Ask any City fan who their past master is and many people would answer differently, dependent on the generations. For some it’s Gio Kinkladze, for others, Vincent Kompany, Richard Dunne Kevin Horlock may spring to mind. In the 60’s and 70’s, the trio of Bell, Lee and Summerbee will no doubt be the choice but for me being an 80’s child, it’s none other than Paul Lake.
Lakey, as he was affectionately known on the Kippax and other parts of Maine Road that allegedly existed, was a product of City’s youth academy, and a dyed-in-the-wool blue who made a name for himself when City were in the second division for the second time in the 1980’s.
Lake started his football career when he was just eight years old, playing for the Denton Youth under 12 side, but it was while he was playing for the Denton Under 13’s that he was spotted by City scout Ted Davies. Lake went on to earn a place on Blue Star, who were City’s feeder team, before becoming an associated schoolboy with City in 1983, before signing with the blues on a YTS scheme in 1985.
Before he made his full City debut in January 1987, Lake had already claimed an abundance of silverware. The youngster was part of the reserve team that won the Central League, the A team that won the Lancashire League and Youth Team that beat United in the Youth Cup Final.
After making his debut in a 0-0 draw with Wimbledon at Plough Lane, Lake scored on his home debut in a 1-1 draw with Luton Town, but it was the following season that the youngster would really make a name for himself.
City were relegated at the end of the 1986/87 season and the blues brought in a new manager in the form of Mel Machin from Norwich City. With the blues coffers all but non-existent, Machin had no choice but to promote several reserve team players to the first team, with Lake amongst the other names such as Steve Redmond, Andy Hinchcliffe and Ian Brightwell, and some became clear just how versatile the youngster was.
Primarily a midfielder, Lake deputised at centre-back for the often injured Kenny Clements, right back and also played up front every now and again, but his main position was alongside Neil McNab in the City engine room. Lake was part of the team that went on an incredible 13 match unbeaten run that season, which took the blues up the league. He was part of the side that thrashed Huddersfield Town 10-1 in November 1987 and Plymouth Argyle 6-2 a few days later as City hit form and went into free-scoring mode.
Lake’s performance’s help guide the club to the League Cup quarter final, beating First Division sides Nottingham Forest and Watford along the way, and it was against the latter that he really caught the attention of other clubs. With the score at 1-1, Lake collecting a through ball from Paul Stewart, then turned two Watford defenders inside out, then past future City keeper Tony Coton before calmly setting up David White, who slotted home into an empty goal.
The following season, Lake played a key part in helping City to promotion, but it was almost at a cost of his own life. In a home match against Leicester City, Lake collided with a Leicester player and the youngster hit the deck. It was immediately clear something was wrong as physio Roy Bailey took to the pitch and it took a few minutes for him to be stretchered off. It later emerged that Lake had swallowed his tongue in the challenge and it was the quick actions of Bailey that had saved his life. Lake would miss the next game, a 4-2 win at Sunderland, but returned to the side for the top of the table clash with Chelsea. Sadly, it’s a game that Lake would want to forget as Chelsea won 3-2, with the third goal coming as the youngster lost possession in the Chelsea half and, with no one behind him, Tony Dorigo went on to score what would turn out to be the winning goal.
Nevertheless, City still gained promotion and Lake would feature prominently during City’s return to the top-flight, most notably against Manchester United. Lake set up two of City’s five goals that afternoon, dancing his way past the United defence to set up Trevor Morley to score City’s second, just two minutes after David Oldfield had given the blues the lead. Then in the second half, Lake’s effort was saved by keeper Jim Leighton, but the midfielder managed to collect the rebound and pass to Oldfield to score the fourth goal.
Machin was sacked after a poor run of results and replaced by Howard Kendall, a man who Lake would later describe as the best boss he ever had. The following season, Lake was awarded the captaincy but just three games in, he went off injured in a home match against Aston Villa. There was nothing malicious about the challenge and Lake was diagnosed with broken bones that would take six weeks to heal.
Unfortunately for Lake, when he returned to training, he broke down in training and a later scan revealed an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury, which would mean he would most likely be out for the rest of the season. It was a huge blow for the midfielder, who was being touted as a future England star and was also being coveted by some of the league’s bigger clubs. Peter Swales allegedly rejected a ‘substantial amount’ for the youngster from Liverpool, simply because of the backlash it would create from the fans, who wanted some major investment in the team to be made around Lake, not from his sale.
Lake underwent reconstructive surgery on the knee and it was hoped that he would still make an appearance a the end of the season, however his knee again gave way in training, but in June 1991, he was declared fit to play, but his knee ruptured again and spent the whole season at Lilleshall.
Lake made his return to action in the inaugural Premier League season when he lined up to face Queens Park Rangers in the first Monday night game, with manager Peter Reid saying it was like having a new £3m signing in his side. He was taken off after 60 minutes after feeling pressure on the knee. Two days later, Lake lined up against Middlesbrough at Ayresome Park, but ten minutes into the match, the knee snapped again.
In January 1996, Lake retired from the game and was granted a testimonial by the club in 1997 against United. Despite his injuries, Lake was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.
Paul Lake was and still is, a die hard blue. He always took time to acknowledge the fans who idolised him and sang his name around Maine Road. During the dark days of the 80’s, there was no one you wanted on the pitch more than this youngster who took pride in playing for the club he loved.