On Saturday October 28, in the 73rd minute of the Sky Bet League Two game against Carlisle United at the Proact Stadium Tommy Lee decided enough was enough. The Chesterfield goalkeeper watched with despair as a speculative shot slid past his stiff, lurching arm and he heard the muffled roar as it nestled into the net. He already knew, he says, that he was not the same player, that his body’s reactions no longer matched the speed of thought in his mind.
“Before the injury, it wouldn’t have even tested me,” Lee says. Two days later, he travelled in early to training to tell Jack Lester, the manager, that he was retiring, aged 31.
Lee was my team-mate at Chesterfield for four years, and the best goalkeeper I played with. He was brave, agile, with remarkable reactions and perhaps should, and could, have played higher than the third tier. He was also one of many players I spoke with for an article in these pages, in October, about the widespread use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in football. In a 15-year career, Lee admits, he consumed about 4,000 painkillers in order to train or play.
Although his story bears the hallmarks of a career ended prematurely, his retirement owes much to the wearing effects of masking pain. The decisive injury struck 20 months ago, when he came for a cross against Bury in the penultimate League One game of the 2015-16 season.
The collision was innocuous. The pain was fleeting. But moments later, he says, it felt like his shoulder was “falling out of its socket”. He suffered a 270-degree tear of his labrum — a ring of cartilage in the shoulder joint shaped “like a golf tee; it keeps the head of your humerus [bone] in place,” Lee says.
A year of surgeries — first to insert nine screws, then remove seven — injections, clean-outs and laborious hours of rehab in the gym followed. Still, he could not fully lift his left arm above his head.
In the summer his surgeon said that all avenues had been exhausted. “The next procedure you’ll have is a shoulder replacement; could be in the next five years, could be in the next 20 years,” Lee was told. Retirement was mooted. But Lee felt he owed it to “myself” to try.
Pain, as is often the case for an athlete, had become a familiar companion throughout Lee’s career. But the line between pain that is manageable, and that which is debilitating, can sometimes become blurred. “It was one of the reasons that made me think, ‘You’re going to have to retire, you can’t keep taking these tablets, you can’t keep going through this sort of pain,’ ” Lee says.
“But because they work so well, you’re not bothered what’s going to happen in ten years. You’re bothered about the Saturday after; you’re bothered about your next contract; you’re bothered about your bonuses, paying your mortgage, doing well and achieving things.”
Fourteen years earlier, aged 17 and on the books of Manchester United, Lee had broken the scaphoid bone in his wrist. It was misdiagnosed for weeks and failed to heal properly — even after a bone graft was taken from his hip. The surgeon told him to consider another career.
“It was like, ‘F***ing hell, what am I going to do? I don’t want to do anything else, I want to play football,’ ” he says. “But I just persisted and persisted with it, and there were days where the pain was searing.”
The physio gave him a course of anti-inflammatory diclofenac tablets. “And they worked so well. They took the edge off and meant I could train properly,” he says. Once he ran out, he would go back and ask for more. “It was never really an issue getting hold of them,” he says, which was true throughout his career. “That’s probably when I was taking the anti-inflams the most — three a day, during the season, for a few years.”
After moves to Macclesfield and, briefly, Rochdale, Lee signed for Chesterfield in 2008, and quickly became a cult hero. He made 373 of his 454 career appearances during nine and a half seasons at the Derbyshire club, lifting two League Two titles and the Football League Trophy at Wembley. In a recent Derbyshire Times poll he was named above Gordon Banks as the club’s greatest goalkeeper. Only Lester, his friend and former team-mate, betters his standing at the club of any player in the modern era.
Given those accolades, it would be hard for those who saw him play to believe that he had such a difficult relationship with his body. His use of painkillers dropped for a time and were weighted more toward games. But a chronic right shoulder issue, and then his recent injury, increased his reliance once again.
There were times, over the years, he says, when psychologically they acted like a “comfort blanket” and others when there was no way he could have trained or played without them. “When I started back this season, I’d look at the fixture list and think, ‘Ah, there’s a Tuesday game there . . . that’s going to be a quick turnaround,’ ” he says. Managers just wanted him fit for games.
“When there was a free week, the manager just said, ‘Train as much as you need to.’ But I had to train. I got a lot of my confidence from training,” he says. I would take one tablet in the morning, so I could train, then one after training so it wasn’t too bad sat on the sofa, or going to the shops, or sleeping at night. But then if I had a day off, I’d put up with the pain, because I didn’t need them to play football.”
The use of anti-inflammatory drugs is so routine within football, Lee says, that he “never thought at all, until recently, that this could be bad for my health.” That is, until he read about Daniel Agger. The former Liverpool and Brondby defender spoke last year of his reliance on painkillers after he retired with a back injury aged 31 and the potential problems such as damage to kidneys, and stomach lining, overuse of the drugs can cause.
Lee raised it with his girlfriend, Sital, then spoke to the physio and surgeon. But, ultimately, he could not train or play without them. Did he suffer any side effects? “A lot of players suffered bad guts and were in the toilet all the time; I was lucky, I never had any of those side effects,” he says. “But even players I’ve played with who do, take the tablets anyway, because it doesn’t matter, as long as they can play.”
Despite it all, Lee wants to make clear that he has no regrets. “I’d be wary that people might construe this as me saying ‘Look at me, I’ve played with pain all my career,’ because it’s common, and for me it was a small price to pay to be in the position where you get to play football every day — and, I wouldn’t have had the experiences I’ve had,” he says.
“In ten years’ time, if you were to ask me the same question, you might get a different answer. And at four in the morning when I’m waking up and can’t get back to sleep [because of the pain in his shoulder], if you asked me then, I’d probably say no.”
Lee may have failed to reach the heights he dreamt of when he signed for Manchester United — the team he, his dad and three brothers supported — aged 12. But he can reflect with pride on moments in his career that made the sacrifices his family made for him worthwhile.
“My mum and dad couldn’t drive, but I needed to get to Manchester Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday every week,” says Lee, from Keighley, West Yorkshire. “I don’t think in the four years until 16 [joining full time] I missed one training session. My dad would pay his friends to take me to Manchester and back; my grandad used to take me; my aunties and uncles too.
“When I told my dad that I needed to retire, that was probably the most upset that I’ve been. But the best moment of my career was winning at Wembley and having my family there to see that. Because in a way, that probably, for me, justified why they did what they did.
“Whereas before, when I left Man United for Macclesfield I almost thought, ‘What’s the point?’ You’re taking your own kit home to wash; you’re literally moving the dog dirt off the training pitch so you can train.”
Success at Chesterfield brought a new appreciation of the game. “My time at Chesterfield made me realise why you do play football, why you’ll take the anti-inflammatories to play,” he says. “At Chesterfield we won. We won the league, and I thought, ‘Ah, I know why I’m doing this now.’ For the feeling you get, the sense of achievement you get, but I also understood why people pay to watch football.
“There’d be times at Macclesfield when I thought ‘Why are people paying to come and watch this?’ It’d be chucking it down, teams launching balls in the air; but it’s for that one day at the end of the season, or that one day at Wembley. It’s taking your dad to the PFA awards, and him being sat next to Pat Jennings, who was one of his heroes — that’s why you do it. I realised I was in a privileged position, and you need to make sure you squeeze every last bit of potential out of it.”
But it is over: “On a Saturday afternoon you do feel a bit like, ‘What’s my purpose?’ ” he says. For now, though, there is simply an enormous sense of relief. “I don’t have to go to the training ground and dive about,” he says, “and, for someone who loves being a goalkeeper, that my only emotion is relief, I think that justifies me taking ownership of that decision.”
He felt he had prepared for this day. He has a degree in professional sports writing and broadcasting and has taken early steps into coaching. But in truth, the future remains an unknown.
“I’m at the stage now where it’s here and, actually, I’m not prepared,” he says. “What do you do? You’ve done something you’ve always done, and all of a sudden it’s gone.”
2005-06 Manchester United: 0 appearances
2006 Macclesfield Town (loan): 12 apps
2006-08 Macclesfield Town: 55 apps
2008 Rochdale (loan): 14 apps
2008-17 Chesterfield: 373 apps