The Greatest England Captain We Never Had: An Interview With Manchester City's Paul Lake

Captain of Manchester City aged just twenty-one, and on the brink of England fame and glory, Paul Lake had the world at his feet until fate delivered him a devastating blow.
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Captain of Manchester City aged just twenty-one, and on the brink of England fame and glory, Paul Lake had the world at his feet until fate delivered him a devastating blow.
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On the 5th September 1990 twenty-one year old Paul Lake led his Manchester City side out to face Aston Villa after recently being installed as captain. Only months earlier he had been part of the Italia 90 provisional squad with Bobby Robson declaring that he had the youngster in mind as his national skipper for many years to come. Both club and country were building their teams around this extraordinary talent - a lad barely out of his teens - because he made every aspect of the game appear so easy. Whether it was a perfectly timed challenge, tearing apart United, his galloping elegance in possession, or nut-megging Gheorghe Hagi (and receiving a wink of appreciation from the grumpy genius in return) top-flight football equated to a kick-about in the park.

An hour into the Villa game Lake intercepted a pass intended for Tony Cascarino and his cruciate ligament ruptured. And that – at least act one, front of stage – was that. In such a seemingly innocuous moment – a stud caught in the turf, a player going down – City lost their next Colin Bell whilst England were deprived of a graceful, ball-playing number six of incalculable ability to guide them through a decade or more of international tournaments.

An indomitable six year battle to regain fitness ensued, with fifteen agonising operations coupled with prolonged, paralysing depression. Ultimately it amounted to heartbreak.

If life was fair Paul Lake would be a household name transcending the sport and widely considered, alongside Paul Gascoigne, as one of the greatest British players in recent times. But life is sometimes not fair. Occasionally it can be downright cruel.

On the sleeve of Paul Lake’s book I’m Not Really Here, that is out today, Noel Gallagher sums it up neatly – ‘It was like having one of your mates play for City. He would’ve captained England. No question. He was – and remains – one of us’.

When I interviewed Paul last week I was initially meeting my childhood hero. Within minutes I was chatting to a lovely, down-to-earth guy. There was no trace of bitterness at the lost dream he fought tooth and nail to preserve. Only a determination to tell his moving story, with a frankness and candour that is quite unlike anything you may have read before.

They say you should choose your heroes wisely. It was more down to luck and circumstance to be honest, but I certainly did.

On feeling invincible prior to his injury aged just 21….

The thing that people talk about is being at your peak – you get to the age of 27/28 and you’re considered to be at your peak – but I never felt so confident. This is really sad for me to talk about actually - this is not in the book – but I felt so confident in the game against Aston Villa. I felt as though I could have played for Barcelona and that’s not being arrogant, it’s just that I was seeing the ball so early. I felt fantastic and I couldn’t wait for the next training session. I couldn’t wait for the next game. I continued to surprise people and surprise Howard (Kendall). There was a training session before the Villa game and he put me on free-kicks. I was captain and playing centre-half and he said ‘right, you’re on free-kicks’. It was just ridiculous y’know but I just felt fantastic.

I’ve spoken to Sir Alex and he said that they were running the eye over me at United.

On being called ‘cool as f***’ by Liam Gallagher…..

Liam has done a piece in one of the City magazines that’s just come out today and he said I was ‘cool as f***’. That’s Liam talking about me! That’s pretty cool. That’s an accolade indeed.

On being a City fan on the pitch….

I used to feel it more as a City fan. I know how I’d feel if I was stood on the terraces or sat in the stands watching the game. It meant so much more to me.

Now my life has come full circle and I’m back to being a fan again and I’ve kept that whereas some players don’t actually enjoy watching a game anymore. Well I do. I’m a fan again and I’m thrilled to be a fan again.

This is how sad I am I’ve still got the semi-final and final on Sky Plus and they are going to be saved forever.

On City fans….

We are the flagship for the Premiership for me. I’ve got reds who are mates who said begrudgingly, after the semi-final, ‘Y’know what, I wish we had that. I wish we had the Poznan.’ There’s things that we do that just makes us so different and because of that self-deprecation in our mentality even if – God-willing – we are winning big, big trophies we’ll still bring some humour to that. And that’s why we’re different from Chelsea and Man United and Arsenal and always will be.

On being courted by Liverpool, United, Arsenal and Rangers…..

I’ve spoken to Sir Alex and he said that they were running the eye over me at United. He knew of Arsenal and he knew of Liverpool, and Glasgow Rangers as well at the time who were interested in myself and Andy Hinchcliffe. The reports varied from a million to three million to whatever and all these figures were bandied around but because you never had agents you never knew these things – not that it would have made any difference to me because I wanted to be the best that I could be in a sky blue shirt. That’s not said for effect, that’s just how I was.

On swallowing his tongue v Leicester and having the rules of the game changed…

I’ve seen it since on Youtube. I just watched the ball and followed it and headed it away. I think he either elbowed me in my throat or headed me in the temple but it was the way I landed. When I saw myself convulse on the pitch and then seeing the pieces in the paper that Dr Luft and (Physio) Roy Bailey had used a pair of scissors to get my tongue out - I find that bizarre as a physiotherapist and someone who is now trained in first aid because if you tilt the head back that muscle will eventually relax. But I think there was a panic at the time because they’d taken so long to get to me. That game set a precedent in that there now has to be a doctor present pitch side. So I have my uses as they say in football.

What I didn’t know until I spoke to the referee, who I’ve seen since at Eastlands, was that both captains had agreed not to carry on if I’d taken a turn for the worse.

I remember speaking to Gary McAllister years later and he said it was the weirdest experience on the pitch. That they were thinking ‘My God this kid might die here’.

On watching the 5-1 stuffing of United again on DVD…

Now and again I’ll just get the urge to put on one of the tapes and thankfully I know a guy who can convert them to DVDs – some of the technical guys at City are different gravy – so I have got the 5-1 and maybe twice a year I’ve just got to whack it on and relive those moments.

United fans just scarpering….it’s quite an enjoyable memory that to be fair.

When you’re out three months you can perhaps deal with it, when you’re out three years you want to knock somebody out.

On the injury…

People say that I was injury prone and that is such a frustration of mine because it was always my knee. It wasn’t an ankle, a hip or shoulder, it was my knee. That was always the one thing.

On the long road back….

This is going to sound really corny but if there was a rowing machine record at Lilleshall I had it. If there was a bike record I had it. I couldn’t work any harder. I was bench pressing 130 kilograms. I was as strong as an ox. In a straight line I was quick. I had everything going for me and yet at the same time it meant nothing. I was there (at City) to play football and I couldn’t do that so I was dismissed at an instant.

On feeling alienated as a long-term injured player…

I’d turn up at a training week after a spell of training by myself and some people didn’t realise that I hadn’t been there the week before. And these were players that - if I’d been fit and others injured at that time had been fit – wouldn’t have got in the reserve team. They were being paid three or four times more than I was…if not ten times more…..so you find it really hard and quite insulting. Looking back at those times now I understand totally. They had their own careers to look after. They own lives. Their own families.

The coaching staff is a different matter. It became quite tokenistic their gestures and when Brian Horton was there and David Moss was number two – and I worked for Mossy at Macclesfield Town and I got on great with him, he’s a great guy, but his comments that were all jokey-jokey…’Here comes sicknote’ and all that business….when you’re out three months you can perhaps deal with it, when you’re out three years you want to knock somebody out. I couldn’t bear being in their company. And then Frank Clark wouldn’t know me from Adam and then Alan Ball dismissed me as ‘Sorry, who’s that again?’ All these things were so hard to cope with. I felt like I was a fraud. I was embarrassed by all these things and it really, really got to me. I didn’t want to be there so, to all extent and purposes, Lilleshall became my home.

On the dreaded pre-season team photographs….

The team pictures became the most difficult thing of all. Seeing the new shirt. Smelling the new shirt.

I wouldn’t even know whether to go into the home changing rooms or the away. Did I have a pair of boots to put on? Where would I be in that picture? Should I be at the end? By the manger? No, no, I’ll be by the phsyio.

I’ve got a couple of shirts and they mean nothing to me. From the 1996 period they mean absolutely nothing to me. I know that sounds awful and I don’t mean to be disrespectful to City fans…

Whereas the maroon shirt…well that for me….I love that shirt. I want to wear it now with jeans but people might be saying ‘That’s too odd’ so I haven’t gone down that road but I’d love to wear it again y’know.

On the obsessive nature of recovery…..

Left to my own devices I was the forgotten man. You try and deal with it and think ‘well, I’ll show you’ but in the cold light of day as a single man, playing football, I had everything. Not being able to play football, I had nothing. And the thoughts of playing football was occupying my mind 24/7. From one season to the next wanting to play, not being able to play, because I had an injury. And those thoughts were going round my mind all the time. They never went away. Driving a car, sat in the bath, on the toilet, that’s all you think about.

The days and the nights where I openly sobbed at not being able to do what I wanted to do.

On sinking further into depression….

The days and the nights where I openly sobbed at not being able to do what I wanted to do. Through no fault of my own. I’d not broken someone’s leg or gone out and got drunk or whatever it was just….

So when certain papers were using terms such as ‘crock’, that used to send me into….that used to ruin my day. I know that sounds pathetic because it’s just a word but when you’ve dealt with the misery and heartache of waiting in the wings, never given the chance to going on the stage that’s how it got to you. I used to jumble these words in my head. It’s amazing, I don’t know if anyone will understand this, but I used to be able to connect a word to my stomach. It would knock me sick. I’ve read one thing and I’d instantly feel physically ill. That they could write that about me and I could have no comeback to that. My whole being - the man that I was - was kind of compartmentalised in a word then forgotten about, crumpled up and thrown away. But I’m in that piece of paper somewhere left lying there. When you have depression that really is how it impacts upon you. A phone call, a line in the paper - a miserable day, or you can not sleep for twenty-four hours. Unless you have, or have dealt, with depression those really dark, dark times…you don’t know how you’re going to cope with that. You’ve got to speak to people. You’ve got to get it into the open to try and deal with it. I internalised everything and that was the reason why I became so ill. If people read the book and realise that, with depression, you shouldn’t internalise everything because not only does it impact upon you, it impacts upon your girlfriend or wife, your kids, your mum, your dad, your brothers and sisters.

On how the club were oblivious to his depression…..

I had no-one to turn to. You look at medical teams now in the Premier League and Championship they’ll have four/five physios, four/five masseurs, sports psychologists, medical people on the sports science and rehab side. There is so much talent and medical knowledge to hand. Whereas I had one sports therapist who was everything and nothing at the same time.

Yet I don’t really blame anyone. The staff, to a degree should know better, but you’re also in an environment that’s run through banter. It’s the laughing and joking and what you did last night and what clothes you’re wearing. That was the conversation. It wasn’t ‘How you feeling mate? How you coping?’ I never heard those lines spoken once. It was not the done thing and was almost taboo.

So really what did I expect? In those days, with those mentalities, at that time in football, I wasn’t going to get what I needed.

On considering himself an ‘embarrassment’ to City fans…

I became a bit of a caricature and a bit of a joke really and the embarrassment I felt even to come to games in 93, 94 and 95 I wish in hindsight I just had the balls to think ‘stop now. Because you’ll help yourself physically, help yourself emotionally, psychologically…it would be better for you as a person to stop now’.

I still had this ridiculously small part in my brain that said a miracle was going to happen here.

On City’s bad times….

I was still in a dark place so I didn’t respond as a fan at that time. I wanted the best for my team and my colleagues even though I wasn’t playing then but once I retired there was still a window of two or three years where it was still painful for me to watch games and see our meteoric fall from grace. I still went to games where we saw such terrible results, where the fun came from the terraces, from Walsall away and seeing the groundsman’s a*se hanging out of his pants and singing songs about that rather than what was happening on the pitch. Having a squad of fifty players where you could play four or five teams playing round-robin games and each player is as poor as the next. It was a really poor time on the pitch and with clubs like United having so much success. It was only our famous fans in Liam and Noel and our humour that kept us sane in those days.

On retirement…..

It was having to close that door and move on. Having to force myself to think ‘okay, it time to reinvent yourself. It’s time to find a career for yourself and find a life again’.

If I’m being brutally honest I knew that it wasn’t going to happen for me from 94 onwards so even though that day comes it was like ‘Wow, I’m here now. I’m at this crossroads in my life’. I knew it was coming. I knew from 94 it was coming. But I still had this ridiculously small part in my brain that said a miracle was going to happen here. Even though I knew in my heart of hearts I was clinging on. I didn’t want to not have that glimmer of hope of being able to wear the shirt again.

On becoming a physiotherapist (Paul went on to work in all four divisions for Burnley and Bolton amongst others)…..

The reason why I went into physiotherapy was actually down to one person. Mandy Johnson, who’s now the head of the academy at Manchester United, said ‘Why don’t you turn all these negatives into a positive’?  It gave me a new lease of life and gave me a purpose and focus. I was a bit of an enigma with most managers in so far as I knew as much about football as they did whereas medically I could tie them in knots.

I helped the players from my own experiences and what didn’t go right for me. So I always looked out for their best interests - I got second or third opinions; I got the insurance cover for them; and gave them the right advice.

On being inducted into the Manchester City Hall of Fame and having his name emblazoned in the stadium…..

I’ve never thought of myself as having an ego and recently Joanne, my wife, said ‘Y’know what, you don’t have a picture of yourself playing football anywhere in the house’ and I haven’t. I’ve got friends of mine who are former players and they have shrines to when they were playing. I’ve never been that way but being awarded the Hall of Fame was absolutely everything to me. Being a part of the stadium is the most exciting thing. I can’t put into words how thrilled I am because I never knew that was there you know. It was Jason Manford who said when I met him ‘I sit by you’ and I said ‘Well, you don’t because I work on matchdays so I don’t sit anywhere Jason’ and he said ‘No, I’m sat by your name dickhead’ and I actually went out into the stadium and looked to see my name and I thought ‘wow!’

On his reasons for writing I’m Not Really Here…..

I’d always wanted to put straight in people’s minds that it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t want people thinking it was a weakness on my behalf because, at the time, Niall Quinn got fit, Richard Edghill, Roy Keane, Alan Shearer; an endless list of players who had a cruciate ligament repaired and had a full career. So why didn’t you?  Did you not try hard enough? I think that the book puts that story straight. Also I wanted to express the love that I have for my life in football. The good times at City. The great times as a fan and player. My love of Manchester and my love of music. I felt that it was a different type of story and having such a fabulous collaborator in my wife….

On having wife Joanne as his co-writer….

We’re best mates. We worked tirelessly for two and a half years. Our writing style was that I would sit on the floor with my backside against the radiator - which was quite cold because the heating would be turned off at half eleven - legs at ninety degrees in the air with my head supported by a cushion because I was resting my knee. We’d talk and she’d be fiercely typing. Often we’d spend three or four days on a sentence. That’s how the weeks became months and the months became chapters.

I’m just so proud of the book and I hope that the City fans can be as proud of it as we are. And that City fans think of me as I think of them.

On being able to one day look back with fondness…

I had such a fantastic time that I need to compartmentalise the misery but because I’ve unearthed it in the book its pretty raw still. Over the next six months to a year – when I’ve finished talking about the book and put it to bed – I will be able to do that and I’ll be able to look back fondly and concentrate on the good times. But at the moment, because those scabs have been taken off, it’s raw.

But I will….I have a hell of a lot of pride in wearing the shirt and hearing fans say such kind things about me is really touching and I will get back to those days. I will manage to do that. But at the moment I’m not there yet.

Paul Lake is now the Ambassador For Manchester City in the community. His book I'm Not Really Here is out now and published by Century priced £14.99 hardback.

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