Poignant tale of the player who might have been Manchester City's greatest star

By Jon Culley

It takes a rare strength of character to come back from the dark places that Paul Lake knows.

Pain, frustration, devastation, despair: these were the experiences that defined his career.  It should not have been that way.  A brilliantly gifted and enormously versatile footballer, he was captain of Manchester City at 21 and tipped to be a future captain of England.

It all went wrong just as everything seemed to be going so right.  Only 11 days after Howard Kendall had given him the armband at City, Lake ruptured the cruciate ligament in his right knee in a match against Aston Villa at Maine Road.  He was not to know at the time, but it was effectively the end.

In the event, it took five years to reach that point; five years of misdiagnosis, critical delays, false hopes, multiple operations, poor aftercare, depression and defeat.  Lake retired in 1996, feeling worthless and let down, to some degree a broken man, aged 27.

Yet he did drag himself back from the depths to which he fell and now he has told his story.  I’m Not Really Here (Century) climbed to the top of Amazon’s sports bestsellers in little more than a week since publication and acclaimed by reviewers as an outstanding autobiography.

Written with the help of Paul’s wife, Joanne, it charts the ordeal of the injury, the unravelling of ambition and the desperation and breakdown that followed with no detail spared.  Yet it is not a story of bitterness or self-pity, more of humility and humanity. Greed and self-obsession are not characteristic of every footballer.

Lake’s injury was so badly handled it took two years for City to send him to the specialist surgeon in the United States who might have cured him had he seen Lake sooner.  When he finally accepted the inevitable he found that the medical records held by the club had been shredded.

He had been forced to sell his house because, with his income practically halved by the lack of appearance and win bonuses, he could not keep up the mortgage payments.  He was advised to sue.

Had he been successful, he could have set himself up financially for life. Yet, remarkably, he declined to do so. He had been and still was a besotted City fan at heart, for all that individuals within the club -- of whom the late chairman, Peter Swales, bears the brunt of his anger -- had let him down.  To have taken money from them in those circumstances, however justified, would have felt like betrayal.

Instead, he settled for a testimonial match, to which Sir Alex Ferguson sent a full Manchester United team, acknowledging the loss to the game of a talent he had witnessed first hand in 1989 when a City side inspired by Lake thrashed United 5-1 and handed Ferguson a rare humiliation.

And he went to college, training as a physiotherapist, then finding work at Macclesfield, Bolton and Burnley.  City’s move away from Maine Road helped him move on, too.  Nowadays, he is an ambassador for City’s community project and attends the Etihad Stadium as a matchday host, something he could not have contemplated at the old ground, which had been tarnished by bad memories.

Were he a member of today’s City team -- and a player of his talent would have been a shoo-in even with the likes of David Silva and Sergio Aguero for competition -- he would be living the opulent lifestyle of a £100,000-a-week Premier League star.

But there is no bitterness. “It has never been about money for me,” he said recently. “I’ve got a semi- detached house in Stockport with my wife and my kids, I’m back working for the club I love and I couldn’t be happier.”

Thoughtful and thought-provoking, the book has moments of humour, too, not least in the title and cover, which are at the same time funny and poignant.  The cover illustration shows the pre-season team picture from 1995. Lake had not played for three years yet was still asked to take his place in the line-up, despite insisting to the photographer: ‘I’m not really here.’ The picture is in the form of a jigsaw puzzle, with one a piece missing.

"It's the best book I've read for a long time...beautifully, powerfully written...a must-read for any fan of football" --Oliver Holt, Daily Mirror

I'm Not Really Here: A Life of Two Halves is published by Century

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