Gordon Who?

When Newcastle appointed Joe Harvey’s successor as manager in 1975, Malcolm Macdonald commented “Gordon who?”. Bt the time he left St James’ Park 18 months later, we all knew the answer to that one.

In truth Supermac should have known the answer to his own question. Gordon Lee wasn’t entirely unknown having guided Port Vale to promotion from the 4th Division to the 3rd in 1970 after two years in charge and then taking Blackburn Rovers to the 3rd Division title in 1975 after just one season in charge. He was seen as a ‘modern’ manager in contrast to Smokin’ Joe Harvey, who by 1975 was seen by the Newcastle Board as tired and outdated. Most supporters probably agreed with the assessment that Joe’s time was coming to an end but were hoping to see Brian Clough or Laurie McMenemy appointed. It was all a bit underwhelming.

When Lee came in he was quoted as saying “As the manager I have a duty to give them sweat, to give the blood and, to be quite honest, I would die for the club I worked for”.

His sides were known for their organisation and hard work, rather than individual flair and it was this approach which was to cause all sorts of grief on Tyneside. He made it clear that the team came first and he wasn’t that keen on superstars or enigmatic geniuses. A public war of words with our superstar centre-forward followed which did no one any good. SuperMac made his point on the pitch, scoring 24 goals in 53 games in Lee’s first season in charge. However, he was outscored by John Tudor’s replacement, Alan Gowling, who scored 30 in 57 which weakened his case somewhat.

Was it Lee or the Directors who saw this as an ideal  opportunity to cash in on their star centre-forward?

Certainly there were some in the corridors of power at St James’ who thought SuperMac had a dodgy knee and selling him might help pay for the new East Stand which had been finished in 1973 but the club were still paying for. In any event, supporters blamed Lee for SuperMac’s departure rather than the men upstairs and his own departure to Everton in January 1977 was not mourned by many.

But was this fair? In his first season in charge he’d taken the club back to Wembley after a thrilling League Cup run which included a memorable semi-final second leg victory over a Spurs team which included the likes of Pat Jennings (who’d been brilliant in the first leg), Martin Chivers and Ralph Coates. They also turned in a decent performance against Man City in the final despite losing key players to illness and injury, restoring some pride after the 1974 FA Cup Final debacle v Liverpool. By the time he left his methods were also beginning to bear fruit in the league, even after the departure of SuperMac.

United were 3rd in the League by December, just two points behind leaders Liverpool, and Lee’s bunch of ‘no-stars’ were flourishing. Lee had moved Mickey Burns (who, famously, was everywhere) from the wing to play central striker alongside Gowling while young players such as Paul Cannell, Alan Kennedy, Aiden McCaffery and Irving Nattrass were showing great promise for the future. After taking United to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup in 1976, we’d been drawn at home to our League Cup conquerors in the FA Cup 4th round the following season, an ideal opportunity to exact some revenge.

However, rumours abounded in the days before the game that Lee was for the off to Everton for a lucrative £20,000 a year contract and the chance to return where his family were still living.

The rumours seemed to have an impact on the team, who collapsed to a disappointing 3-1 defeat. Within an hour of the full-time whistle he was on his way to Merseyside. The nature of his departure also did massive damage to his reputation in Tyneside.

At Everton he took them to a League Cup Final, two FA Cup semi-finals and finished in the top four twice. He also brought in a number of young players, such as Kevin Ratcliffe and Graeme Sharp, who would provide the backbone of the side which challenged for honours in the mid-eighties.

After Lee left, first-team coach Richard Dinnis was appointed manager after representations by influential first team players such as Geoff Nulty and Alan Gowling. It worked for the rest of the season as we finished 5th, our highest position since 1951, qualifying for the UEFA Cup by basically following the model instilled by Lee. The next season, unfortunately, the wheels came off and United had their worst ever season in the top division finishing with second bottom with only 22 points (2 points for a win) in 42 games. It would take seven years and the arrival of Kevin Keegan to get us back to the top fight.

Supporters, of course, were adamant that this would never have happened if SuperMac hadn’t been sold and that is probably correct (although it should be remembered that Malcolm only played for another three seasons).

Perhaps, however, they should have been asking what would have happened if Gordon Lee had stayed. In his brief period in charge he had taken United to our only League Cup Final and the quarter-finals of the FA Cup in 1976, playing attractive goal-scoring football.

At the time of his departure in January 1977 he had the club genuinely challenging for the title for the first time since the days of Milburn and Mitchell, having successfully negotiated the problem of coping with the departure of his star centre-forward despite being given very little of the proceeds to strengthen the team.

Gordon Lee’s record before and after his spell at Newcastle United is evidence he was a talented manager. He actually oversaw a brief period of relative success at St James’ Park in the league and both cups.  His mistake was to try to take on one of the most popular players ever to play in the Black & White stripes. It was a fight he was never going to win.

Gordon Francis Lee was born on 13 July 1934 and died on 8 March 2022 at the age of 87.

WALLACE WILSON – @WallaceHWilson