Paul Lake’s career as a footballer was cut so short, so mangled by misfortune, we will never know how far the game would have taken him. After being forced to cut his career short due to constant knee troubles, Lake was awarded a testimonial match against City rivals Manchester United in October 1997.
Once told by Paul Gascoigne not to become too good a footballer, as he did not appreciate his place in the England national side being stolen from him. The injury that footballers dread the most is the snapped cruciate knee ligament – and Lake ruptured the one in his right leg on three different occasions. His life became a dark journey, an endless slog of rehab, comebacks, breakdowns and callous disappointments until, finally, after almost years of battling with his own body the lights went out on his career and he was forced into early retirement. He was 27 and what people did not know is that the once labelled future England captain was suffering from clinical depression.
Here’s Lake’s take on the game from his autobiography: “I’m not really here”. – Just before 3 O-Clock I emerged nervously from the tunnel to be greeted by a crowd of nearly 25,000 fans. Looking up to see the stadium almost three quarters full, with row upon row of blue shirted fans cheering and chanting my name, was truly humbling. Even the United supporters housed in the North Stand gave me a standing ovation. As I walked slowly onto the Maine Road turf, both sets of players formed a guard of honour for me, which I can categorically say was one of the most moving moments of my life.
In a break with the norm, Frank Clark and Alex Ferguson opted to field full strength sides initially, which meant that Georgi Kinkladze, Uwe Rosler, David Beckham and Peter Schmeichel were all present in the lineups. Testimonial games traditionally feature a large quota of reserve teamers, but on this occasion they both threw caution to the wind and went for the full compliment. It was a magnificent gesture.
With City now in the first division and on the cusp of relegation to the third tier of English football, it would be a chance in some sense for fans to enjoy a friendlier derby occasion without the usual bitter rivalry that carries with these matches.
City lined out with arguably their strongest 11 to pay homage to the local hero whose unfortunate turn of luck cut his career short before he hit the stardom heights expected. Margetson, Brightwell, van Blerk, Wiekens, Vaughan, Summerbee, Brannan, Crooks, Horlock, Bradbury, Kinkladze, were in the City 11 picked by then manager Frank Clark.
Despite not as fiercely contested as your average Manchester derby (other than a few rash tackles from City’s Michael Brown, which got Alex Ferguson under the collar), by all accounts it was a pretty entertaining game that ended 2-2. United’s England contingent managed the first 20 minutes; boss Glenn Hoddle had imposed a strict time limit apparently. Ryan Giggs paid Lake the ultimate compliment by insisting on seeing out the entire 90 minutes, something that he needn’t have done.
Goals from Uwe Rosler and Georgi Kinkladze secured a draw for City in front of 21,262 fans.