After long tour of non-league scene Lee Morris dreams of managerial success, but is still haunted by dream move to Chesterfield that fell through
Lee Morris is dreaming about what could be as he begins life as a football manager, but still wondering what could have been as a player.
The 35-year-old from Rotherham has taken charge of Goole in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier Division One South, after a playing career that took him on a tour of the region’s non-league clubs.
Last season brought the highlight of that career, as his goals and input as assistant manager helped Shaw Lane Aquaforce to the NCEL Premier title.
He ‘did the rounds’ in his words, playing for the likes of Worksop Town, Hallam, Belper, Frickley, Harrogate, Droylsden, Hucknall, Stalybridge, Buxton and Matlock.
But looking back on almost two decades as a semi-professional striker, Morris admits he still has a ‘bitter taste’ from a dream move that came so close to fruition.
His life in the sport began at Rawmarsh St Joseph’s, before being picked up by Rotherham United.
The Millers released him as a 16-year-old, and Worksop Town gave him his first taste of men’s football.
He said: “I was straight into the fire in semi-pro.
“Paul Mitchell was in charge, and Kenny Clark was still playing. I was 17.
“I didn’t really get much of a chance, I scored a few goals but ended up in the reserves and then went on loan to Hallam.”
A 48-goal season at Hallam and an unsuccessful trial at Stockport County was followed by a move to Frickley, a club that would see a lot of Morris in the coming years.
“When it didn’t come off at Stockport, I just got knuckled down and thought if it happens, it happens.
“I went to Frickley and was scoring regularly, and got another trial, at Chesterfield.”
This was where his dream of playing professionally very nearly came true.
It still haunts him: “I thought that deal was done.”
“I played in a trial game, we won 1-0 and I scored, and they said they were going to sign me.
“I played another against Huddersfield and did well, but I don’t know whether Frickley put the boot in with the price they were asking, and it fell through.
“It’s still a bit of a bitter taste, I still think about what could have been,
“I was 22, and never really got an explanation about what happened.
“It’s always been in my mind, but these things happen for a reason and it wasn’t meant to be.”
If Spireites weren’t willing to take a punt on the forward, Harrogate Town were – buying him for a club record fee of around £12,000.
John Reed was the manager, and this was the first of a hat-trick of associations with Morris.
“At Harrogate it was good to start with, I had five goals in five and then broke my ankle, and that was a defining moment in my career.
“I was out for nearly the rest of the season, and there was a management change, Neil Aspin came in and had different opinions on players.
“They sold me to Droylsden for £2,000 or £3,000.
“I tried it there, but the travelling was too much, I had to commute from Rotherham and with my job it wasn’t feasible, so I ended up down at Hucknall Town, which was a good club.
“I had done the rounds by about 24 years of age.
“John Reed signed me at Stalybridge, but I broke my ankle again. I thought he was maybe a bit of a jinx for me.
“I was out again, with the same ankle, and then ended up back at Frickley to get some games and fitness.”
At Frickley, he rediscovered his love of the game, and his goalscoring touch.
The South Elmsall club holds a fond place in Morris’ heart, even if it isn’t so popular with visiting opposition players.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say about Frickley, that they don’t like going there to play.
“But when you’re one of their players, they welcome you with open arms.
“They were great for me and my family.
“When you’re playing against them they can be a volatile, passionate group.”
Reed signed him for a third time, bringing him to Buxton where he plundered seven goals in a 12-game spell.
It wasn’t to be third time lucky, however, the pair going their separate ways.
“Things came to a bit of a sour note between us.
“In pre-season I scored five goals in six games but he left me out for the first game of the season and we had an argument over that, and never saw eye to eye again.”
An enjoyable spell at Matlock allowed him to play with Ross Hannah, who would go on to play in the Football League, before a return to Buxton under new management.
“I loved Martin McIntosh, he’s one of the best managers I’ve ever worked with,” said Morris.
“He oozes class and he will go a long way in the game, he got the best out of me and a lot of players. I can’t rate him highly enough.”
Under McIntosh, Morris got the chance to start cutting his teeth as a coach, taking some warm ups and training, and it whetted his appetite for management.
When a chance to take on extra responsibility elsewhere arose, he jumped at it.
“Shaw Lane Aquaforce came in, only six miles from my house, with an opportunity to be an assistant manager, and I bit their hand off.
“It was a step on the ladder at a good club and it worked out brilliantly for me.”
Morris and Shaw Lane won the NCEL Premier and promotion.
“That’s the only league title I won,” he said.
“I got to the play-offs with Harrogate and won the Sheffield and Hallamshire Senior Cup.
“But winning the title was brilliant, I had a major part in fetching players in, and scored 35 goals as well, after snapping my achilles in pre-season, so I never thought I would play again. It was one of the highlights of my career.”
Taking sole charge of Aquaforce for a short spell while manager Craig Elliott was away only strengthened his desire to become a manager.
And Goole presented him with that opportunity earlier this week.
“I knew the chairman at Goole from my time at Frickley and we go back a long way.
“When I heard their manager had got the sack we had a chat and it progressed from there.
“I’m over the moon, not many 35-year-olds get the chance to manage at this level, it’s a good opportunity for me.
“From a very young age I always took notice of tactics, I used to tape Match of the Day and listen to the analysis, and I’ve always been very vocal, a bit of a leader in the dressing room – I captained a lot of the sides I’ve played for.
“I think you’re either born wanting to do it or you’re not.”
Having hit the net 15 times this season for Shaw Lane, he’s not quite ready to hang up the boots, but insists the Goole strikers are scoring enough to allow him to take a back seat for now.
They could do much worse than model themselves on a player who hit the net with frequency for a lot of non-league clubs.
He’s modest in his self-appraisal, and admits he enjoyed the dark art of battling with defenders.
“I don’t think many centre-halves liked playing against me.
“I was never the best, but if they knew they had been in a game, if I stopped them from playing, I was happy, that was my job done.
“At Buxton we sometimes played one op top and it could be hard, but I liked that, leading the line.
“I wish I had kept statistics and I keep saying I want someone to try and total it up, all my goals.”
Of those goals, two in particular stand out, one spectacular, one significant.
“There was a goal for Hallam from the halfway line, I didn’t know I could kick a ball that far. It was before Beckham did it, but no one took much notice.
“Last season I scored the winner against Cleethorpes to seal the league title. That was brilliant.”
Of all the fans he played in front of, it was the Frickley, Buxton and Shaw Lane faithful who forged the best bonds with him.
But there is a small band of supporters he could not live without – wife Stacey and their three children, Alfie, Alicia and Eliana.
“Behind the footballer, especially at semi-pro when you’re out at work and then out all hours travelling here, there and everywhere, you need a strong woman. And that’s what I’ve got.
“We’ve been together seven years and she’s been to most grounds, and now the kids come along as well.
“It’s lovely when they’re there.
“They’ll be there at my first game in charge on Saturday at home to Chasetown.”
He says he’s ready for what many people see as the game’s poisoned chalice, and the earache he might incur.
And he’s eager to find success in a new role.
“I suppose I will get a bit of stick as a manager, but I thrive off it.
“Being hated and loved on a football pitch, I thought it was great.
“I take it very seriously, I think you have to.
“I want to progress in management like I have as a player.
“I’m not one of those who can do things by half, I want to get as far as a I can, and hopefully any team I’m in charge of will benefit.”