Following a successful career as a professional footballer that spanned nearly 16 years, Islander Lee Bradbury has now taken the big step into Football League management.
Lee, who was born and raised in Cowes, was recently appointed the manager of AFC Bournemouth, a club currently in the ascendancy after several years in the doldrums. As the current season draws to a close Lee is attempting to begin his managerial career in the best possible way by leading Bournemouth – nicknamed The Cherries – into the Championship, the second tier of English football.
Lee took time out from the rigours of his latest challenge to reflect on his early days on the Island, and reveal how he finally made the breakthrough into the professional game after initially joining the Army after leaving school.
He spent his early years living in Arnold Road, Cowes with his family and attended Love Lane and Somerton Schools before moving on to Cowes High School. His first real taste of football came when he began playing for Gurnard Youth team, and his talents were quickly spotted, enabling him to play for the Island team through all the different age groups.
He also had a season at Binstead when he was 15, and later played for Cowes Sports. He recalls: “I started off playing on the left wing, but then also played up front as a striker and also on the right wing. I always liked to be an attacking player, scoring goals.”
While at Cowes High School he was playing alongside team mates a year older than himself, such was his goalscoring prowess, and it was as part of that team that he had his first real taste of the ‘big time’.
He recalls: “We got through to the National Schools finals, which was quite an achievement for an Island side, and we played against a Liverpool Schools team at Goodison Park, the home of Everton. Gary Rowett, who also lived on the Island at the time, was in the same team, and by coincidence many years later Gary and I both played together at Birmingham City, and were room mates when we travelled for away games.” Unfortunately the trip to Merseyside ended in a 3-1 defeat, but it did not deter Lee’s enthusiasm for football, even though at that stage of his life becoming a professional within the game was little more than a distant dream.
Lee left school just before reaching his 16th birthday, and within days he joined the Army. He said: “I remember leaving school on the Friday and going to Folkestone as a boy soldier on the Monday where I completed a year’s training to become a member of the Royal Hampshire Regiment.
“I joined the Army because I just wanted to do something a bit different. I was an active person, but didn’t really know what else I could do. I wanted to be involved in sport as much as I could, and I spoke to quite a lot of people who all agreed there was plenty of opportunity to do sport in the Forces. So I thought being in the Army would be the ideal opportunity to see different parts of the world, and play football, and that is what I ended up doing so it worked out great for me.”
Lee quickly established himself as a key player, and played all over Europe and in the Far East for the Army XI and the Combined Services. During his time as a soldier, he would return to the Island to see his family as often as he could, and he later married Island girl Hayley, who came from Newport, and whose family still live here.
Lee remained in the Army for four-and-a-half years, playing for Cowes Sports when on leave, before getting the lucky break that he had hoped for, but perhaps didn’t really expect. He takes up the story: “While in the Army by chance we had a pre-season tour of Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.
“While we were at Fratton Park (the home of Portsmouth FC) my coach went in and had a word with the Pompey manager Terry Fenwick and said he had a lad playing for him who had scored 30-odd goals in 25 games, and perhaps they would like to have a look at him. That lad was me!
“So I ended up having a trial with Portsmouth, and I did well. I was due to go to Northern Ireland to play for the Army, but Pompey rang my Commanding Officer and asked if I could have a week’s leave so I could go with them instead on a pre-season tour to Scotland.”
It proved a successful venture as Lee made three appearances as a substitute, scored on each occasion, and by the end of the week he was offered a contract. Contrary to some reports that he had to buy himself out of the Army for £500 to join Portsmouth, in fact he was given an honourable discharge so he could pursue his professional playing career.
After nearly two years and more than 50 games for Portsmouth, Lee suddenly found himself one of the Island’s most expensive commodities in 1997 when he was signed by Manchester City for £3million. He reflects: “It was a lot of money, but I tried not to let it affect me. Once I was out on the pitch, it didn’t worry me. You still try to play your best whether you are worth £3million or nothing.
“Unfortunately things didn’t work out for me as I hoped at Manchester City. The team wasn’t doing very well, and I broke a bone in my back, so I couldn’t play as much as I wanted to. It was all very frustrating, because it is a great club, but maybe I joined at the wrong time, and it would have been better if I had moved a couple of years later when I had had a bit more experience playing in the league.”
Lee moved to Crystal Palace the following year for £1.5million, and felt more settled. He said: “Terry Venables was my manager at Palace, and I enjoyed my time there. Terry was a nice guy and a very good coach, who also had spells as manager of England and Barcelona.” After a short loan spell with Birmingham City, Lee returned to Portsmouth in 1999, staying for nearly five years, during which time the club rose from the depths of the second tier of English football into the Premier League.
Although he played nearly 100 games, scoring some 30 goals, and enjoyed arguably the best spell of his playing career, his progress was blighted by a serious knee injury. He had just been made captain of Portsmouth when he was badly hurt in a game at Millwall which kept him out of the game for a year.
By the time he returned the Pompey surge was in full force, with manager Harry Redknapp able to recruit many top-name players such as Teddy Sheringham and Paul Merson. It meant Lee had to go out on loan, first to Sheffield Wednesday and then to Derby County to find regular first team football. But in his first game for Derby he suffered another blow when he broke his foot.
In 2004 he made the permanent move to Walsall, where he stayed only briefly before signing for Oxford United. A spell at Southend was followed by his switch in 2007 to Bournemouth, where he was still a player until earlier this season. But when former Cherries manager Eddie Howe moved to Burnley in January, Lee was asked to take temporary charge of team affairs. He said: “I am 35, so perhaps I could have played for one more season and that would have been it. I have always had aspirations to become a coach or manager, and suddenly I had this great chance to step in and manage a club that I feel is really going places.
“It was a perfect situation for me and one I wasn’t going to turn down. I have always had a close relationship with the players, and as one of the seniors, some of the younger ones used to come to me for advice.”
Now he is the ‘gaffer’ to his former team mates, having been given the managerial position on a permanent basis after impressing in his caretaker role. He reckons the players did much to secure him the position, and he wants to repay them and the club for the faith shown in him, by taking them up to the next level – whether it is at the end of this season, or sometime in the future.
Lee, wife Hayley and children Harvey, 12, and Nellie, who is six, return to the Island whenever possible, despite his busy schedule. He said: “We all love the Island, and come back to visit friends and family whenever we can. Harvey and Nellie usually spend a couple of weeks of their summer holidays with their grandparents. I would still like to live on the Island, but it is not really ideal to travel to work at Bournemouth every day.”