There are a lot of new things in Olly Lee’s life right now. New manager, new house, new position. But perhaps the most important thing is a new lease of life for the 29-year-old, who is grasping a fresh opportunity at Hearts after freely admitting that his Tynecastle career was all but over.
A year ago, Lee had been farmed out to Gillingham on loan after falling out with then Hearts boss Craig Levein. When the Scotsman was replaced by Daniel Stendel last winter, Lee didn’t even get a phonecall from the German and resigned himself to life away from Edinburgh permanently. Things change quickly in football, though, and after Hearts’ demotion to the Championship and the arrival of Robbie Neilson in the dugout, Lee is starting games in the Jambos midfield and loving his football again.
Lee's family will join him in the Capital later this week when he gets the keys to his new house. This is a man who doesn’t see his future away from Tynecastle, and a man desperate to make up for lost time in a new No.6 role in Hearts’ engine room.
"It's really good to be back. I'm enjoying myself. It's been a good couple of weeks,” said Lee in an exclusive interview with the Evening News.
"It feels like a different club, it's been really good. It's been really positive – Robbie Neilson wants us to play out from the back and pass it a lot more than what we've done previously. That suits me.
"I didn't think I was going to come back, to be honest. I never thought that would happen. Thankfully the gaffer gave me a call in the summer, got rid of a few of my worries and I'm really enjoying myself.”
Neilson likes what Lee brings to the table. He has identified the former Luton player as someone who can bring a bit of everything to his midfield, fulfilling a slightly deeper position than when he first arrived at Hearts in 2018.
“I'm really enjoying that role,” said Lee. “It brings out my strengths – I can get on the ball, but I've also got the licence to get forward because I feel I can score goals as well, so it's just balancing that and learning that role a little bit more with every game. It's a role that I enjoy. I know I can play deeper, or higher, I feel I can do all the midfield roles so it's nice to have another string to my bow.
“I was playing No.10, in a diamond, for Gillingham, so I was a bit more attacking, but to be honest, some games that's a great position and others you just don't get into the game at all. The way we play here now suits my game. I can get on the ball and roam and find a way to get in the game.”
Lee may not have been part of Hearts’ car-crash 2019/20 season, but he still felt the impact. He was hoping to get a shot under Stendel, but it quickly became apparent he would remain in the south of England. “I never spoke to him [Stendel] once,” revealed Lee. “I thought I might get recalled in January, just even to have a look at me for a couple of weeks, but I never spoke to him.”
So what was it like watching it all unfold last season from Kent? “Horrible,” replied Lee. “I've said before about my pride of playing for this club – you look around the stadium and think, what a place to play. It's horrible to see the lads that you've worked hard with and then it not going so well, so I didn't take any joy out of it. But it is what it is, these things happen in football. People have different opinions on you but that doesn't matter now, it's all gone and we're looking forward to this season."
Life off the pitch for Lee is good right now too. He is a huge fan of the Capital and it will feel even more like home when his family are settled in their new lodgings after joining him in Scotland.
"I love Edinburgh,” said Lee. “It's a great city. I'd never been up here before joining Hearts, but I absolutely love it - beautiful place. I'm really enjoying my life up here. I still haven't got my house yet, but I'm meant to be moving in this week and get my family up. That'll make a big difference to me.”
The games will come thick and fast for Lee and his team-mates this month. There are three Betfred Cup matches before the Championship starts on October 16 against Dundee and then, on Hallowe’en, there’s the small matter of a Scottish Cup semi-final against Hibs at Hampden.
“Keep playing games and keep winning, that's the main thing,” said Lee, mindful however of that tie. “We all know that game is coming up and that's going to be a brilliant occasion. But even in pre-season, we've been saying 'win the next game, win the next game'.”
Lee does have history in the Edinburgh derby though, scoring the winner at Easter Road two Decembers ago. "Without a doubt that goal against Hibs,” Lee added when asked about his best moment in maroon. “I enjoyed that one. I do love seeing that back, so hopefully I can do it again.”
Considering the odds were stacked against him having a future at Hearts, you wouldn’t bet against Lee repeating the feat.