Exclusive: Lee Tuck - From Halifax to Terengganu, the Englishman who outlasted Tony Cottee

Lee Tuck, Terengganu FC, 4 Nov 2020
In this exclusive Lee Tuck explained his footballing journey, coping with no football and why the Harimau Malaya dream is very much alive.

For a country that has given to the world one of the most furious and exciting leagues in the world in the Premier League and produces thousands of players on a yearly basis, it is surprising that not many Englishmen have been sought out by Malaysian teams over the years.

Former West Ham star Tony Cottee and former Arsenal duo in David Rocastle and Chris Kiwomya were among those that graced the M-League back in the 90s but they did not set the trail blazing for more of their countrymen being employed here.

So when Lee Andrew Tuck arrived in Negeri Sembilan in 2017 from Abahani Limited Dhaka, having helped the Bangladeshi side win the league in 2016, not many would have envisaged the impact and longevity that Lee would have on the professional game in Malaysia.

In the end, it turned out to be the perfect move for Lee who after spending a season with the Premier League outfit, joined Terengganu in the Super League the following season and has been a pivotal player in the Turtles’ rise up the footballing food chain.

Lee Tuck, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Malaysia Cup, 29/07/2017

“I went from England to Thailand and Bangladesh - which are places that are very different with very different cultures and different football. Coming to Malaysia, I didn’t know too much about Malaysia. I didn’t see too many games online and I didn’t know too many people who played here,” Lee told Goal.

“But I spoke to one or two people and they told me about the environment. The fans are really motivated and passionate about their teams. When the opportunity came, I actually had the choice of going back to Thailand or moving to Malaysia.

“I fancied something new and I thought it would be a new challenge. So when I came, I was very surprised when I was at Negeri. It was very clean and very modern. A lot of shopping malls, restaurants and cafes. The facilities were fantastic so my first impression was this is better than expected. 

“The culture is really warming and the people are really friendly. Straightaway I felt that this is where I want to play and from the get-go, we started winning games and I had a good time with the players. The fans were nothing like what I’ve felt before, we were getting 30k-40k fans for league and cup matches. 

“The most surprising thing out of everything was probably the interest in football here. The fans knew and wanted to know about absolutely everything. Obviously with social media, I have those interactions with fans and it was clear that the passion for football is amazing.”

But despite landing on Malaysian shores at the age of 29 after starting his days at the Conference level in England and then a good five years in Thailand, this country turned out to be not a stranger to Lee, who appeared to have ties with this Southeast Asian country via one of his grandparents.

Lee Tuck, Terengganu FC

Having made the big decision in 2010 to accept a new challenge outside of England, Lee quickly saw the benefit of making such a move, opening his eyes to a wider horizon while being able to do what he loves to - which is to play football.

“It has crossed my mind a few times (coming to play here in Malaysia) but the mentality of English players is England is the best place to play football and there is nowhere better. There aren't many opportunities for English players to go overseas, you don’t have agents who have actually come to England to take players.

“It just came out of the blue the opportunity to go to Thailand. I had a friend who went to Thailand and the opportunity came through that. Of course the best place for me to play is Malaysia where I could eventually play for the national team. 

“But just because it was a distant relative, coming here wasn’t necessarily something that is in the front of my mind. I really wanted to make it as a top player in England, which is very difficult. I made it to the conference level, which is the lower professional leagues in England.

“But I think I made the right decision in going to Thailand. Just to open up my mindset, the lifestyle, the environment and opportunity to play in front of massive fans throughout Southeast Asia. To be honest, you don’t get that with the lower leagues in England, so I definitely made the right choice at 21.”

However making the right choice doesn’t mean that his Asian adventure hasn’t come with its own set of challenges, particularly in ensuring that his livelihood and earning continues. Eight different teams in 10 years can mean a lot of things but in this instance, less of a reflection on Lee himself than the way things are in this region.

Lee Tuck, PKNS FC v Terengganu FC, Malaysia Cup, 17 Sep 2019

Unlike in Europe, teams here are often limited by the number of import players they can sign and have a tendency to make the change on a yearly basis with contracts more often than not, written to only 12 months. But having spent the last three seasons with Terengganu, it would seem he has finally found a place to call home.

“I’ve had more clubs than Tiger Woods! No, I think what it is, is that you can only sign three foreign players to one team. I think the mentality of Southeast Asia is that they like to sign new players. If the player is injured, they always want to change even if you’re the top goalscorer in the league. They need the foreign players to play all the time.

“I’ve been quite fortunate that I’ve been free of injuries. A lot of the clubs here don’t tend to keep players longer than one to two years. I’ve been quite fortunate that I’ve stayed at Terengganu for three years now. I know I can stay for another year but I haven’t spoken to the club even though they know I’m interested in staying here.

“I just think that I’ve been consistent throughout my time here. I feel like they can see that I give 100% week in week out. And I’ve had a good relationship with the club, the fans and the players. And I hope that I can continue to do that, to keep improving myself, the club and to stay here. 

“So yeah, a lot of clubs keep changing players but if you get it right with the right club, that’s where you want to stay, really.”

Lee is well aware of the fact that he’s on the wrong side of 30 right now but batted away any suggestion that his time as a footballer is winding down as he’s looking at just the opposite of that. These days it would seem that top professional players have extended their stay at the elite level as is shown by Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Age wise, Lee is younger than those two and because of the incredible self-discipline he imposed on himself, it’s easy to see how he remains an attractive option for teams going forward despite hitting his 32nd birthday back in June of this year.

Lee Tuck, Safawi Rasid, Terengganu FC v Johor Darul Ta

“Just because of my fitness and my discipline to stay fit, I think I’ve got quite a few years left. I’m always the first to do the running, always the one to do extra in the gym. So fitness wise, I’m there. Age is just a number. As long as I stay injury free, I don’t think there will be any problems in the next few years. But that’s the key - to stay injury free. 

“Because the mentality in football is that if you’re over 30 and you’re injured, there isn’t an interest to keep the player, no matter where it is in the world. That’s the way it goes in football. So I just keep to doing what I do, to stay fit and perform. The rest is up to the club.”

Just like the other players and to a large extent, all the footballers around the world, Lee experienced something this season that he had never gone through in all his time as a professional player - the enforced break because of a global pandemic outbreak.

The regular routine of going to work to train and prepare for matches, the traveling to away games and the recovery afterwards - all slashed away. Like his peers and colleagues, Lee was consigned to staying at home and to work on his own individually. It would be fair to say that Lee’s dedication to his trade is nothing short of incredible!

“When we first got the lockdown, people were just in wonderland, wondering what they were going to do. I narrowed down what it is I needed to do. I knew that was going to be at home for a long time. It gave me an opportunity to do different styles of training which I never got the chance to.

"Normally when you train with the club, you’ve got to train harder with the team and when you want to train something else, you can do light training because you don’t want to be too tight for the usual team training and matches. I did a lot of long distance running and cycling. About three hours a day, indoors at first then when the lockdown was lifted, outdoors. I have an indoor bike, indoor treadmill - so running for hours on end.

"Not just the fitness but mentally as well. I love training and I’ve got an addiction to training. But when you’re locked in four walls, there’s only so much you can do and you’ve got to get creative. We do get the training plan but it’s not the same as training on the pitch. You do what the coaches sent but very quickly I decided to set up something additional for myself.

“Because mentally I was getting down because I was just stuck inside the house. I needed to release a lot of energy. So I ended up buying a running machine, borrowed a bike from my friend and bought a chest freezer to do ice recovery.

“From there I made a program where I got up everyday at 7am before my daughter got up. Try to do my program and training. After that just relax with my family. Just mentally more than physically because it can be tough being stuck indoors especially when you’ve got an active lifestyle, that’s going from one extreme to another.

Lee Tuck, Kedah v Terengganu, Super League, 7 Mar 2020

“When we returned to training, I got the news that my ‘Nana’ (grandmother) died but there was no way we could fly back. So that was a very difficult period of time as well. So it was an up and down roller coaster for me but that’s part of life and we just gotta deal with what happened and adapt to everything.

“It’s been tough but it’s an opportunity for players to take advantage as well. I think some players took it in the negative way. We can’t go home, we haven’t got games for so many months so it can be soul destroying in a way.

“But I always try to look at the positive side of things and that’s how I dealt with it really. I got up early to train and spent the rest of the day with my family, which is a massive positive because I get to spend time with my daughter and my wife.”

When the 2021 season rolls around, it would be Lee’s fifth straight season in Malaysian football and considering what happened to Liridon Krasniqi at the start of the 2020 season in gaining his Malaysian passport, the same could yet happen to Lee. 

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A lot of fans have been eagerly awaiting his link-up with the Malaysia national team and Tan Cheng Hoe has always said that he valued the midfielder, it seems a match made in heaven after Lee has completed the required continuous stay in the league to entitle him to begin a naturalisation process.

“There’s been a lot of talk for a very long time. I think with these things, the process takes a long time because it’s not something that can be done very easily. But as it stands, the best solution for me is to stay another season here and do as well as I can. Then I could get that chance where they want me to be part of the national team.

“Hopefully at the end of the next season coming up, I will get the chance to wear the national jersey. But that is not my decision to make. People know that my interest is there. So we’ll just have to see where it is with that one,” he explained.