Paul Lake-The greatest player you never saw
by Chris Bevan - BBC Sport (U1647891) 28 October 2008
When you think of talented footballers who never fulfilled their potential then, for my generation, Paul Gascoigne is the first name that springs to mind.
I used to value him at £10m when clubs asked about him but that was in the days when clubs couldn't afford that sort of money - Howard Kendall on Paul LakeLike Gascoigne, his senior by 18 months, Lake was named in Bobby Robson's provisional England squad for the 1990 World Cup but, while that tournament made the Tottenham player a global star, Lake was cruelly denied the chance to reach those heights.
In fact, despite being capped at Under-21 and B level, Lake never made a senior appearance for his country although he received several call-ups into the full squad. Injury meant he had to drop out on each occasion.
For those who followed Lake's progress from the time he made his first-team debut for City in January 1987, it had become a familiar story. Sometimes it just appeared the youngster from Denton was jinxed.
Before he began his futile battle to save his career, Lake was involved in another horrific incident in March 1989 when he was knocked unconscious in a clash of heads during a game against Leicester City and, with his airways blocked, almost died of suffocation.
But Lake was soon back in action to help City win promotion back into the top flight that season - and his effortless style sparkled in the old Division One too.
In the aftermath of Italia 90, Liverpool made a £3m bid for Lake - a huge fee at a time when the British record was the £2.3m Manchester United had paid Middlesbrough for Gary Pallister a year earlier - but then-City chairman Peter Swales rejected the offer, rightly fearing a revolt on the terraces if he allowed Lake to leave.
Instead, Lake signed a five-year contract and was installed as City captain. It should have been the start of something special for player and club. Sadly, just a few months later, his career was all but over.
This is the worst day of my life but it is not the end of the world. Nobody could say I didn't give it my best shot - Paul Lake on the day he announced his retirement in 1996An innocent-looking collision with Aston Villa's Tony Cascarino on 5 September ended up ruling Lake out for two years. He returned in 1992 but, eight minutes into his second game back against Middlesbrough, his cruciate ligament snapped again.
This time Lake went to America for a pioneering transplant, in which dead men's ligaments were inserted in place of his own. In all he had 17 operations but, over the next four years, every time he tried to return, his knee would swell up painfully.
"Each time it was worse and worse," Lake told BBC Sport. "I'll never forget being asked by fans 'Paul, how long are you going to be, when are you back?' and I always used to say 'hopefully about six weeks'. I don't know where that came from - I used to say it in my sleep in the end.
"Season in, season out I was going to City on Saturday, watching the games, seeing fans. Trying to be upbeat and positive. Looking back now I honestly don't know how I did it. I was training two or three times a day, I was as strong and as fit as I could be but my knee was failing and nobody seemed to be able to help me.
"There were bad times. I would come home to an empty house and check on ceefax to see how City had got on away from home. I watched players come and go and saw the squad list go from 20 to 60 with me 59th or 60th on that list of players. Other people knew full well that I would never come back but I never thought that.
"But there was still plenty of black humour around the club. The other players used to call me Robocop because I had to wear a full-length leg brace to enable me to train."
Eventually, in January 1996, Lake had to accept the inevitable and retire. Another, final, major operation to straighten his leg followed a few days later.
I went to see a guy in Manchester who had no experience of treating professional footballers - and I went to see him twice. When you look back it was a disgrace. Things like that really do stick with you - Paul LakeHis former manager at Maine Road Howard Kendall led the tributes at the time when he said: "I used to value him at £10m when clubs asked about him but that was in the days when clubs couldn't afford that sort of money. I would be frightened to put a price on his head these days.
"It is a tragedy he has had to retire without being able to prove to people how good he was."
The 90s were a lean decade for City fans and many must have thought things would have been a lot better if only had Lake been around. Yet the last they saw of him was his testimonial against Manchester United in October 1997.
"I was always projecting myself into a City shirt and thinking 'if only'," Lake added. "When I retired there was the uncertainty of what was around the corner. I suppose I was clinically depressed at the time but you don't realise that because you just put on a front and say the right things.
"From being 21 to being 30 was the most miserable time in my life. The games I played are blighted by four years of operations and surgery. I don't know how I coped."
What helped Lake move on was a close network of family and friends, who helped him come to terms with life as an ex-professional footballer.
They encouraged him to take a sports therapy course, which Lake says "lit a candle in me" and from there he went to Salford University to study physiotherapy.
Upon graduation he worked at Burnley, Altrincham and Macclesfield before taking a post with Bolton Wanderers in November 2007.
It would be easy for Lake to feel sorry for himself and be bitter about missing out on a potentially glittering - and lucrative - career but that couldn't be further from the truth. He is more bothered about his future than the past.
"All the trapping and financial rewards which could have been on my door had I played on and even been three-quarters of the player I was - that has not bothered me at all," Lake explained.
Just to be able to throw my shorts on and go out for a run for 20 minutes and come back the following day and not have any problems, that is what I miss - Paul Lake"I am a firm believer in fate and I wouldn't be where I am today with my wife and my children and good friends who have been there through thick and thin without going through this massive, if unfortunate, learning curve."
The legacy of the repeated operations Lake underwent does rankle, however.
"Just to be able to throw my shorts on and go out for a run for 20 minutes and come back the following day and not have any problems, that is what I miss, that is what I am bitter about," he added.
"I can run on to a pitch and treat a player because I am on and off in 30 seconds, I can ride a bike in the gym but that is all I can do.
"I can't go for a run anymore and the inevitably of needing a knee replacement is getting nearer and nearer as time elapses.
"That is where I am at 40, as a dad, a husband, and a physio in professional football I couldn't be happier but with regard to my health and the surgery I was exposed to, it has been an absolute disaster."
Read members' comments or add your own
Comment on this article