DEBUT DAY AND I WAS UP AGAINST BERGKAMP
IN January 1995, Graeme Lee was a trainee striker at Hartlepool dreaming of scoring winners at Wembley.
Eight months later, he was a first-team centre-half making his professional debut against Arsenal and Dennis Bergkamp!
Thankfully, the teenager survived his baptism of fire to forge a fine career at the back, winning promotions at Pools, Sheffield Wednesday and Notts County before moving into coaching with hometown club Middlesbrough.
Along the way, he was wowed by Gordon Watson, battered by Kevin Davies and finally did score a big-game winner, albeit at the Millennium Stadium.
Hartlepool. I was a YTS there. I’d always been a centre forward. As a kid, that’s the only position you want to play.
But I had a youth team coach called Billy Horner who put me in defence. I played a couple of games for him and he said ‘Bloody hell, I think we’ve got ourselves a centre-half ’.
That was the end of my first year YTS, and the second year they played me at centre-back from the start of the season. By August, I’d broken into the firstteam squad.
Keith Houchen gave me my debut. My first time on the pitch was against Arsenal at Highbury in a League Cup tie in 1995. They had Dennis Bergkamp and John Hartson up front, Tony Adams and Martin Keown at the back. I remember it well!
I’ve got to say Chris Turner, just for what he did at Hartlepool. When I was coming through, we were always scrapping at the bottom of the Football League.
Chris arrived in 1999, saved us from relegation, then built a team from practically nothing. We got into the play-offs two years running, then went on and won promotion. He took me with him to Sheffield Wednesday as well, so he’s clearly a good judge of a player!
Joking aside, though, that was his great strength. He recruited very well. At Hartlepool, the side he left won promotion under Mike Newell, then got to the League One play-offs the following season.
And, even though results didn’t go well for him at Sheff Wednesday, the players that won promotion to the Championship under Paul Sturrock in 2004 were nearly all signed by Chris.
It’s difficult to choose one. I played with Chris Brunt and Glenn Whelan at Wednesday. They were young lads, only just coming through, but you could tell they had a special talent. They’ve both gone on to enjoy great careers at the highest level.
From a different era, it would be Gordon Watson at Hartlepool. He was in his 30s and almost finished by then, with a lot of serious injuries behind him.
But he’d played in the Premier League for Sheffield Wednesday and Southampton and, in terms of finishing, I’d never seen anyone like him. Any distance, any angle, some of the things he did in training were out of this world. In big games, at big moments, he always stepped up.
The last one is a lad from Norway called Jan Ove Pedersen. He came on loan to Hartlepool for a few games in 1997 and was terrifically talented. I’ve no idea what he was doing there. His touch and passing were top-flight standard and he’d won caps for Norway. What a player.
With Hartlepool to Division Two in 2002-03. It had been coming for a few years. We’d lost to Darlington in the 1999-2000 play-off semi-finals, then Blackpool the season after. The year after thatm we scraped in on goal difference, only to get beaten by Cheltenham on penalties.
We finally did it by finishing runners-up. We were top all season but faded a little bit after Chris left to join Wednesday. That said, Newelly did a great job to get us over the line. He realised he was on to a winner and didn’t change much at all.
My last game for the club was actually a last-day showdown with Rushden & Diamonds, where the winner of the game won the title. We ended up drawing, which meant they won it, but it didn’t really spoil anything. It was a great day and the perfect way to say goodbye.
Oddly enough, we drew them in the LDV Trophy, so my second game for Wednesday was against Hartlepool. I scored too.
Guy Branston is up there. He was always up to something, always really loud and outgoing. He was one of those lads who’d need to ring everyone after a night out to make sure they were still friends with him! Darrell Clarke, the Bristol Rovers manager, is another one. Trigger, his name was. No matter what time you walked into the changing room, no matter whether you’d won or lost, he was constantly carrying on. Laughing, joking and pranks. He never stopped.
You see how well Rovers are doing and I’m sure a big part of their success is down to Darrell’s personality. That video of him singing on the table after promotion – that’s him. Full on, infectious and larger than life.
When Craig Short was manager at Notts County in 2010, we used to have pizzas on the bus after away games.
Lee Hughes had ordered a sauce off the internet. Basically, something so hot that a tiny dot on your tongue would leave you in agony for a good couple of hours.
So, when a pizza box landed on my table with the barbecue sauce already opened, I guessed what had happened and passed it on. Clearly, the other lads realised, too, and this box just got passed on and on.
Next thing we knew the assistant manager was standing up shouting ‘Right, who’s put this
sauce in the gaffer’s box?’ We looked down and Craig had his head in his hands, sweat dripping off him. He didn’t move for about three hours.
Did he take it well? Not really. He came in next day with a rowing machine to punish the culprit, but nobody owned up.
I was fortunate to be involved in three promotions, but scoring the winner for Doncaster Rovers in the 2007 JPT final probably tops the lot. It was in extra-time and make it 3-2. Being captain as well made it all the more special.
Probably the following season. I had a herniated disc in my neck. I came back for a week, did some extra jumping work and ended up fracturing part of my knee.
I eventually missed three quarters of the season through injury, came back half-fit and ended up out on loan. I wasn’t in a good place at all.
I then joined Bradford but never felt comfortable. I was 2829 at the time and should have been enjoying the best years of my career.
But worrying about the injuries took all the joy out of football and I remember thinking ‘If somebody offered me a coaching job, I’d take it today’.
It wasn’t until I joined Notts County in 2009 that the confidence came back and I managed to eke out another four years.
TOUGHEST PLACE TO GO
Bournemouth was always a bogey ground – not to mention it’s also a long way from Hartlepool! Looking back at games there, I always think of them coming at you early doors and putting loads of pressure on. I maybe scraped a couple of draws there –if that.
I was at Donny when we played Bolton in the FA Cup. Sam Allardyce was manager. They were a team of absolute units and you knew they weren’t a normal Premier League team who would come to outplay you. They would come and try to steamroll us off the park – which is exactly what happened.
Kevin Davies was the centre forward, but I always fancied myself in the air, in a battle. But he just had too much.
His touch, his pace, his strength. He was the full package and I didn’t get anything off him. We lost 4-0 and I remember thinking ‘I’m glad I don’t mark him every week’.
FAVOURITE PLACE TO GO
As a home ground, it was Hillsborough. I loved every minute of every game I played there. It was an incredible atmosphere and it still is to this day. Their fans are fantastic.
As an away ground, QPR. I just love the way the crowd are right there on the touchline, on top of you for the full 90 minutes.
I liked nothing more as a player than having opposition fans on your back, giving you pelters and whingeing at the ref. It meant you were doing something right. Looking back over my career, nowhere did that hostile atmosphere better than Loftus Road. I loved upsetting them!
I’m Under-23 coach at Middlesbrough now, but the aim is to be a first-team manager somewhere down the line. Who knows? Maybe the top flight. You have to dream big.
Realistically, that’s a long way off. Opportunities are scarce and I’ll need to drop down a few levels to make my name. But I’ll bide my time and, hopefully, an opportunity will arise.
Toughest opponent: Sam Allardyce Funniest incident: Craig Short Funniest player: Guy Branston Favourite place: Hillsborough
WE’VE DON IT: Graeme Lee scored the winner for Doncaster in the 2007 JPT Final victory over Bristol Rovers