Paul Lake: 'I hated the 1990s. Ten years of my life had been a complete washout'

The Brian Viner Interview: Paul Lake was tipped for superstardom with Man City and England but a horror knee injury forced him to retire at 27. A decade of despair followed but his life is finally back on track
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The Independent Online

It is now more than 22 years since the greatest day of Paul Lake's life as a professional footballer, a day when nobody could have envisaged, least of all Lake himself, that the road ahead would be shrouded by regret, reproach, depression, despair.

The greatest day was Saturday 23 September, 1989. Manchester City 5 Manchester United 1. Lake was 20 years old, a boyhood City fan playing in his first Manchester derby, and helping to dish out what is still one of the biggest drubbings of Sir Alex Ferguson's long tenure as United manager.

For Lake, an England Under-21 international tipped for superstardom, and already a Maine Road favourite, it seemed like the start of something special. In fact, it was closer to being the end of something special.

"Looking back now," he says, wistfully looking across the pitch at the Etihad Stadium from high in the stand, just below the yet-to-be refurbished Carlos Tevez-themed hospitality box, "I hated the 1990s. Aside of my eldest son being born, and seeing Oasis's second-ever gig, all of the 1990s, 10 years of my life, was a complete washout."

His words hang heavily in what, for east Manchester, is unusually warm autumn air. But since this is derby week, with City for once looking down on United from the top of the Premier League, let us start the interview, as his career began, on a high.

For City fans, the 111th derby was so sweet that the sweetness still lingers. Their team, newly promoted, had suffered a miserable start to the season, and injuries forced manager Mel Machin to pick players woefully lacking in experience, if not in awareness of the occasion's significance. On his teamsheet that day were no fewer than six boyhood Blues who had risen from the youth ranks. It was a different footballing world from the one City bestride today, except that then, as now, beating United was the Holy Grail.

"I've met fans who missed the game because they got married and they've hated the date ever since," says Lake, chuckling. "It was incredible, but we were that nervous beforehand, we'd have been happy with a draw. We were underdogs even at Maine Road, and for the first 10 minutes they were on top. It took their fans spilling on to the pitch from the North Stand to have the game interrupted, and while we were off, Mel Machin and particularly [coach] Tony Book got us to re-focus. After that we won every header, every tackle. By the fifth goal there was not a United fan left in the stadium."

After Mark Hughes had bagged a typically spectacular goal shortly after half-time to make it 3-1, a United comeback seemed possible. But then came City's fourth, Lake driving forward from midfield and squaring for Dave Oldfield to score. Celebrating the goal, Lake spotted an old schoolmate of his among the United fans in the Platt Lane Stand. He grinned and pumped a fist, and got an arc of phlegm in return. It missed, but narrowly, and the following week, in a clothes shop in the city centre, Lake came face to face with the same bloke, who apologised for "gobbing" at him and offered to make amends. "Tell you what, Lakey," he said, earnestly. "Pick anything out of this shop, anything at all ... and I'll nick it for you."

It's a marvellous story, nicely recounted in Lake's engrossing autobiography, I'm Not Really Here: A Life of Two Halves. On the day we meet, Lake is feeling a little deflated. The long list of contenders for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award has just been announced, and his book isn't on it. It should be. It's the best football autobiography I've read since Paul McGrath's Back From The Brink, and a similarly heart-rending chronicle of the vicissitudes of a sporting life. Where McGrath's problems were self-inflicted, though, Lake's were caused by injury and what he believes was inadequate treatment by the City medical staff.

The facts are plain enough. On 5 September 1990, Manchester City v Aston Villa, Lake had just been made team captain, and the new England manager, Graham Taylor, was in the crowd at Maine Road to run an eye over him and David Platt. But in the 65th minute, seconds after skinning the aforementioned McGrath, Lake caught his studs in the turf, and fell awkwardly. It was the start of the downward plunge of fortune's rollercoaster. He had ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, which need not have been the beginning of the end, and yet it was. The following spring, after he had been given the go-ahead to start light training, his knee collapsed again. Then, after a few more months at the FA's rehabilitation centre at Lilleshall, he was advised, against his own better judgement, to pull on his boots. After 15 minutes of a practice game, on the first day of pre-season training, the ligament re-ruptured.

Intensive further rehab followed, and numerous operations. Although he played again, he never trusted his knee, was never the player he had been. And the meticulous care from the FA physios, he says in the book, "contrasted sharply with the understaffed and time-starved medical team at City". He came to despise the club's chairman, Peter Swales, who increasingly treated him as an irritant. And although Peter Reid, who by then was the manager, persuaded Swales to foot the bill for Lake to fly to Los Angeles to see a top knee man, he was forced to travel home, though still reliant on crutches, in a cramped economy seat. The club physiotherapist flew business class.

There were further indignities. And eventually, in January 1996, Paul Lake retired. He was 27. Subsequently, he trained as a physio himself, but gave it up after 10 years when he could no longer cope, emotionally, with giving footballers the treatment and advice he believes he should have received himself.

Next week he will turn 43, which at least is an age by which all top footballers have retired. And he is back at City. When former chief executive Garry Cook offered him a job as ambassador in the community, he jumped at it, still keen to embrace a club that, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, has been his life. But it is not a marriage. He has a marriage, his second, to Jo, who wrote the book with him. At a function one evening someone asked why it hadn't worked out for him, when so many others recover from ACL injuries. "I got quite upset by that, and when I got home, Jo said, 'Why don't we do your book?'"

As I say, the book is terrific; stylish and often piercingly candid. Were they worried, writing it, that maybe there was too much candour, that reputations would be impugned? "I haven't named names," he says, flatly. "And the things that happened, happened."

Might they be happening still? On Saturday, Owen Hargreaves made his league debut for City. Coincidentally, it was a home match against Aston Villa. And coincidentally, too, Hargreaves has railed about Manchester United's medical staff much as Lake accuses those who treated him at City. I ask him whether he discerns any parallels.

He smiles. "I think there are emotional parallels. Owen went from being one of the first names on England's teamsheet, never mind Manchester United's teamsheet, to being almost the forgotten man of football. Money doesn't come into it. All your hopes, dreams lie on the football pitch, and when that's taken away from you, it's hard. But I would suggest that his treatment, even though he's saying that it wasn't all it should have been, is a far cry from the way I was treated.

"I was pretty much left to my own devices. I was advised to come back too soon, I had to battle to see a consultant in America, and my post-operative treatment was not even of a standard that semi-professional footballers get now. The psychological ramifications of all that are laid bare in the book and are still quite raw."

Pyschologically, though, he is a sight healthier than he was 15 years ago. He became depressed, and his first marriage broke up under the strain. "I used to end up walking the streets at 2am, 3am. I found myself over a motorway bridge in Cheadle once, and a police car stopped, asked if everything was OK. I never got to the stage where I believed I would commit suicide, but I was at the stage where I had no self-worth whatsoever. My confidence was shot to pieces. Because I wasn't defined by the fact that I had played 130 games, and had been a success. I was just a walking knee-joint. I'd be mentioned in the paper as a crock, or as 'injury-prone Lake', and that used to ruin my whole week. It sounds pathetic, doesn't it? But all anyone asked me was, 'How's that knee of yours?' It was genuine concern, but it made me envious, bitter, self-centred. I lost contact with friends, family. It was a horrible place to be."

He has read Marcus Trescothick's autobiography, and the story of Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper who killed himself two years ago. "I can empathise to a degree," he says. "You promise things you can never deliver. Robert Enke promised his wife he wouldn't take his own life, and I would make promises to be here and there, with no intention of going. I didn't have the courage, in company, to be myself. I understand what Trescothick went through, that fear of not being able to cope. There's always an element of fans who see it as being soft or weak, but it never truly leaves you, depression, because you know the feelings. You learn strategies and coping mechanisms. I still have stresses, fund-raising for City's charities, but you compartmentalise them. And other things in life are so rewarding that you can escape."

I can see, I tell him, why going cap in hand on behalf of Manchester City might be a tricky job. "Yeah, but we're a community club working with and for the community, and there are a million charities that need handouts. There's not enough money in the world to deal with that."

Speaking of money, how comfortable has football left him? "To be honest, I've never had any wealth of any sort. I would have done if I'd carried on playing, but I have a mortgage, and I've not got a fancy house, or a fancy car. I would like them, but I have a lot of love in my life, a fantastic family, great kids, great friends. I feel far richer for that than any mock-Tudor mansion in Alderley Edge."

Meanwhile, the men with the mock-Tudor mansions have a Champions League fixture against Villarreal tomorrow, after which they can focus on Sunday's derby. Does Lake believe that City can end the season as they go to Old Trafford, on top of the league? "My heart says yes. My head says we'll take Chelsea's place in second spot, and that winning it will take another two or three seasons. We're still getting used to Champions League football, going for every trophy. And that goes for the fans too. Against Bayern, the fans were nervous. Against Villarreal, I think they'll be that 12th man we need."

With that he rises, to walk me back to the entrance of the Colin Bell stand. His own football legacy, the man once touted as the next Colin Bell, is a slightly stiff gait. And, of course, a heck of a story, in which Sir Alex Ferguson plays more than a walk-on part, for in 1997 the man put through the mill by Lake and his team-mates on that unforgettable September day eight years earlier agreed, at short notice, to put up United for his benefit match. "I'm for ever indebted," says Lake. "I hope to see him licking his wounds on derby day, but otherwise I have the utmost respect for the man." So if City can't bring the 2011-12 Premier League title to Manchester, would he like United to do so? "I wouldn't go that far," he says.

'I'm Not Really Here: A Life of Two Halves' by Paul Lake (Century, £14.99)