir Alex Ferguson decided it was right for him to leave, he chose Oldham Athletic in order to stay in the North-West, even though it was a culture shock in other ways.
‘At United, we had people to clean our boots, hang up our kit. You’d leave it on the side after training and it would be sorted for you. It had a nice canteen,’ he said. ‘I thought that was normal. On the first day at Oldham, I found out you had to clean your own boots. We’d drive up to the local shop after training to buy a sandwich. That was lunch.
‘But being with my family and friends was a big reason for me to go there. I’ve got five brothers and my parents were foster carers, so we’d often have other children around. I’m used to company. Going to QPR and being on my own in an apartment was tough.’
He moved to Sheffield Wednesday three years ago and is beginning to fulfil the potential that made United sign him aged 12. He scored in Wednesday’s opening Capital One Cup tie against Mansfield and starred in the 3-0 victory against Arsenal in the last round. He’s now a midfield creator, the position he fancied when starting out.
‘We got a boost when we saw the Arsenal line-up in the dressingroom,’ he admits. ‘When I saw it was (Mathieu) Flamini and a young boy (Glen) Kamara in midfield I knew it gave us a better chance. The scoreline didn’t flatter us.’
Stoke will be at full strength and a different proposition. ‘They’ll fancy their chances but we go there fairly confident of pulling off a shock,’ said Lee.
He may not have ended up starring in a movie about his own life, like Ronaldo, but Lee hasn’t given up on a Premier League return.
He still lives close to his family in Stalybridge and his parents will be in the crowd at The Britannia. Whatever the result, when he returns home to his girlfriend, he’ll also be greeted by pet dog Ronnie.
‘No, he’s not named after Ronaldo,’ he smiles. ‘When we first got him we were watching snooker and Ronnie O’Sullivan was playing!’
My dog Ronnie is named after O’Sullivan, not Cristiano
PICTURE: IAN HODGSON
Promising: Lee (left) scores his only United goal against Crewe in 2006