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The Comedy of Errors

Interview: Jason Lee

4 January 07 interview: Jared Wilson
photos: Jared Wilson

"The Baddiel and Skinner Pineapple thing didn’t kill my career but it had a negative effect"

Jason Lee is one of a rare breed of footballers who is loved on both sides of the Nottingham football divide. He spent three years with Forest in the mid-nineties, making an impressive 76 appearances and becoming nationally renowned, mainly for the abuse he received from Baddiel and Skinner on their Fantasy Football League TV show. Then this summer, the now veteran 36 year old stiker, signed for Notts County. At the time there were a few groans from magpies fans, but they have all been silenced since he started taking out defenders and banging in the goals. It was a great pleasure to meet up with him to chat…

You were appointed club captain of Notts County just after you signed…
I’m really glad. I think I’ve been bestowed that honour because I’m the most senior player at the club. The commercial managers run sponsorship opportunities like meals, restaurants, suits, kit and anything else past me. It’s been my job to tap into that, get the players involved and make everybody happy.

You were going to sign for Notts County in January, but it didn’t quite happen. What was it that swayed you this Summer? Was it the change of management, two year contract?
When I came over I was hopeful of signing in January, I’d made my mind up I was going to leave Boston. Northampton were interested and they were doing really well at the time, but my first choice was Notts. I came and spoke to the people involved at the club, but there were all sorts of problems. For one reason or another it never came off. But I would say for my part I did everything I could to make that deal happen. Sometimes you just can’t force things.
But when one door closes another opens and I ended up going to Northampton and seeing out the season which I really enjoyed. I got promotion with them, so it wasn’t the wrong choice in the end, and then Thommo took over in the summer, and I was the first person he called. I’ve always said I’d play for him again given the opportunity, so it wasn’t really a hard choice when he called me.

Where do you think County will finish this season?
I’m hopeful we’ll finish in the top six and maybe go a step higher than that and finish in the top three.

If you could put any player past or present and put them in the current team, who would you pick and why?
John Barnes is one of my favourite players, always looked up to him, been fortunate enough to meet him a number of times. As an Ambassador for black football too. If we could put him on the left wing, brilliant, I’m sure I’d get twenty dollars. But that’s just a dream, know what I mean?

Are you proud that Notts County were the first football league club to get ‘Kick Racism out of Football’ status?
I wasn’t aware that we were the first one to be honest. If that’s the case, I take my hats off to them. I know clubs are trying to do stuff with politics in that respect and it’s quite a big thing to overcome. You know it’s not as bad as it was years and years ago but its always going to be there and there’ll always be a person who does or says a stupid thing but I don’t think its that bad at the moment and I think clubs are doing the best they can to eradicate it.

What club did you support as a kid?
Arsenal, still do.

Who is the toughest defender you have ever played against?
Gary Pallister when he was at Man Utd. He was a big guy, he was quick and if he wasn’t injured as much as he was I’m sure he’d have played more times for England.

What about the best strike partner you’ve ever been paired up with?
I felt Brian Roy was pretty amazing in the first season he came to Nottingham Forest. He was different gravy. What can I say? He’d just come from the World Cup and he was on fire.

You’ve played for quite a few clubs along the way. Which ones do you still have a real affection for and look out for?
Obviously I watch the Forest results. Being in and around Nottingham I can’t get away from them. I’ve always watched out for the County results before I played for the club too. Most teams I’ve played for I look to see how they’re doing to be honest. I always look to see Watford and Charlton, which was my first club. I take a little bit of interest in Peterborough too as I spent three years there.

What kind of music do you like?
I’m pretty varied really. I’ve got kids and so they keep me in touch with the pop stuff and all that but I’m really more RnB and my first love rap music.

Do you ever listen to any stuff that’s made in Notts?
I do like my urban UK if you wanna call it that, but I do like a lot of the London guys, I’m not familiar with the Nottingham guys to be honest.

What London guys do you like?
I like Kano. For me he’s the top man.

Do you know Sway as well?
Yeah, Sway’s okay but for me Kano, he’s the one. Everyone comes after Kano. You know, back in the day, it was junglist, you know jungle music and when I first came to Notts and left London I was big into that, but Jungle didn’t really reach Nottingham until about a year after. In terms of my music I’ve always been really more into the underground stuff anyway.

What do you have as your pre-match meal?
If it’s a Saturday half past three kickoff I’ll have cereal. Or if it’s an evening game I might well go for a little bit of pasta, beans, toast and chicken.

Who’s the best player you’ve ever played with?
Well, quite a few. Jimmy Bullard, when I was at Peterborough we could see his potential, he did really well and he kept on and obviously he’s premiership now. Young Tommy Smith, he was a striker who was only a youngster when I was at Watford. He’s done quite well for himself I imagine… Gifton Noel-Williams who’s at Burnley. He was only seventeen playing alongside me at Watford. I was impressed with him as for a young lad he showed some maturity.

What do you count as your biggest achievement in football?
My biggest achievement would be still playing today. To stay in the game is not easy, there are all sorts of ups and downs and I think younger players find it difficult to actually have a long term career in the game. Lots of players go out of the game mid 20’s. I’ve been in for donkeys years now, seventeen or eighteen years. If you can stay in the game for that long I think you’ve done well.

What would you say was your lowest moment in the game?
Being injured. I was at Peterborough for a year and I did my patella tendon. I wondered if I’d play again as you do when you have long term injuries. But I looked at Ronaldo’s rehab with the same injury and he did it twice.

What plans have you got for after you finish football?
I’m still undecided, but I’d like to give something back to the game, like stay in coaching or management. You don’t always get the chance to coach or manage. There’s lots of people with qualifications who have just been overlooked or haven’t been able to get a job.

What was it like playing with Stan Collymore at Forest?
Me and Stan got on fine. We were the same age and sat next to each other in the changing rooms. We were both strikers and he was at the top of his game. He did some really good things when he was playing for Forest and got England caps. I thought he was a brilliant striker to be honest.

Who’s the best manager you’ve ever played under?
I’d better say my present one or I’ll be in trouble. I’ve played for Thommo twice so that says it all really, I wouldn’t have signed for him again if I didn’t have the utmost respect for him. I’ve played for Barry Fry twice as well and he’s a lunatic but he’s infectious and he was always good to me. Graham Taylor was something else, very professional and never left a stone unturned. We had a very good season. I found his enthusiasm quite incredible to be honest. I was quite impressed with him. I worked with Peter Taylor a couple of times as well. His coaching sessions are excellent.

What do you think to Nottingham as a city? Is the bad rep deserved?
Well I come from London so I don’t really get it twisted. I’ve left London behind and I know that is a bad place. I see the way Nottingham gets portrayed as the gun capital and all the rest but I’ve got family, you know cousins, nephews live in London and that ain’t no picnic.

I read that then Watford manager Graham Taylor sold you to Chesterfield early in the 98/99 season for quarter of a million because you wouldn’t uproot your family from Notts.
Yeah, there’s some truth, a little bit of truth in that. I had a three year contract and I left after a year. It wasn’t that I wasn’t prepared to move from Nottingham back to London. We did look into moving back, but for one reason or another I didn’t think it would be a great step to take to move back there when I could just commute. Nottingham’s pretty central and I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay in London. I wanted a base and we decided that Nottingham should be it, especially with the kids going to school here and everything.

So have you lived in Nottingham all that time?
Since I signed for Forest. I’ve been in Nottingham twelve years and just commuted to the clubs I’ve played for since.

Where do you like to go out in Nottingham?
I’m not a pub man. I’ll go for a meal, to a club now and again and maybe a few bars. I’ve always thought Notts was a decent town to go out and enjoy yourself. I’ve been happy with the place - otherwise I don’t think we’d have stayed here. We’ve enjoyed our time here, happy to settle here to be honest.

What do you think of football agents?
There’s some good ones and some bad ones. I’ve had agents in the past. I’ve not had one for a few years now and I put that down to being experienced enough to handle my own affairs. I find that if you’re on top of your game, doing the business, an agent can do some stuff for you but if you’re not playing well it comes down to you as a player. An agent is not a miracle worker and they cannot pull rabbits out of a hat. There are some agents out there that are pretty poor at what they do, haven’t got the contacts for whatever reason and some agents will only look after their top stars and will neglect the players that are not really doing well so those are the pitfalls really for players but some players need an agent all the time, that’s the thing.

Have you ever seen evidence of bungs in the game and do you think they go on?
I’d say they have gone on in the past, but it’s become very difficult now for anybody to get away with that. I’m not going to say I’ve seen that or been witness to any of that but I would say in the past it would be easier to do those sorts of thing. Now I can’t imagine anyone even thinking about doing such a stupid thing.

Going back to the racism in football, how do you think we could go about engaging more minority communities in football cos they’re still underrepresented in all the divisions.
I don’t know. I would say the opportunities are there, I believe the opportunities were there over the years. I’ve seen more and more ethnic and other minorities getting into the game. You don’t see many Indian players but there are a few in and around the game now, I mean look at the Asian players, the Chinese and all the rest of it, they seem to have been sorting their way through from other countries over to England. I’d say a lot of foreign players have done well coming over to the country basically and showing the English people that foreign players can be good for English football. But I don’t really think that there’s a problem with ethnic players getting into the game, I think the chances are there for them and the scouts are looking. I would go as far as to say that it might be harder to coach and to manage at the moment, historically there are not many black managers or coaches.

What are the most significant differences between match preparation and training now compared to when you started out?
I would say now everyone is more professional - everything filters down from the premier league you know. Training techniques always change - there’s always a new theory, and there’s always the odd change in diets and the rest of it but players are more educated now to look after themselves away from the ground, if you know what I mean. You’re only at football for what two hours a day or something so you can’t rely on your coaches and all that to take care of you so you get educated, you get told what to eat, what to drink, how much to eat, how much to drink and you know not get carried away with the alcohol and stuff that you know is not going to be beneficial…so, players know what to do, that’s changed over the years and I would say players are more educated now and I would say we’re fitter now as well. I would say I’m fitter now than I was probably ten years ago and that’s due to the things you learn and you learn what’s good and bad for your body after a while as well.

I’ve read that you don’t really like being asked about this but I want to ask you about the Baddiel and Skinner thing.
Okay. It’s not that I don’t like being asked about it, it’s just if you can imagine how many times I’ve been asked about it. But i’m never going to get away from it so fire away…

I was just going to ask really what your thoughts on it are now. I’ve read in previous interviews you thought it had a really bad effect on your career…
Well I don’t know…I’m not going to say I was misquoted. It didn’t kill my career but it had a negative effect. I know the way the media work and if I wasn’t doing well before Baddiel and Skinner there was no way I would have been highlighted anywhere. I was actually playing quite well and doing really well in the Premiership where I scored 6 in 6 games. I mean that’s decent for any striker in that division and I was always going to be recognised for my distinctive hairstyle. Then they with it and I was on every week and it coincided with some bad form. You can imagine bad form and TV programmes don’t go… so I think it put the manager was under a pressure to take me out of the side. As a player you tend to handle most things you know what I mean? I personally could handle anything that was thrown at me, because before that if it wasn’t my hairstyle it would’ve been something else - there was always going to be criticism from somebody whether it’d be racial or whatever so I could handle it. The most difficult part for me would be my family and friends who always would try to jump to my defence. If you can imagine if you have family and friends watching the game and they see someone close to them being attacked. They tend to get upset and angry and all the rest of it. But I watched every programme… there wasn’t one that I missed. It became pretty predictable for me, I knew if I missed a chance I’d be on the show. I watched it every Friday with my team mates. But I’d like to think taking that out I’ve still managed to do some stuff with my career which will be remembered i.e. I’ve got four promotions, I’ve played more than 500 games, I’ve scored more than 100 goals so taking that aside I’ve still done what I should have been doing which is playing football to a decent standard.

Have you ever met either Baddiel or Skinner?
No but obviously I know which teams they support. I was invited on their shows a number of times which I declined. At the time when I was getting hammered I went to Chelsea with Forest, scored, which as you can imagine was brilliant because I know Baddiel was in the stand. As a player you can always spin it if you score, you can have the last laugh so in that respect I enjoyed that.


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