(Picture: Action Images)
By Chris Dunlavy
YOU know Lee Tomlin right? Fat lad, bad attitude, once skinned Vincent Kompany but blew his big chance in the Premier League.
“Yeah, that sounds about right,” laughs the Bristol City playmaker when presented with the accusations that regularly bookend the sentence ‘Lee Tomlin, great player but…’
By his own admission, Tomlin is no angel. A career littered with red and yellow cards is testament to that. On-field bust-ups. Dressing room spats. Lengthy bans.
“I’ve heard it all,” admits Tomlin, now 27. “But I’ve always said that once you work with me, you’ll see I’m not a bad person. I think a lot of people misunderstand me. I play on the edge – always have – and that’s how I get the best out of myself.
“In the past, I’d channel it badly. When people brought me down, I’d get frustrated, lash out. But if you look at my record, I haven’t been sent off for a couple of years now.
“I try not to get as annoyed. I try to see it as a positive – if they’re fouling me, it’s because they’re scared of me.
“At the start of the season, I was getting smashed. Refs would be saying ‘Play on, he didn’t touch you’. I’ve had cards for diving, despite the fact somebody’s basically stood on the middle of my shin.
“When I was younger, that would have been a red rag. Now, I think ‘Let it go… get the ball and keep hurting them’. Lee Johnson, the gaffer here, has been really good with that. He always says that the best thing I can do is shrug it off and enjoy beating people.”
Then, of course, there are the various pictures showing Tomlin looking less than trim, gut apparently bulging over his waistband.
“Yeah, that’s the other thing that always gets questioned,” sighs the former Middlesbrough and Bournemouth forward. “But you can do any test you want – my body fat is low. I’m quite short and I’ve got low ribs that stick out. From a side angle, it looks like I’m fat. But ask anyone I’ve played with and they’ll tell you it’s just not true.
“When I was at Middlesbrough, I remember Jonathan Woodgate going ‘Hey fatty, take your top off’. When I did he’d say ‘Wow, look at that’ – he knew all along that I wasn’t fat and it was his way of letting me know.”
For Tomlin, who left the Riverside in 2015, ex-Real Madrid and England defender Woodgate remains a friend and mentor.
“Woody was massive for me,” he adds. “He told me not to listen to the critics, to the people who said I was wrong and tried to change my game. I can’t thank him enough.
“For everything he’s done in football and all the clubs he’s played for, he’s the most down-to-earth, genuine person you could ever meet.
“He still rings me and he’s always saying ‘You should be doing this or that’. A lot of the time you get close to someone but you stop playing together and that’s it. With Woody, he’s still taking an interest and looking out for me.”
So, too, was Gillingham boss Justin Edinburgh, his manager at Rushden & Diamonds, the club he joined at 16 following his release by Leicester City.
“What a guy and what a manager,” he says. “He’s an unbelievable person who really deserves to go all the way to the top.
“He’s had to battle his way up without help from anyone but he’s got a lot of confidence in himself and he put that confidence into his players. He trusts them, protects them, he’s straight down the line with every player. That’s why they always produce. I’m still close with him.”
In person, Tomlin is disarmingly honest and forthright. He recalls how Boro boss Aitor Karanka “wouldn’t speak to us for days” following a defeat.
“Some people didn’t like it, but it worked for me,” he says. “You saw he cared and it put you on edge – you’d be thinking ‘I don’t want this again, we’d better win Saturday’.”
He laughs when he thinks of the Etihad FA Cup tie when he rinsed Vincent Kompany with a magical pirouette only to see his shot careen off the post.
“I think it was Jermaine Jenas who was commentating on it and he said it would have been shown like Giggsy’s goal against Arsenal. Oh well… never mind.”
And he explains why last season’s dream move to Bournemouth went sour, resulting in first a loan and then permanent move to Ashton Gate.
“The problem for me was that Callum Wilson got injured,” says Tomlin. “Eddie Howe had already said to me ‘The only person I see you playing with is Callum’, so that was it.
“Obviously it was a lot worse for Callum than it was for me and I’m glad he’s OK now. But I didn’t want to sit there and waste a season on the bench.
“I love playing football. You might be at a Premier League club but if you’re sitting in the stand you’re not a Premier League player. It was an easy decision.”
What Bristol have procured then, is a masterful technician and avowed free spirit who, refreshingly for a modern footballer, is both candid and cocksure.
“Honestly, once I get the ball and do what I do, then I personally don’t believe there’s anyone better in the Championship,” he says. “Even when I came on as a sub against Hull in the cup. I ran past five first-team Premier League players like they were nobody. Like they weren’t even there.
“In the past, a few of my managers have told me to drop deep, help the team out, this, that and the other. Here, the gaffer says ‘Don’t worry about them – make them worry about you’. It’s perfect for me.”
*This article was originally featured in The FLP on Sunday 6th November.