FEW Borderers probably know that living among them is a footballer who has featured in the Champions League.
While Europe eagerly anticipates next Saturday’s final between Manchester United and Barcelona at Wembley, it was 16 years ago that Lee Makel appeared alongside Alan Shearer, Chris Sutton and Colin Hendry against Spartak Moscow and Rosenborg for Blackburn Rovers in the infant stages of the competition.
But the Lauder resident is now trying to give talented youngsters in his adopted home of the Borders a chance to follow him into professional football with the launch of Soccer’s Next Star.
The project, which will be piloted at Netherdale in Galashiels in July before going nationwide, will see three budding footballers from ages nine to 16 selected for an SPL academy following a series of skills tests.
Lee said: “It was an idea I developed with Dave McPherson, formerly of Rangers and Hearts.
“Everyone seems to think the area is just about rugby, which does have a massive influence, but football is becoming more and more popular. It is a region that is sometimes overlooked, but players such as John Collins, Kevin Thomson and Murray Davidson have been born and brought up here.”
Lee’s own big chance came in 1991 when he made his debut for Newcastle United, despite being a supporter of arch rivals Sunderland, the city he was born in.
After just one season at St James Park, the 38-year-old moved to Blackburn in a £160,000 switch.
But despite featuring in Rovers’ disastrous Champions League campaign, capped by Graeme Le Saux and David Batty’s infamous fight in a freezing Moscow, Lee would only make four more appearances for the Ewood Park team.
His first move north came in 1998, when fellow Lauder resident Jim Jefferies signed the midfielder up for Hearts. Two months later, he was part of the squad that lifted the Scottish Cup by defeating Rangers 2-1.
However, it was his move to Livingston that was to prove the pinnacle in Lee’s career.
He said: “Alongside playing in the Champions League, Livingston was definitely the highlight. To finish third, win the CIS Cup and play in Europe was fantastic.
“I tell all the boys I coach to savour every moment because your career flashes by so quickly. I remember starting out as a 17-year-old at Newcastle like it was yesterday.”
In total, Lee has chalked up 12 different clubs, including two spells in Sweden with Östersunds, the second as player/manager.
He turned out for club number 12 Cowdenbeath last Saturday, as the Blue Brazil were relegated to Division Two via a play-off defeat to Brechin City.
And he has not ruled out another season of playing football, despite looking for an opportunity in management.
Lee told us: “I was really interested in coaching kids, but – like a lot of players as they get older – I became interested in management.
“Ideally I would like to go into coaching or management, but it is hard to get these positions, especially in Scotland.
“If nothing comes up then I will look to carry on playing.”
Settled with his family in the Borders, Lee is currently focused on his latest project.
He said: “Soccer’s Next Star will give the kids down here an opportunity to get some coaching and show their skills off.
“My brother Gavin coordinates Manchester City’s summer camps and I have picked up some sessions from him.
“There are also some unusual skills tests which I have picked up. We would do these skills sessions in pre-season or during the season when morale is a bit low.
“It will be about enjoyment, but it will also be a challenge, which will be at different levels between the age groups.”
Academy managers for the four SPL sides are due to run their eye over potential players, and current Hearts and Hibs players are expected to help present the prizes to those who have shone the brightest.
“I have lived here for five years and have done some coaching with the SFA, and have seen a lot of talent,” added Lee.
For more information, visit www.soccers-next-star.com from Monday.