It's been 29 years ago today since Paul Lake made his debut for Manchester City away to Wimbledon.
When you talk to Manchester City fans who were around the inconsistent 1980's and the pre Premiership era of the 1990's they will inevitably talk to you about the shining light of the time which was the Youth side that City had. David White, Ian Brightwell, Stevie Redmond and of course Paul Lake were all part of that side that won the FA youth cup against United in 1986. Probably the most naturally gifted of those celebrated his debut for the senior Manchester City side 29 years ago. His autobiography titled 'I'm Not Really Here' is probably the most honest and unflinching look at a players career that never was. The opening pages contrast two emotions, the selection of Lake as captain for City by then manager Howard Kendall, dated 1990 to less than 6 years later in the Beaumont Hospital when Paul has been a week into his retirement and contemplating what he is to do now, with his life, the pain and the grief of a career unfulfilled.
His debut season involved a cluster of three appearances in a season which saw City relegated to the Second tier of English football. Both City and Lake would bounce back better than ever two seasons later however. Paul started his senior City career on the 24th January 1987 in a goalless draw away to Wimbledon. His next game was again a draw and again away from home in which fellow youth cup winner Ian Brightwell got on the score sheet. Then, a month after his initial debut, he lined up for his first home game against Luton Town, again another draw but Lakey, at least, would score on his home debut.
With City relegated, Mel Machin installed as City boss and the youth coming to the fore the following season started with excitement. In those days there were no squad numbers only numbers 1-11 that represented positions on the pitch and Paul Lake had nine different shirts that season, taking up almost every position on the pitch except the goalkeeper. Despite this, City struggled in the Division, not helped I am sure by extended cup runs in both the FA and League Cups, getting to the sixth round of the FA Cup only to fall against Liverpool and the fifth round of the League Cup before a defeat to this Wednesday's opponents, Everton!
The 1988-89 season finally saw City promoted back to the top flight but also almost saw a tragedy unfold on the Maine Road turf. Whilst defending a corner against Leicester he and Ramsey both went up for the same ball and clashed heads. Lake collapsed, started to convulse and after the match it was revealed that he had indeed swallowed his tongue. City players, Leicester players and the referee can be seen frantically waving Physio Roy Bailey on and it is for the quick actions of Mr Bailey that Paul Lake played for us again. You have to understand that in the early 1990's the teams physio would be one guy with a small medical bag and sponge. There was none of this medical backup that we have nowadays and that is what makes Mr Baileys decisive actions that more critical. As a result Paul missed just the one game before returning to action a week later in a loss to Chelsea.
In retrospect those two seasons for City and Lake out of the spotlight of top tier football probably did the world of good. A new confidence was had and the youth side of 1986 had matured into a decent senior side of 1989. Seven games into the new season and Lake was involved in the Maine Road massacre. The young boys of Manchester City defeated their millionaire neighbors Manchester United 5-1 in what was the early days of the Alex Ferguson reign. City consolidated in their first season back and would look to push on the next season.
Although Paul didn't score in the 5-1 win it did look like he would be key to City's future and for that matter England's future too. Then England boss Bobby Robson touted the young Lake as a England captain of the future and certainly it would have been great to see him grow as a player but fate would deal a cruel blow. Less than a year from that famous victory Lake was tackled by Tony Cascarino of Aston Villa and that one tackle pretty much cut short Paul's career. When his and City's trajectory seemed to be on an upward trend and just after he had negotiated a new 5year deal with City it all came crashing down in one innocuous moment.
Two major operations and two years later Lake would turn out for City once more but collapsed in the second game of his comeback against Middlesbrough on August 19th 1992. This time it was worse and this time he would not come back to play competitively for City again, eventually announcing his retirement in 1996. Paul was brave and courageous on the field but even more determined and committed of it. To read his autobiography is a heart rending account of what a young lad was dealing with behind the scenes at City. The neglect with which his injury was treated and the constant set backs and depression of seeing fellow professionals suffer similar injuries and return to full fitness and continue careers when he was (and is still) pained to even walk cannot be imagined. For sure injury robbed England, Manchester City and indeed football as a whole the chance to see a truly great player, who had at least another decade to give, and fulfill his potential. Paul would appear on the Maine Road pitch one last time to kick off his testimonial game. United, managed by Alex Ferguson were the opponents and, to be fair to United, they did come at short notice and play a strong team, proving that Paul Lake was not only loved by City but by all of Manchester.
I remember seeing a banner that City fans had in the stadium which read "We dream of playing in the shirt. Today God chose you. Play like we dream". The one City player whose play encapsulated that sentiment was Paul Lake and, as such, was inducted into the Manchester City Hall of Fame in 2004. However to say his time at City, injuries aside, was rosy would not be wholly accurate. Although there is no doubt that he loved the club like all of us it is also true that a couple of figures within the City set up back then didn't do right by Paul. Inadequate medical treatment and then the rushing back of the star player robbed us all of watching Pauls talent flourish. However like all prodigal sons, Paul has now returned and is an ambassador for the club.
After his playing career ended Paul went on to pursue a career within Physiotherapy and spent time at numerous clubs within that role before he eventually returned to City. It was in fact after a meeting with then CEO Garry Cook that Paul, who represents the charity 'Jump Space' talked about his fund raising efforts. Cook, impressed with Lakes desire asked Paul to oversee the charitable arm of Manchester City.
Lake still represents the Jump Space charity and to find information and/or make a donation you can visit the website at www.jumpspace.org.uk. Jump Space is a specialist center for children with disabilities and their families. It uses unique trampolining and rebound therapy in which trampolines are used to offer movement, therapeutic and recreational opportunities for a whole range of disabilities.
Paul Lake was, is and will always be a true City legend and whether playing in the blue shirt, treating players on the field or fund raising for charity Paul always gives his full ability and efforts to whatever task is before him and for that we admire him. The fact his blood is blue just makes him that much better.