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Almost exactly three years passed between Mike Lester’s first and last City appearances. Nothing unusual in that, you might think. Between them came only one other substitute appearance, however. That came in the Stadio Communale during a white-hot UEFA Cup 1st round 2nd leg v Juventus, with City trying to hang on to a slender 1st leg lead, makes Lester’s sky-blue career even more unique.
During the injury-ravaged 1973-74 season, City blooded a variety of reserves owing to a recurring problem with the fitness of Johnny Hart’s first team mainstays. Even Hart himself fell foul of the jinx, ending up in hospital with stress and nervous exhaustion, making it necessary for him to be replaced halfway through the season by Ron Saunders, a man destined to quickly fall out with many of City’s established stars on account of his intransigent ways.
Lester was a City fan, who had spent his youth watching the Blues from the steps of the Kippax. Lifted from nearby Oldham Athletic, the lank-haired central defender went straight into the side to face Arsenal. Three years later, it would remain his only full appearance for the club he supported. That his grand total of “1 plus 2 sub” would feature Juventus and Arsenal as two of the three opponents he faced wearing the sky blue shirt only serves to make his City story even more outstanding.
On this occasion, Saturday 10th November 1973, it was Mike Doyle who had succumbed to injury and Lester slotted in alongside Tommy Booth to try to negotiate 90 minutes shackling the infamous Charlie George and Ray Kennedy, ably fed from the wing by George Armstrong. Prompted by the indefatigable Alan Ball and Eddie Kelly in midfield, Arsenal won at a canter, with managerless City (Hart was due to be released from hospital the following week, leaving skipper Tony Book in nominal temporary charge) making most of their own problems. With Dennis Leman and Frank Carrodus also featuring, the squad was down to its bare bones, but Lester’s debut at the back proved to be “the one bright aspect of their play”, according to Paul Wilcox’s report in the following Monday’s Guardian.
Reflecting on his lack of chances when he returned as Grimsby Town’s roving striker in a 1978 League Cup tie, Lester mused, “City had so many good players around that time, but it seemed a time of changes. Johnny Hart was the manager but Tony Book was acting in a caretaker capacity. Then Ron Saunders arrived and the emphasis was on getting a balanced and settled team”.
Lester’s story was one of unfulfilled promise. Shunted between central defence and attack, he never settled, playing as a substitute in Turin, where he spiced things up nicely, Gary Owen exclaiming that he was the only player prepared to foul the Italians back as they conducted a hatchet job on City to knock the Blues out of Europe on a 2-1 aggregate.
Lester played upfront in a pre-season tour of Japan, but new manager Book was persevering with his plans to twin Joe Royle with Brian Kidd and Lester’s card was marked. After another single sub appearance at Loftus Road, he was snapped up by Dennis Viollet, then in charge of Washington Diplomats, for £10,000. Half that fee was enough to bring him back six months later after he was sacked by the Diplomats, ending up at Grimsby, where he played against City. There followed spells as brief as they were unspectacular at Barnsley, Exeter, Scunthorpe, Bradford and Stockport, before hanging his boots up at Blackpool.
For Lester, those fleeting moments in the mosh pit of the Stadio Communale in the presence of the likes of Franco Causio, Roberto Bettega and Gaetano Scirea represented the most exalted football company he would keep in a career spanning more than 380 games.
SIMON CURTIS (653)
09-03-23 Dave Wallace
With Mike down at Exeter when he was bought from Barnsley, I think. Hell of a player to train with. Silky skills was always balancing the ball on his head. Nice fella. Left and went to Bradford. Wish you well wherever you are. Lee sid Roberts.
18-11-21 Lee Roberts
I played with Mike Lester at St Francis junior school, Gorton, Manchester in 1964. He was a great footballer who was always destined to become a pro.
21-10-21 Steve Beaman