Lake's battle of wounded knee

FOOTBALL: Manchester City's answer to Duncan Edwards is close to a remarkable recovery. Phil Shaw reports
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The Independent Online
Two practice pitches, 200 miles apart. At Bisham Abbey, in leafy Buckinghamshire, the England squad prepare to meet Uruguay at Wembley. On a green oasis amid the urban decay of Moss Side, the trainee professionals of Manchester City train for their next Lancashire League encounter.

Paul Lake is with one group - City's teenage hopefuls - yet he might so easily have been with the other. Lake thought his youth team days were over when he made Bobby Robson's provisional pool of 30 for the 1990 World Cup finals. Today, still only 26, he is fighting his way back from the injuries that have left him with one of the most battle-scarred knees this side of the OJ Simpson trial.

Walking around with the ligaments of two dead Americans makes Lake fairly unusual, but then he always did stand out. Promised to City from the age of 10, and an associate schoolboy there as long ago as John Bond's reign, he went on to wear nine different numbers during their 1988/89 promotion campaign. Whether at full-back or in central defence, centre or wide midfield, striker or sweeper, he showed a rare blend of power and poise.

It took him into the same Under-21 side as Ince, Batty, Bull and Merson, and the B team with Seaman, Adams and Le Tissier. One pundit was moved to suggest that "this must be what watching Duncan Edwards was like". The new England manager, Graham Taylor, was there the night his world, or rather his right knee, fell apart against Aston Villa five years ago.

However, the origins of this saga of despair and dedication go back further still. "I played too much between 11 and 16, which was stupid," Lake said. "I was turning out for City, the school, Tameside Boys and Manchester County. Sometimes 10 games a week. That's storing up a lot of stress, but the better you get the more pressure there is.

"I sailed through those years, always wanting to get stuck in in the middle of the park. I think I've paid the price for that in later years."

Instalments started in earnest that September evening when Villa visited Maine Road. Tony Cascarino mis-controlled the ball and Lake went to play it. "My foot went down, I went to go with the ball and the foot stayed where it was and twisted," he recalled. "The whole knee just went."

He was operated on in December and back in training by April '91, only for the knee to go again "partially". Lake battled back and felt ready to return when, a year after the original injury, it went "completely". Fast forward to August '92 and week one of the Premier League: "I'd come back again and got a few goals in the pre-season games in Italy.

"Then in the second League match, at Middlesbrough, I twisted like I did the first time and knew straight away it was serious. All the ligaments had snapped. The coach ride home was the longest I've ever known."

In a sense, Lake's journey was just beginning. At the rehabilitation unit at Lilleshall, in Shropshire, he heard that Rangers' Ian Durrant had been to Los Angeles for surgery to rebuild a similarly shattered knee from donor tendons.

Peter Reid, City's manager at the time, arranged for him to attend the same clinic two and a half years ago. "I've a lot to thank Reidy for - he wouldn't have let me pack up even if I'd tried," he said. "He didn't ask Peter Swales (then chairman) if I could go: he told him. I got new medial and cruciate ligaments, which gave me a fighting chance."

Lake eventually began running, swimming and cycling six days a week. City's physio, Eamonn Salmon, worked patiently with him. He also received "incredible help" from Robbie Brightwell and his wife, the former Anne Packer - Olympians both and parents of City's Ian and David Brightwell - who volunteered their time.

The reward came last month when Lake finally reappeared in City's B team on a park pitch at Blackburn. He came off at half-time - "I wanted to take it steadily" - but has since completed three games. If the reaction after the next one is nothing more than the customary slight soreness and swelling, there could be a comeback in the reserves next week.

"It's been weird playing with the kids. Even the shirt doesn't fit. The sleeves come threequarters of the way down my arms. But there are some seriously good players who'll definitely make the first team. They're so enthusiastic, they bring the best out of me. It's a case of so far so good, but my first match in the `rezzies' will be the big test."

When Lake last graced the seniors, City had been champions more recently than United; Swales looked bomb-proof, while Brian Horton, the eighth manager he has served, was with Oxford; even Eric Cantona was still loved in Leeds. Two and a half years, clearly, is an eternity in football, so is he deluding himself by trying to pick up where he left off?

"I really believe I can do it. If I get more games under my belt and do a normal pre-season, I'll be back to my old self."

Lake hopes to play centre-half until his confidence returns fully, because there is less chance of "getting hit from the side" if you are facing the game. In terms of watching City, which he has done since he was four, facing the game is harder. "I get jealous," he admitted, though self-pity is an emotion he has learned to suppress.

Likewise guilt. Before he first crumpled to the turf he had signed a five-year contract. "I gave City my loyalty so I felt it was right that they honoured it." Now, if Lake comes anywhere near fulfilling his early potential, they will have a "new" £5m player.

"It may sound corny, but I love the game. It's all I know. I also love the club. I went out before the last home match and the reception I got made the hairs on my neck stand up. So I must keep going - I don't want to become one of those guys who say: `If only I'd done so and so'."

Should he break down again, medical advice might be to abandon full-time football rather than risk disability. What then? "I've got no negative thoughts whatsoever, but I'd want to stay in football. Perhaps play for Stalybridge Celtic, or be a physio," he said, beaming defiantly. "I'm an expert on knees."