Francis Lee, striker for Manchester City, Derby County and England who became a successful businessman – obituary

Francis Lee pictured in 1972
Francis Lee pictured in 1972 - Peter Robinson/Empics Sports Photo Agency

Francis Lee, who has died aged 79, was a barrel-chested striker with Manchester City and Derby County who also played 27 times for England; he will also be remembered for his involvement in one of the most spectacular sendings-off in football.

Lee was playing for Derby in a home match against Leeds United in November 1975 when he and the visitors’ hard man Norman Hunter were sent off for fighting. Lee suffered a cut lip that would require four stitches, and on the way to the dressing room he attacked Hunter again and was later suspended for four weeks. “It’s a good job I didn’t get in the dressing room afterwards,” he said later. “I might have just been coming out on parole now.”

Lee in action for Manchester City in 1972
Lee in action for Manchester City in 1972 - Peter Robinson/PA

The altercation on the pitch began when Hunter claimed that Lee had “dived” in a bid to win a penalty. And Lee did have a reputation: journalists referred to him as “Lee Won Pen”.

Born on April 29 1944 at Westhoughton, then just a short electric tram ride to Bolton, Francis Lee signed for Bolton Wanderers, making his Football League debut as a 16-year-old amateur in November 1960 after playing only eight times for the reserves.

Lee takes on the Liverpool defence at Anfield in 1968
Lee takes on the Liverpool defence at Anfield in 1968 - Mirrorpix

It was a memorable start. Lee partnered the great Nat Lofthouse – the “Lion of Vienna” was then 35 – on the right wing and scored a goal in a 3-1 victory over Manchester City at Burnden Park. He was also booked for foul play.

In May 1961 he became a full-time professional, but soon caused problems when he refused to play for Bolton’s third team after being dropped from the reserves. That difficulty was smoothed over, but over the next seven years he made a series of transfer requests that drew the interest of leading clubs keen to take on a goalscoring winger who also had a reputation as one of the game’s most reliable penalty takers.

In September 1967 Manchester City won the race to sign Lee (who by then had scored 106 goals in only 210 appearances for Bolton), securing him for a transfer fee of £60,000. City’s manager, Joe Mercer, described the transaction as “the final piece of my jigsaw”.

Lee, then 23, became an instant favourite with City’s fans, and one of the major successes in a team that saw their club through what was then the greatest era in its history. Mercer took him off the wing to spearhead the attack, and Lee responded with 143 goals in 321 appearances as City won the League Championship, the FA Cup, League Cup and the European Cup-winners’ Cup (the last thanks to a Lee penalty in the final against Gornik Zabrze. His prowess as a penalty-taker continued, and in the 1971-72 season alone he scored a record 15 goals from the spot.

Before that, in 1970, he had gone to the World Cup with England as they reached the quarter-finals, only to lose to West Germany.

In August 1974, Derby’s manager Dave Mackay – who had taken over in difficult circumstances following Brian Clough’s controversial departure from the Baseball Ground – made one of the best signings of his managerial career when he bought Lee for £110,000. At Derby, Lee won another League title and added another 24 League goals, bringing his career total to 229. He signed off in the most spectacular fashion, scoring twice in the final two minutes of his 500th and final League game, at Portman Road, Ipswich, in April 1976.

Lee in 2012
Lee in 2012 - Paul Cousans

By then Lee was already a wealthy businessman. As a teenager with Bolton Wanderers he had supplemented his football earnings by driving an old brewery lorry to collect waste paper. Later he spotted a market for soft toilet tissue and ploughed his earnings from football into his business, FH Lee, which once employed the comedian Peter Kay.

In 1984 Lee sold the company for £8.35 million, and became a racehorse trainer. In 2001 he changed course again to pursue his interest in industrial property.

In 1994 Lee had returned to Maine Road as chairman of Manchester City after purchasing £3 million worth of shares. On taking control, Lee promised: “This will be the happiest club in the land. The players will be the best paid and we’ll drink plenty of champagne, celebrate and sing until we’re hoarse.”

Alas, it did not work out that way. In 1995 Lee appointed his friend Alan Ball, one of England’s 1966 World Cup winners, as Manchester City’s new manager, but the club was relegated that season. Lee replaced Ball with Steve Coppell (one of five City managers in 1996-97), but the former Manchester United and England player lasted only 33 days in the job before walking out, citing “pressure” as the reason.

Lee could barely disguise his annoyance: “There is pressure in managing anything, but that sort of pressure doesn’t come along in three or four weeks.”

In 1998, with City on the brink of another relegation, this time to the third tier of English football, Lee himself stepped down. After leaving the board he retained his shareholding until selling it to a former prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, in 2007.

Lee, who was appointed CBE in 2016, is survived by his wife Gill and their three children.

Francis Lee, born April 29 1944, died October 2 2023