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Prudent Lee learns to leave behind netbusters and focus on net gains

ROB LEE knows what financial mismanagement looks like. He witnessed the recklessness of England team-mates at the 1998 World Cup, who thought nothing of betting &pound;5,000 a hand on card games. More recently he has seen his beloved Newcastle United relegated from the top flight while embattled owner Mike Ashley runs up personal losses of more than &pound;100m.<br /><br />It would be enough to bring out anyone&rsquo;s frugal side, but Lee, much like the tireless midfielder of his playing days, has gone the extra mile. With long-term financial advisor Kevin Neal, the former Magpies, Charlton and West Ham player has launched Fortress Wealth Management, a service targeted at sportsmen and other high net-worth individuals. <br /><br />With offices in Mayfair and Hertfordshire, they promise a range of bespoke products that, they say, are not on offer to anyone else. Although Neal stresses footballers comprise only 35 per cent of their business, Lee&rsquo;s role is to mine his contacts in the game. They already have England defender Joleon Lescott, who last week joined Manchester City for &pound;24m, on their books.<br /><br />Lee, now 43 and bronzed from a golfing week with former team-mates in Portugal, says an instinctive cautiousness with cash &ndash; &ldquo;some would say stingy; I say I looked after it&rdquo; &ndash; the &ldquo;bad advice&rdquo; that he and most of his peers received during their careers, and the complacency of pampered sportsmen convinced him there was a niche in the market.<br /><br />&ldquo;People target footballers because they know they are very wealthy but don&rsquo;t think they&rsquo;re very clever. I played football, I earned money, I bought my house, things like that, but I didn&rsquo;t take notice of who was looking after my money. A lot of ex-pros are exactly the same. Where&rsquo;s your pension? Oh I&rsquo;m not sure. What did you earn last year? I&rsquo;m not sure.&rdquo;<br /><br /><strong>HONEST REPUTATION<br /></strong>Face-to-face, Lee&rsquo;s persona matches the honest reputation he earned as a box-to-box dynamo and he is notably frosty on the prospect of encouraging would-be clients to invest their money in football. <br /><br />&ldquo;It&rsquo;s not like a normal business. You get carried away with buying a lot of players when maybe you shouldn&rsquo;t, paying them a lot when you don&rsquo;t always get a good return,&rdquo; he explains. <br /><br />&ldquo;You&rsquo;ll have a good time; whether you&rsquo;ll make money, I&rsquo;m not sure. I&rsquo;ve seen too many people lose too much money &ndash; Mike Ashley&rsquo;s a classic example, but he can afford to.&rdquo;<br /><br />Ashley&rsquo;s name elicits little sympathy from Newcastle fans and, you suspect, from Lee, who became captain and earned international recognition as a goalscoring midfielder with a prodigious work-rate in 10 career-defining years at St James&rsquo; Park. The sportswear mogul, who paid &pound;134m for the club in 2007 and has since invested another &pound;80m, put United on the market this summer for &pound;100m after a disastrous season that culminated in relegation from the Premier League.<br /><br />Despite reports of numerous interested parties and the hiring of specialist takeover brokers, the City investment bank Seymour Pierce, no sale has been forthcoming &ndash; other than that of the team&rsquo;s biggest stars who have been auctioned off to compensate for the drastic fall in revenue caused by dropping out of English football&rsquo;s top tier.<br /><br />Ashley has enraged fans further by refusing, thus far, to offer a permanent contract to local hero and temporary manager Alan Shearer (pictured left with Lee in their Newcastle days), ostensibly in case potential buyers did not want the Magpies&rsquo; record goalscorer in charge. However, Lee, who remains close friends with his ex-colleague and speaks to him &ldquo;most days&rdquo;, does not accept that explanation.<br /><br />Asked if he thinks the purported reason for keeping Shearer hanging on was a smokescreen, Lee replies: &ldquo;Yes, yes. If you put Alan Shearer in charge he is going to want to improve the club, and he is going to want money. I think the cheaper way is what Ashley is doing. By not appointing Alan he hasn&rsquo;t got to spend any more money.&rdquo; With Ashley seemingly set to stay in charge for another season, can the impasse be resolved? &ldquo;I don&rsquo;t know,&rdquo; says Lee. &ldquo;I think he Shearer is getting pissed off with it. It&rsquo;s been going on too long. My gut feeling is I can&rsquo;t see Mike Ashley having him back and I can&rsquo;t see Alan working for him again. I&rsquo;d be surprised if that happened.&rdquo;<br /><br />Lee even questions whether Ashley genuinely intended to sell this summer at all. &ldquo;Nobody knows the truth apart from Mike Ashley. He is the only one who knows how many bids he&rsquo;s had, how much they were for and whether he&rsquo;s willing to sell. As a businessman, he doesn&rsquo;t want to take a massive loss. As long as he doesn&rsquo;t sell, it&rsquo;s a paper loss.&rdquo;<br /><strong><br />SAD SITUATION</strong><br />Lee is open to the idea of assisting Shearer at Newcastle, as has been mooted, but says he can&rsquo;t decide &ldquo;until he asks me&rdquo;. He knows north-east businessman Barry Moat, the latest and most likely of the would-be buyers, but has not been approached to join any of the various consortia linked with bids for the club. However, he again stresses that he &ldquo;would do anything&rdquo; to help the club out of &ldquo;a sad situation&rdquo;.<br /><br />He is still involved with the game: his role with Fortress allows him to mingle in football circles, he dabbles in punditry for Middle Eastern brodcaster Al-Jazeera&rsquo;s coverage of the Premier League, and his two sons are on the books of his own boyhood club, West Ham. But Lee cannot disguise the fact that he hankers after the days when he starred in Kevin Keegan&rsquo;s swashbuckling Newcastle side. &ldquo;Try to find something that&rsquo;s as good as scoring in front of 52,000 people or as good as playing for your country,&rdquo; he says. &ldquo;It is impossible.&rdquo; It is no substitute, but he confesses his dalliance with the City provides a welcome dose of structure to his days. &ldquo;You can have as much money as you want, but you have to have a reason to get up in the morning. I said when I retired I&rsquo;d have a year off, but it drives you mad.&rdquo;<br /><br />He cites Richard Branson as his business hero, because he is &ldquo;flamboyant&rdquo; and has ambitious schemes. Lee gushes about Branson&rsquo;s private island, the entrepreneur&rsquo;s penchant for flying in a balloon and his visions of travelling to the moon. Lee&rsquo;s aims for Fortress may be more prosaic, but his other dream, of restoring Newcastle to the apex of English football, for now at least, looks like one as lofty and distant as lunar holidays.