29 Juli 2011
Over here please Mr Lake. Are you with us, or not? No… I’m not really here
Those are details a man remembers.
Another is that eight months later Lake joined Gascoigne in Bobby Robson’s provisional England squad for Italia ’90. Lake had just turned 21, he was captain of Manchester City and like Gascoigne, 22, he was one of England’s coming footballers.
Lake missed out on that World Cup but from Robson there was an FEC of a consolation. As with fabled fellow Mancunian Michael Atherton, FEC referred to Future England Captain. That is what Lake was in Robson’s opinion. Robson was not alone: City had given Lake a five-year contract. He had been part of the first-ever City team to win the FA Youth Cup, beating local rivals United in the final. In the famous City 5-1 win over United in 1989, Lake set up the second and fourth goals. He could play anywhere in defence or midfield. Paul Lake was the future. We all know what happened to Gascoigne and Atherton. So it is tempting to ask the question: whatever happened to Lake?
He was just 26.
But that five-year contract meant Lake still belonged to Manchester City. Thus in the summer of 1995 Lake was still there for the new-season squad photo at Maine Road. He had not played for nearly three years and, feeling uncomfortable and unworthy, he was sufficiently distracted for the photographer to ask: ‘Over here please, Mr Lake, are you with us or what? ‘In his head Lake replied: ‘No, I’m not really here.’Fast-forward 15 years and I’m Not Really Here is the title of Paul Lake’s happy, sad, thought-provoking autobiography.
Its sub-title is A Life of Two Halves and the dispiriting journey from high visibility to invisibility is captured on the cover. There is a jigsaw of that ’95 City squad photo with a piece missing. It is Lake’s face. I’m not really here. Sitting outside City’s new stadium, Lake took himself back two decades and explained: ‘I’d just had a particularly good end to the 89-90 season and Howard Kendall was impressed. So I signed a five-year contract. It was on the premise that after 10 games as captain I’d be made the club’s highest-paid player.’He was aware that some bigger clubs were starting to look at me. Within two-and-a-half games of that conversation I had my first cruciate ligament injury.’I had this five-year deal. So I spent pretty much five seasons trying to get fit. With every false dawn, with every bit of surgery, I just seemed to be ebbing away. ‘By the time of my last season I was probably at my lowest. You can imagine the dressing room at the start of a new season – “Who are the new players? Where’s the first game? What’s the pre-season tour?” There’s excitement. ‘But I didn’t belong there any more. That’s where the front cover of the book comes from. The photographer actually asked me, “Are you really here, Mr Lake?” ‘I was anywhere but. I’d rather have been hiding in a cupboard, or at home watching daytime TV, or on a bus going anywhere. I didn’t belong any more. It was a token gesture by me because I had that contract. I had to be visible. And there was always that glimmer of hope that there might be a miracle. ‘I thought to myself, “No, I’m not really here”. When you combine that with the similar City chant, it fitted perfectly for the book title. ‘The jigsaw was also my idea. That epitomised those five years. ‘In a sense I was teasing the fans, almost insulting them, because I was the Next Big Thing supposedly. ‘And yet: I was there, then I wasn’t there. What was my purpose?
‘I’d played 130 games yet there was such expectation. I had such unfulfilled hopes. I used to go upstairs at Maine Road and look at the scroll of honour, look at names like those of Colin Bell and Joe Corrigan. I wanted to be the most-capped name on that board. That was my dream. ‘To play for England Under 21s (right), the England B team and have a little taste of the full squad, and to have Bobby Robson say that he had me down as a future England captain, those were such exciting times for me. And then . . . all those hopes slowly slipped away.’
The words flow from Lake without self-pity or bitterness, and he is entitled to both. What happened to Lake is a personal and sporting tragedy. That cruciate ligament injury he referred to occurred in early September 1990, three games after Lake had been made captain by Kendall.
It was against Aston Villa at Maine Road with new England manager Graham Taylor in attendance, and Alex Ferguson. Lake had just intercepted a pass from Tony Cascarino when he ‘felt a weird clunk in my knee . . . I lay on the pitch in the foetal position, frozen with shock, totally unaware that my life had changed for ever’. City were unaware too. After two days of ice and compression on his right knee, Lake was sent for an X-ray. The assessment was: ‘You’ll be back around the six-week mark. ‘Lake was 21, a City fan as a boy, now team captain. He was thrilled with where he was. He trusted City. As he writes in his book: ‘I was given the impression that, while it was more than just a knock, it certainly wasn’t as serious as everyone had initially feared. I wouldn’t need to see the consultant again, I was told, and an MRI scan of my ligaments and tendons wouldn’t be necessary.’ As you may have guessed, this was incorrect analysis. Six weeks became six months and a belated scan led to the first of 18 operations on his right leg alone – his left has had to be straightened
as well. City’s boy wonder, the future England captain, became in his description ‘a ghost of seasons past’. It was not immediate. Lake put himself through one gruelling rehabilitation after another. He was so often in recovery at Lilleshall he spent almost a year of his life there. But Lake did not sleep well at Lilleshall and that had a lasting effect. He had a recurring nightmare where he was ‘lying lifelessly on top of a
rubbish tip like a discarded tailor’s dummy . . . not the hardest of dreams to psychoanalyse, I imagine’.
Manager Peter Reid spoke of ‘like having a new £3m signing’ – and £3m was transfer-record territory in 1992. So when next year, on the 20th anniversary, they re-screen the Premier League’s first-ever live BSkyB Monday-night match, Lake will be seen playing for City against QPR at Maine Road. He lasted an hour.
Two days later City were at Middlesbrough. Lake convinced himself and everyone else that he was fit. He wasn’t. After seven minutes he made a pass to Steve McMahon and collapsed. His knee ligament had snapped again. Six weeks later grumpy City chairman Peter Swales finally agreed to pay for Lake to travel to Los Angeles to see the surgeon who had rescued the knees and careers of Ian Durrant and John Salako. Lake travelled first-class but, to his disbelief, he returned in economy, all 6ft 1in of him, and his crutches and his just operated-on knee. Landing in Manchester he had to get a wheelchair.
He felt he had become ‘an irritant’ to Swales and City, who suggested that he recover in gyms in south Manchester. It was a step away from the club, the dressing room, the noise and into solitude and silence. What hope there was evaporated. Lake never played again. And he had depression. Today Lake generously describes the treatment he received from City as ‘of a time’. He never sued the club, primarily because he was a supporter. He had been first taken to Maine Road – which he still calls ‘my church’ – in 1976 by the local milkman, Albert. It is one of many beguiling details in a book that captures a time, a place and a club.
Sheila Take A Bow, In A Lonely Place.
At one point when thinking of career whatifs, Lake summons Jim Bowen’s Bullseye programme, when the losers were always shown ‘what you could have won’. He tells the story from May 1989 when City needed to beat Bournemouth at Maine Road to ensure promotion. City were 3-0 ahead at half-time. Manager Mel Machin decided to forego a team talk, instead introducing a motivational speaker. It was ‘funnyman’ Eddie Large, who proceeded to do impressions of Cliff Richard, Frank Carson and Benny from Crossroads. City drew 3-3. Lake had grown up in a normal, loving family in Denton in Manchester. His brother Michael played for Sheffield United.
But as his knee injuries came to define his career, Lake felt unable to discuss the despair gathering inside his head. He had moved out, and while he had a girlfriend, he was living alone.’I had no outlet, no back-up support, I was clinging on by my fingernails.
Every single day I asked myself, “How is my knee?” Every . . . single . . . day.
‘I’d walk to the corner shop and be asked, “How’s that knee of yours?” ‘I was so upset. I had to drag myself out of bed. I dreaded match-day. I had that perfunctory greet-the-fans role – and I love them – but I suppose they were even getting sick of me. One fan mistook me for David White. I signed his ball “David White”. It lightened my day. ‘Depression’s in your head but you can’t express it, you don’t know how to. I was a young man. I was trying to conform to a professional persona.’I think my managers were sympathetic, and in some ways empathetic, but it was never an environment to broach it. You bottled it up. Then there’s no escape valve. So where do you go?
‘I’d stand on the bridge and wonder, “Where’s he driving to?”, “What’s he doing with his life?” That helped me get nearer to the following day without me having to think about my life, where I was. I felt I had nothing to look forward to. I felt I was letting everyone down, my family, my friends, the fans, myself. I felt my testosterone had left my body, seeped away. ‘ The music literally stopped. Lake could no longer stand to hear it. At last he found the will to speak to a psychiatrist. He was informed he was ‘in mourning’ for his career. In a way Lake was pleased to hear someone identify that and say it out loud. ‘It was putting into perspective the reasons for feeling what I was feeling. There was also the realisation that it was normal. But I still felt, “What on earth is my purpose?”, and “What am I going to do next?”‘
Lake formally retired on January 4, 1996, aged 27.
Alan Ball was City’s new manager. He thought it would be a good idea for Lake to be photographed hanging up his boots. Lake was unimpressed. Ball’s casual attitude confirmed that Lake no longer existed as a footballer. A devastated young man had been left bewildered once already when, having asked to collect his medical records from the club, he was told ‘they had been shredded because’ – and I quote – ‘they didn’t make any sense’. But the second half of his life had begun and after a testimonial match in 1997, for which Ferguson delivered a full United XI – and for which Lake remains enthusiastically grateful – he went to college. The medical case studied biology at South Trafford and qualified as a physiotherapist at Salfor d University. From there he re-entered football and City. He then got jobs at Macclesfield, Burnley and Bolton. Lake has been able to dispense physical and emotional advice: ‘It’s not a weakness to talk, it’s a strength. It shows character. You can be stronger for it. ‘He thinks clubs are becoming more understanding of broad player welfare. His self-esteem and testosterone drive gradually returned – he is married with three children – and depression is being held at bay.
The music is on again.
‘As much as how I was treated medically was a source of upset and frustration, there were also some really happy times at Maine Road.’I suppose the 5-1 was the highlight, but then there was the first home game of that season when I was captain. I was so proud, it meant so much to me I had to try not to well up. Mike Doyle, Paul Power. That’s now me! I’ve got that armband on and Peter Reid is behind me!
‘I look back at my playing days and my source of regret is that I didn’t have 10 or 15 games, where I could give it a proper go. I’m a player governed by my injuries, my woes, millstones instead of milestones. ‘I want to try to escape that so I’m not remembered for that. Yet I am. Even now people say it, “How’s that knee of yours?” ‘The questions will go on, for Lake has a discernible limp. To visit his publishers in London recently he needed three anti-inflammatories. But Lake is smiling. In March last year he was invited to join City’s community project and he now has the title of ambassador. He loves it and City must love him.
So much of who he was and what he was going to be has gone – he made his City debut at Plough Lane, home debut at Maine Road, last game at Ayresome Park – but Paul Lake is back at the heart of the club.