“Football Makes You Quite Tough”

This instalment of Real Footballers' Wives features Irene Lee, wife of former Everton manager, Gordon who passed away this past week at the age of 87

Real Footballers' Wives – Irene Lee

Another installment of Real Footballers' Wives featuring Irene Lee, wife of former Everton manager, Gordon.

Dad was a coal miner and like most women in those days mum stayed at home to look after us but sometimes she made leather handbags in the front room to earn a bit of extra money. She was very enterprising and when the war was on she used to take washing in and clean a shop so she could get extra rations under the counter. We didn’t have much luxury, but I can only remember my childhood as happy and there didn’t seem to be any raised voices or arguing.

My brother Jack was 10 years older than me and had been injured during the war. When he was demobbed, he went to work in a dye-cast factory and my other brother Roy worked down the pit alongside Dad.

School was in a little village called Great Wyrley. It’s still there and although I didn’t really like it, I stayed on to attend night classes where I learned shorthand and typing. Fortunately, the teacher lived in Cannock and she would give me a lift home after lessons were finished. I left at 15 and got a job in a local firm operating the switchboard and doing a bit of typing and general office duties.

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I was in my teens when there was a roof-fall at the pit and dad was buried alive and had to be dug out. He was conscious all the time and told the rescuers not to move him because he knew he’d broken his back and if they did, he would be paralysed. Roy was part of the team that dug him out and they both vowed never to go underground again.

Nobody really expected him to live for long afterwards because it was such a shock to the system, but he recovered eventually and could still get around, although he was pensioned off at 52. He defied them all and lived for another 20 years and did occasional light work for a local farmer to keep himself busy.

Gordon was from a little village called Hednesford but was based in Stafford doing his national service in the RAF when we met. Everybody used to go to the civic dancehall on a Saturday night because apart from going to the pictures, there was nothing else for teenagers to do. He’s not the best dancer, but who was I to tell him?

Aston Villa had already signed him as a schoolboy but he couldn’t get out of the RAF, so he was stationed nearby which meant he could play for Hednesford Town at the weekends. I didn’t know anything about football and it didn’t really interest me, but when my dad had recovered enough, he would take me to watch him play. He was interested in football but he didn’t go and watch because he’d always worked shifts.

As soon as Gordon finished in the RAF we got engaged and then married soon after, in September 1955. We had a white wedding at St Luke’s church in Cannock, my sister Pat and Lillian my sister-in-law were my bridesmaids, and Derek, one of Gordon’s four brothers, was best man. Gordon was 21 and I was 19.

We went on the train to Margate for our honeymoon, which was considered a long way from the Midlands but we had to return a day early because Aston Villa’s third team wanted him to play on the Saturday. I didn’t mind coming back because I knew how important it was to him.

We moved into a little two-up two-down in Heath Heyes near Hednesford. By the time we’d had a bit of work done and had a bathroom built Gordon was playing regularly for Villa and earning £10 a week plus a bonus. In the reserves, the bonus was a pound for a win and 10 bob (50p) for a draw and it went up to £4 for a win and £2 for a draw when he got into the first team. I remember that vividly because I was earning more than him at the time as a secretary.

By tradition his family were Wolves fans but they were loyal to Gordon and followed his career so I would go to the game with another brother, Dennis. Initially, I felt as if I should just go to show my support but the more I went, the more I learned about the game and I really got to like it in the end.

Villa were quite good then. Joe Mercer was the manager and Gordon was one of the ‘Mercer Minors’. They called him the ‘utility man’ because he could play anywhere but he shone brightest when playing in defence. It was the days before you were allowed a substitute so if you had a team member who could play in any position, he became a great asset and the manager knew he could always switch him.

Footballers were tough in those days. I remember Gordon coming home with a really bad elbow injury and having to go to hospital, but the injury that really sticks in my mind is when he was playing for the local team. He rang the doorbell and when I opened the door, blood was pouring down his face. He’d cut his head but they hadn’t done anything to stop the bleeding and he just shrugged and said it would be OK. I can still see him standing there now covered in blood, but he was so casual about it

We had our children in the close season so they didn’t interfere with football. Our first was born on May 19, 1961, when Gordon had been on tour in Russia. Nikita Kruschev was the Premier and it was still an Iron Curtain country then. He played against Spartak Moscow, Moscow Dynamo and Tbilisi and they were there for about a week.

He was due back that same day and the baby was born about an hour before he arrived. When Gary was four, we went to live in a big semi-detached house in Great Barnett which was much nearer to the ground and where our daughter, Christine, was born on May 18, 1965. You didn’t have your children in hospital if you were fit and healthy in those days, so they were both born at home.

We were at Villa for 11 years and Gordon was more or less at the end of his playing career when he moved to Shrewsbury in 1966. He was hired as player-manager but he only played a couple of games.

People say nobody knows more about football than Gordon Lee and I think they’re probably right. He doesn’t know much about anything else, but he has an encyclopedic knowledge of players from any division, their characteristics, statistics and all kinds of other trivia. He was incredibly superstitious: he wouldn’t change anything from his routine — right down to the oil in his car — if they’d won and he’d ask me what he was wearing the previous week so he could wear the same again, and that went right down to his socks.

I didn’t have much spare time when the children were young, it was quite hard to be a footballer’s wife, even more so when you were a manager’s wife, and it was very lonely, too. We didn’t spend much time together; he’d get home really late on a Saturday night and have the Sunday off but he didn’t have chance to get involved with anything. He’d sometimes take the children out and then it was time to go back to work again. To make matters worse, he was an absolute workaholic, but I’m very independent and I can cope on my own so it wasn’t too bad. If you’re not self-contained it would be impossible, but I’m the type of person who just gets on with it.

In 1970 I had another daughter, Sharon. She was born in hospital in Stoke-on-Trent, so we must have been at Port Vale then. We liked it there, too, and he took them up to the old Third Division within a year.

The thought that we could be moving at a minute’s notice didn’t bother me at all; in fact, I liked that aspect of our lives more than you would imagine because every time we moved, it would be to something better. The house would be better and his job would be more of a challenge and he really thrived on that.

The kids weren’t always happy about uprooting though, we were living in Trentham when he got the Blackburn job in January 1974, and we bought a house in Lytham, up near Blackpool. Gary had passed his 11 plus so he went to Kirkham grammar school. He wasn’t very happy about it because it was a rugby school and he wanted to play football but it worked out fine for him and he did really well. I remember Christine cried because she didn’t want to leave her friends and she sat in the back of the car with a goldfish in a bowl crying all the way here, but once they got settled they were OK and Lytham is a nice place to live. It must be because she’s still here 30 years down the line.

With having the children I never really seemed to get to the games so I didn’t get friendly with any of the other wives. If you move away from your family and your friends, then you’ve sacrificed the babysitters and you have to look after the kids on your own. I wouldn’t leave them with anyone unless I really knew and trusted them. By the time he took over at Everton and the youngest had got to an age where she could go, we’d all travel to all the matches but before that we were pretty much stuck at home. We didn’t go with Gordon, though, because he had to be there much earlier to sort the team out and everything and couldn’t have us tagging along, so I would drive us there later on. It wasn’t really very far, it was about a three-hour round trip and we all looked forward to it as the highlight of the week.

Blackburn won the League in 1975 and promotion to the Second Division, and that was when he was head-hunted by Newcastle. I can remember when he made his decision to go to the North-east and all the players came to our house to try and talk him out of it. Sharon was five then and they were saying to her, “Tell your Daddy you don’t want to go.”

We sold our house and all moved over to Newcastle. We went to all the home games and he got them to Wembley in the League Cup final against Man City in 1976, but there was a terrible flu bug going round and a lot of the first team were unable to play. They got beat 2–1 and we were absolutely heartbroken. He was very well thought of there; the fans used to sing ‘Gordon Lee’s black-and-white army’. I’ve still got a photo of Sharon and Christine all dressed up in black and white. We were at Newcastle for two seasons and then, in the January of 1977, the call came in from Everton and we moved back to Lytham.

The people there were really good to me, from the directors and their wives to the groundstaff. We would go to all the matches and were invited to the chairman’s house from time to time, and they were all really kind to us. The secretary, Jim Greenwood, and his wife Mary became friends of ours, too. They lived in Southport and we’d go and see them occasionally. John Moores was there then, we went to Prague for a Uefa Cup game against Dukla and he came on the coach with us. He was everything you’ve heard about him and more besides — a genuinely lovely man.

I probably shouldn’t say that Gordon had a favourite player but he did and it was Micky Lyons. They got on famously and he really liked Martin Dobson and Bob Latchford, too. I haven’t got a bad word to say about anybody at Everton. They were the best years of our lives.

Because we lived so far away from Liverpool we never went out socially with the players and their wives. It was a bit different when you were the manager’s wife anyway, because they players’ wives don’t really know how to behave in front of you. Some of them treated me just the same but others were very peculiar. I think some of the other managers’ wives were a bit strange, too, and thought they were more important so it caused some uncomfortable feelings, but I’d been a players’ wife, so I knew what it was all about.

Sharon and Christine Lee

Sharon and Christine Lee, 1976

I don’t think the club expected anything of any of the wives. Maybe some would push themselves forward, but that wasn’t my scene at all. They don’t really want you there so if you’re hanging around, all you’re doing is getting in the way really.

People were always knocking at the door or ringing up looking for favours, autographs and tickets. The phone never stopped ringing, in fact people still phone him asking for tickets to this day. You won’t hear from them for ages then all of a sudden you’ll get a call and they’ll finish off the conversation asking if he can get them tickets for Wembley or the last match of the season.

I’ve had a few proud moments and I got to go to Wembley again with Everton in 1977 for the League Cup final, coincidently against Aston Villa. It ended up 0–0 so there was a replay that ended up 1-1 and we lost 3–2 in the second replay at Old Trafford. I think football makes you quite tough in some respects, but that time I came home and watched it again on the television and cried because it was so sad.

That was a bad year for Gordon and an even bigger disappointment was when Everton played Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final and Clive Thomas disallowed a perfectly good goal from Bryan Hamilton and forced a replay. He was absolutely wretched. I travelled on the team coach that day and left the ground early because I was so upset. Gordon still says that it was the most devastating day of his managerial life.

Getting sacked is an occupational hazard of being a manager and you pretty much know that one day you’re going to leave under unpleasant circumstances. Not many managers leave when they’re winning unless they’ve been headhunted, which he was a few times but not with Everton. He left in May 1981 and went to Preston a few months later for a couple of seasons and finished off his managerial career at Leicester in 1991.

I suppose he’s got very divided loyalties when it comes down to who he should support but if somebody asked him outright he would say Everton, and so would I. He had all his success there, we spent the best years of our lives there and we’ve never moved from the North-west. He’s still mad about football, he knows absolutely everything that’s going on and he’s always got his head in a newspaper, but he’s as passionate about golf now as well. I was a football widow then and I’m a golf widow now.

Everything Gordon does, he does well. There’s no middle ground with him whether it’s painting, managing, gardening, golfing, whatever it is, it’s done to perfection. Wherever he went, the players had the utmost respect for him because there was nothing he didn’t know about the game and he studied it in the most minute detail. I can’t recall anybody saying a bad word about him and that’s quite right because he’s a good man.

Gordon Lee and family

Gordon and Irene Lee with family

Life is great now, he’s a member of a celebrity golf team who raise a lot of money for charity and I sometimes go with him for the day. We were at a tournament last weekend and Duncan McKenzie was there. I don’t know if they didn’t like each other, but Gordon sold him to Chelsea in 1978. I think there was a clash of personalities back then but it was nothing nasty and they get on all right now.

Apart from the couple of years in the North-east, we’ve lived in Lytham for 30 years now. My kids, especially Sharon, are Lancastrians, not Midlanders and Christine and me are practically neighbours. We live down a lane and there used to be fields at the back of us with cows hanging over the fence at the bottom of the garden, but now they’ve built an estate there. It’s a nice one with big posh houses, but it’s not as nice as the fields used to be. Christine lives in one of the houses so we get to see our grandchildren all the time and play a part in their lives.

We’ve got five altogether, four boys and one girl, so hopefully one will have some football talent — it would be lovely if we had another player in the family. They’re all very keen, too, so we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed.

I sacrificed my career for Gordon’s but I’ve enjoyed it and he’s made sacrifices for me. That’s what being in a relationship is all about. If I was young again now and had the chance to be a footballer’s wife, I would. I wouldn’t change my life at all and I don’t regret anything. It was hard work a lot of the time, and I used to get angry and fed-up, but I wouldn’t change it. I think the worst part was the loneliness and the isolation, and I seemed to constantly be running around after the children because they all went to different schools at different times.

But that didn’t last forever, they soon grew up and when Gordon was around he always did as much as he could. We’ve been together for almost 50 years and we’re still going strong.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Irene passed away peacefully at home on 30th October 2016. She is sorely missed. We lost Gordon Lee on 7th March 2022.

Taken from Real Footballers' Wives — the First Ladies of Everton, still available for purchase in book or Kindle form
© Becky Tallentire 2004

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Reader Comments (10)

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Derek Moore
2 Posted 12/03/2022 at 17:46:43
A different era. A different time. What a difference a day makes.

Tony Abrahams
3 Posted 12/03/2022 at 19:12:32
No airs or graces, just a very nice story, and in that different era; it seems that saying about being touched by Everton was very true.
Alan J Thompson
4 Posted 13/03/2022 at 05:57:29
After reading that and then the last paragraph on their passing almost brings you to tears.
Rick Tarleton
5 Posted 13/03/2022 at 07:27:08
A reminder of the days when footballers weren't celebrities. Very moving and emotional.
Dave Abrahams
6 Posted 13/03/2022 at 12:02:55
Those were the days when Irene, Gordon's wife, earned more money than her footballing husband, she was called a working housewife, hardworking with no head in the clouds thinking she was better than anyone else. Nowadays, a lot of these wives and partners are called WAGS and think they are celebrities with not an ounce of talent between them.

I bet Irene and ladies like her were happier and much richer in spirit than most of todays footballers wives and partners, I think most of us fans were happier as well watching a much more evenly matched league game than todays money backed teams.

Dave Abrahams
7 Posted 13/03/2022 at 12:05:36
Dave (6), that first paragraph should have finished with: not an ounce of talent between them.
Dennis Stevens
8 Posted 14/03/2022 at 19:52:46
Clive Bloody Thomas!
Dennis Stevens
9 Posted 14/03/2022 at 19:53:00
Clive Bloody Thomas!
Brian Murray
10 Posted 14/03/2022 at 20:13:41
Dennis, after that joke of a ref display my dad wrote a letter to Lancaster Gate hq I think questioning Thomas and Emilyn taffy friendship amongst other things, Two cid in knocked on his nogsy door to ask him to explain his remarks. He just gave them a mouthful of abuse and slammed the door. As a kid it was hilarious to see.
Peter Mills
11 Posted 15/03/2022 at 12:54:55
“Football makes you quite tough”.

I think I’ll have that on my gravestone.

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