A versatile and talented young Tottenham Hotspur youth prospect who liked to play as a ball playing midfielder, and who liked to play a forward pass, David Lee was at Spurs during the 1990’s and early 2000’s. The skilful former footballer progressed up the various youth ranks at the Lilywhites before moving up to the reserves and eventually departing the club in 2000, after not seeing a route for himself into the first team. Lee would move to Southend United where he made over 40 competitive appearances before later playing for the likes of Hull City, Brighton & Hove Albion, Bristol Rovers and Canvey Island. I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing David who now works as a football agent, about his time at Spurs.
What are your earliest footballing memories?
David: I would say that cubs football was probably my first memory and then my dad who was an ice cream man, and I used to go with him in his ice cream van and do his round with him. One of the dads bought an ice cream one day and said that I’m taking my boy training, does your boy want to come as he said that he was starting a team up. So my dad said yeah he’ll come along and so I went along and started and then my dad and that guy formed a Sunday team, and about five or six of us signed for Spurs actually as scholars. There was about nine of us at the time at about 15/16 and then about five or six of us got scholarships at the club.
What are your earliest memories of your time at Spurs and how did you come about joining the club?
David: I think I was about an under 10/11 and there was a scout called Lenny Cheesewright and so Lenny asked my dad if I could go down and train and stuff. So he said be at White Hart Lane on Monday at six o’clock, and then we turned up their at ten to six and there was no one around and we couldn’t find anyone. So my dad was like we must have got it wrong let’s get back in the car and go home, and so we got back in the car and drove back out the gates at White Hart Lane and Lenny was walking in and he said where are you going? So my dad said well there’s no one around but Lenny said that you’ve got to go around the back as there’s an AstroTurf at the school, I think it was Northumberland Park School. And so he said that all the boys were training round there, so get yourself round there and join in, and so it sort of went from there really.
What was your time at the Lilywhites like on the whole?
David: Yeah it was really good but I think that I was too eager to leave as I got to a stage where I thought that George Graham was manager, and I’m definitely not his type of player. Perhaps I need to go, so I went and saw David Pleat when I had about a year and a half left on my contract and I went and saw him and I just said look I don’t ever see myself playing for Spurs, so I think it’s time for me to move on. He said if that’s what you want to do then we’ll finish your contract and you can go and train elsewhere. So that’s what I done in the end and then I think Glenn Hoddle came in a few months later and I thought I wish I would have stayed because I think that I was the type of player that (I’m not saying that I would have been good enough to play for Spurs) I think would have trained with the first team a bit more, and been a bit more involved. I would have maybe improved as a player and sort of had a better start you know, rather than having to drop down three/four levels and start again. A lot of the lads that stayed ended up getting decent moves to Championship clubs, like Paul McVeigh, Neale Fenn and John Piercy who were all leaving and going to like Norwich or Brighton who were in the Championship at the time, and doing that. So I was just a bit too keen to move on I think but at Spurs it was a really good time and experience, and I met some great people and am friends with quite a few of them now.
Did you have any footballing heroes/inspirations and if so who were they?
David: So as a kid Tony Cottee was sort of like an inspiration, Paul Gascoigne was for a while also and I used to watch the Gazza video most mornings before school. And then I remember being sat front row as I was a ball boy, as back then the youth team players were ball boys and I think I was an under 16 at the time and Newcastle played us at White Hart Lane. And David Ginola played for Newcastle and they won 2-0 and I think he scored both, but I was sat right on the left wing where he was playing and he absolutely tore Dean Austin and Sol Campbell apart, and it was the best individual performance that I’ve ever seen live. And I was like wow this guys a joke, and then a year later I signed my scholarship and David Ginola signed for Spurs. And I was just like wow, I’m actually training with this guy who I’ve sat and watched and thought that this blokes on another planet. So that was quite surreal at the time.
Could you describe to me what type of player you were and what positions you played in during your time at Spurs?
David: So I always thought that I was a centre midfielder/ball playing midfield player and I’d like to get it off the back four and throw it around. However, Patsy Holland used to play me as a right winger as he said that I had good delivery, but I never thought that I had the pace to play wide. However, he just liked me staying wide and getting good balls in the box and obviously Peter Crouch was the centre forward in my youth team, so he used to like me delivering balls for Crouchy to get on the end of. Bobby Arber played me as a sweeper sometimes but they went through a phase, I know Chelsea’s first team started playing a sweeper with Glenn Hoddle and Ruud Gullit, and so Bobby Arber started putting me as a sweeper in his youth team. So I sort of played everywhere, and then when Colin Murphy came into the club and played me as a centre forward and told me that that was my best position and that I should stay there.
Who were your greatest influences at Spurs?
David: There was a guy called Tommy Cunningham who was like my 15’s/16’s coach and he was like the first coach who really got into me and really demanded from me. And I respected him a lot, and then there was a guy called Bobby Arber who was my coach when I signed my scholarship and I thought that he was a real top coach who taught me a lot about tactics and positioning and the ugly side of the game really. And then Patsy Holland was my youth team manager although I get on great now with Patsy I don’t think that he fancied me as a player, I always got that vibe off him that he was playing me because the people above him are telling him that I’m a good player, but I don’t think that he really believes it. And then Chris Hughton was my reserve manager who I thought was probably one of the best coaches that I’ve played for and had the pleasure of working with. His sessions were really really good and I loved his coaching.
Were there any players at Spurs who you would watch closely to try and improve your game or look to learn from?
David: Yeah I liked watching Darren Anderton and I didn’t realise how good he was until I actually trained with him and then you realise how good a player is sometimes. Tim Sherwood was one that came in and had a real aura about him and I thought that this guy wants to be that dominating midfield player, but Teddy Sheringham was probably the one that I watched closest to learn the most off. He wasn’t the quickest like myself so I used to watch how he made space and how he got away from people.
What was it like to play with and be a part of a very talented Spurs youth team of which included the likes of Ledley King?
David: Yeah it was good, obviously we also had Mark Gower who went onto play in the Premier League and also Luke Young and Alton Thelwell who played a few games, so there was some good players. It was quite surreal actually because I always felt that I was one of the best players there and I felt like a lot of them looked up to me as I was one of the better players and help me kind of thing. However, perhaps I was just deluded or they kicked on better than I did, but I always felt that I was one of the better players there. Ledley King was the one that stood out for me out of all of them and as soon as you saw him and played against him you thought that there wasn’t anything you could do as he was like a Rolls Royce, he was so good.
How difficult was it for a young Spurs player like yourself to break into the first team during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s?
David: I think you needed a bit of luck, I know that Luke Young got his chance against West Ham because I think we had four injuries at centre half and all of a sudden, within a week four people got injured at centre half. It was who can we play there and Luke Young got the nod and he ended up staying in the team and doing great, so I think that there’s a little bit of luck to it. I always thought Luke was a very good player who had a great attitude and who was athletic, but I never saw him playing for Spurs and England really. However, he took his chance and he done fantastically well, but I think for me looking back now and I think the thing that you look at was did I really show the coaches that I wanted it enough. And did I really give absolutely everything to be a top player, and probably the answers no if I’m being honest with myself, and I think that’s the biggest regret or the real shame that I have really. You don’t realise what an unbelievable opportunity you’ve got to change your life and your family’s life and yet you sort of let it pass it by, which is criminal really. However, at the time you don’t see it but that’s why I do what I do now and try and make sure that players understand the opportunity that they’ve got.
What prompted you to leave Spurs and could you talk me through your career after you left the Lilywhites?
David: I didn’t think I was ever going to get anywhere near it and I know that a slot came up out wide and John Piercy got the nod to play. I think that it was Derby away around Christmas because I think the Christmas do was after the game and there was a few injuries and we needed like an attacking player. I thought if ever I’m going to get a chance it’s now, and they took John Piercy and I thought that John was a really good player but I thought I’m never going to get a chance here, so that was sort of what made my mind up really to go. And then we played Arsenal away in a behind closed doors game and Sylvinho played left back for Arsenal and they had players like Bergkamp and Tony Adams, and they had a real good team out. I played wide right and Sylvinho was left back and I came off the pitch thinking I’m never ever ever getting to that level to play against these type of players. He was so far in front of me and don’t get me wrong he had played in World Cup’s but the level and the pace and the speed that he was doing things at, I just thought if this is the level I’ve got to get to then I need to leave and try and get a career lower down. Because I’m not getting to that level, so yeah I was quite honest with myself and I sort of saw it early. So Peter Taylor took me into Gillingham and said I really like you but I probably won’t be here next season so wherever I go I’ll sign you. So he ended up getting Gillingham promoted in the end and he got the Leicester job and Leicester were back in the Premier League, so he rang me and said look I’ll take you but I didn’t expect to get a Premier League job as I expected to get a Championship job.
So what I’ve done he said I’ve spoken to the manager at Southend and he’s going to give you a contract and I’ll keep an eye on you and we’ll see how we go from there. So I went to Southend and done a year at the club for Adam Little and his brother was Brian Little who was the manager of Hull. He came in for me that summer and gave me a three year deal with Hull and I went to them, and then Peter Taylor got sacked from Leicester and got the Brighton job, so he called me up and said I’ve got the Brighton job and I want to sign you. So I went down to Brighton for four years and then I ended up at Aldershot where I broke my leg, and I actually went into a tackle with ex Spurs player Jeff Minton and I dislocated my ankle and broke my tibia and fibula. I then also played for the likes of Thurrock and Canvey Island for just a few games because I had a few mates down that direction, but I was struggling because my ankle was terrible. However, I played a few games just for a bit of fun but nothing serious.
What was the greatest moment of your footballing career?
David: I think getting promoted with Brighton as we won a few promotions although I didn’t play a lot of games as I was injured a lot when I was down at Brighton, but they were good days. However, the thing that sticks in my mind the most is winning the Milk Cup with Spurs’ youth team, and that was just unbelievable and such a good week.
Who was the greatest player that you have had the pleasure of sharing a pitch with?
David: David Ginola. He used to do that trick and I used to sit and watch him every week playing for the first team, and he used to do that trick where he used to have his back to the defender. And Justin Edinburgh would roll the ball straight to him and he’d stop it still and go to come inside and then turn up the line, and I used to say to my dad how are defenders still falling for that trick when he does it every single week twice a game. And then we played first team v reserves on the millennium New Year’s Day as there was no football that day, and I played right back. The ball went back to Justin Edinburgh and he rolled it to David Ginola and I went really tight and he done that trick on me and beat me. Even though I knew it was coming I still couldn’t stop it you know, but yeah he was fantastic.
Could you talk me through some of your favourite memories of your time in the various Tottenham youth teams and reserves?
David: The Milk Cup is obviously a stand out one when we won that and I was captain of the team so that was a really good week. We then got to the final of the FA Premier League Cup and we got beat against Arsenal over two legs at White Hart Lane and Highbury, so they were good times. And then for the reserves I scored the winning goal in the Leroy Rosenior testimonial when Spurs played Bristol City in a testimonial for Leroy Rosenior. And I was 16 and I was at school when Chris Hughton rang my dad up and said was there anyway that Dave can come with the reserves tomorrow, he’s only going to sit on the bench for a testimonial but I’m really short. The first team were on tour in Scandinavia and he said that they’d took a few of the reserves so just need someone to sit on the bench for me, as the youth team also had a game. So I was an under 16 and they were like that’s no worries it’s fine, and it was 2-2 and Chris said go on I’ll give you ten minutes, just go and play in midfield. And then I sort of got the ball off of Stephen Carr and I played a couple of one twos with Danny Hill, and then I gave it to Neale Fenn and I kept on running and he slid me in, and I went around the keeper and scored the winning goal. So when I was 16 that was a bit surreal really there was like a decent crowd there, and I was with a load of reserve players that I had never met before so that was a really good day.
Who was the toughest player that you ever came up against?
David: Sylvinho stands out just because he was getting the ball off the goalkeeper from goal kicks and then he was dribbling at me and beating me, as I was right midfield and he was left back and I was just like wow. I know that it was only a reserve game but if the referee had said to me you were allowed to rugby tackle him I still couldn’t have stopped him, he was that quick. I also had some good battles with Ashley Cole who was left back for Arsenal when I was wide right, so we had some good games. There was also a lad at Watford who probably didn’t have a career but his name was David Perpetuini and I think that he went and played non league, but I found him really tough to play against. Also Paolo Vernazza at Arsenal was also a tough player to play against but other than that not many stand out.
Were there any players at Spurs who you were particularly close to?
David: I lived with John Piercy and a lad called Gavin Stone who was from Cannock way, and also Mark Gower I got on really well with. I also got on really well with Luke Young who I still see along with Mark Gower, I also see Crouchy and Ledley around quite a bit. There was also a lad called Narada Bernard who was a year younger than me who I got on well with, but in my year I still speak to Steve Dobson, John Piercy, Wayne Vaughan and Lee Kersey, so there’s a few of us that still speak. I used to drive in with Steve Dobson as we were from the same town, so I suppose I spent probably the most time with him. However, someone like Mark Gower I got on really well with and Steve Clemence who is a bit older, and Neale Fenn who I still speak to a lot. Also I used to drive in with Paul McVeigh, so yeah I’m still in touch with about a dozen of the lads.
What would your advice be to the young Spurs players of today as they look to break into the first team?
David: I think just give it everything you’ve got, don’t let anything off the field distract you. So don’t worry about the cars and the watches and the girls and the clothes, just go in every day and give it 100% and don’t leave the training ground until you’ve left everything there. If you can get in early do your extra work, if you can stay late then stay late and do that. You’ve got unbelievable facilities which are better than when I was around, and the facilities and the sports science are phenomenal so there is no excuse to not be strong or fit or quick. You’ve everything at the club to give you the best possible chance of being a top player as everything you need is sort of there on a plate and you’ve just got to ask for it. So I think just don’t let that opportunity or that chance pass you by because all of a sudden it’s too late and there’s no going back.
After all these years how do you look back on your time at the Lilywhites and is Spurs a club who you still hold close to your heart?
David: Yeah I’m still a Spurs fan really which was strange as I was a season ticket holder as a kid at West Ham, and then from 14 I was going to Spurs every week and you end up supporting Spurs naturally. So Spurs is probably the result that I look for first in the Premier League every Saturday, so obviously a lot has changed and all of the staff have changed but I still see it as the club that I support really. And I think that they’ve done great really.