Published: 06:00, 12 September 2019
Olly Lee is glad he’s got a second chance with the Gills and is determined to make it count.
The on-loan Hearts midfielder admitted his head wasn’t right during his first spell.
Lee was sent out on loan to Gillingham from West Ham during the back end of the 2011/12 season. It was a tough time for the midfielder after he had just been told by then manager Sam Allardyce that he had no future with the Hammers.
He said: ”I was getting on the bench a fair bit under (former boss Gianfranco) Zola and I really thought it was within touching distance. I was training with the first team and I felt part of it, then managers change and things happen.
“It was a blow and it’s about how you react. I was just a kid, I had literally just been released by West Ham and I couldn’t handle it to be honest, the mental side took over me. I had been there since I was a kid and felt I was getting closer to it and then getting let go was a real blow to me.
“I think Gillingham was maybe the right club at the wrong time, because my mind-frame wasn’t in the right place. I couldn’t handle what had just happened to me.
“I don’t think I was quite ready for the step up into a real pressure environment where you need to be doing it. I look back at the time fondly. I met some good people, but I didn’t play anywhere near what was good enough. I would be first to admit that, so it is nice to hopefully give people a few fonder memories.
“I am glad I can come back and show a few what I am about.”
Gills’ weekend opponents Wycombe Wanderers played a key role in Lee’s path to the pro game – even thought he never played a game for them.
He was a late starter in the game, playing Sunday football for local side Upminster Park Rangers as a youngster, before a trial with Wycombe changed everything.
His dad Rob Lee, the former Newcastle and England midfielder, was eking out the last few years of a highly successful career with Wycombe in the mid-2000s and arranged for his oldest of two footballing sons, then 15, to have trial.
Olly, now 28, recalled the moment his dreams started to become a reality.
He said: “I only played one game for Wycombe and they said they wanted to take me on a scholarship but a West Ham scout was watching another lad and he saw me.
“He asked if I could trial at West Ham and it went from there. I was fortunate in that sense.
“West Ham was close to home, it was easier, my brother had been there. It was always something I felt I was going to do, I just didn’t know how it was going to happen.
“I was very lucky with how it happened but I think if you work hard you get the luck and you get the rewards. It was a really good time and I can’t speak highly enough of them. They helped me in my upbringing, it was brilliant.”
Football was in the blood and as a kid he would have the likes of Alan Shearer coming around to see his dad. There would often be kick-a-bouts in the garden.
“It was good fun growing up,” he said. “Shay Given used to play upfront, they swapped around, but I have put a few in his top corners!”
It’s been a roller-coaster career for Lee. Following his release by West Ham he moved to Barnet. Once again, a little bit of good fortune gave him a helping hand.
Barnet played Birmingham in the League Cup, Lee impressed, and before long he was moving up to the Midlands to join Lee Clark’s side, initially on loan.
He played 16 league games for them over two years but would eventually end up at Luton, spending three years with the Hatters and helping them to promotion from League 2 playing alongside younger brother Elliot.
“It was a great time for everyone in the family,” Lee said.
“I loved playing my football with my brother, we really complemented each other. It worked out well.”
It also meant their father didn’t have to split his time between the two.
That all changed with the opportunity to play in the Scottish Premier League with Hearts.
Lee played 41 games for the Jambos last season, scoring six goals, one of them to win the Edinburgh derby against Hibs. Shearer was among those to send his congratulations.
His final game, at the end of last season, came at Celtic Park, infront of 60,000 fans, the majority celebrating another title win.
But it turned out to be a day of anti-climax for Lee, injured early on and later finding out it would keep him out of the Scottish Cup Final, also against Celtic, six days later.
He said: “I was buzzing to have played at Celtic Park, it was a bit of a party atmosphere for them because they were celebrating winning their league but seven minutes in and my knee decides to go the wrong way. I slipped, it was so innocuous.”
Lee had damaged his medial collateral ligament and would be spending much of the summer in a knee brace. He was then told by manager Craig Levein that he wouldn’t be part of his plans this summer.
He said: “Football is about opinions, I thought we should play one way and he thought otherwise, it is something I don’t really think about too much. Thankfully Steve (Evans) has given me the opportunity to come here.”