I’m Not Really Here: a Life of Two Halves

Local hero.

I'm Not Really Here: a Life of Two Halves
Paul Lake
Century, 416pp, £14.99

The footballer's autobiography has worked hard as a genre - one might even suggest that it has given 110 per cent for the full 90 minutes - to earn its reputation as hackneyed, trivial and largely dull. Most of these self-serving memoirs are worth avoiding. Fortunately, they are easy to spot: either they deploy a weak, club-related pun in the title - Going Great Guns by Kenny Sansom of Arsenal and Valley of Dreams by the Charlton player-turned-manager Alan Curbishley are just two examples - or they are simply, if tautologically, called My Autobiography (the natural response to which is to ask who else's it might be).

And yet there are exceptions. Full Time: the Secret Life of Tony Cascarino is a candid and very readable memoir by a decent but far from exceptional player who, in the latter part of his career, would dye his hair to make himself look younger before renegotiating a contract. Equally good is Addicted by the former Arsenal and England defender Tony Adams, the confessions of a recovering alcoholic who, as captain of Arsenal, spent time in prison for drink-driving. Like Being Gazza, the autobiography of Paul Gascoigne, ghosted by John McKeown and the New Statesman's Hunter Davies, it captures the player's regret over his waste of talent and human failings. Fortunately, Paul Lake's new book belongs in this second category.

Certainly it is not faultless. The clichés and football-speak evident on each page ("scoring goals for fun", "marshalling the troops", and so on) become a little tiresome. But the nature of the story told - a professional tragedy that precipitates a breakdown, followed by redemption - contrasting as it does with the usual tale of pampered excess, turns this into an exceptional book. (Incidentally, both Cascarino and Adams have walk-on parts in it.)

The title I'm Not Really Here is a play on a chant popular among fans of Manchester City, the team Lake played for and has supported since childhood. It captures perfectly his sense of mental dislocation from the club he loves, after a career-threatening injury and a fruitless period of rehabilitation. Between September 1990 and his retirement in January 1996, Lake barely played a game; he was a presence at the club, but not really there.

Each year, he would dread the pre-season team photograph. He would summon a "plastic smile", put on "a crisp new Umbro kit", not even knowing if he would wear it again, and note how his squad number had slid further away from the "coveted number 11". It was, he writes, like "gatecrashing a private function".

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Lake had been one of City's most promising young players, part of the team that won the FA Youth Cup in 1986. Just into his twenties, he was singled out as a future England captain by Bobby Robson, and was named in the preliminary squad for the 1990 World Cup (so near did he come to appearing in the final 22 that Panini erroneously produced a Paul Lake sticker for its Italia '90 collection). The City club manager Howard Kendall later said that Lake "was as good a young player as I've ever worked with".

Not long after the World Cup came the injury that would change his life. A handful of games into the 1990/91 season, Lake went to intercept a ball intended for Cascarino, then a player at Aston Villa. His foot got stuck in the turf and he fell to the ground. "I lay on the pitch in the foetal position, frozen with shock," he writes. Prophetically, the match commentator Clive Tyldesley noted at the time: "Sometimes the most innocuous incidents in football are the most serious."

It is from what follows that the book derives much of its drama and emotion. There is something of Adams's confessional about it, especially when Lake deals with the clinical depression he suffered as he struggled to accept that he might never play football again.

He insists he is not bitter despite what happened - and despite what might have been, had his ruptured cruciate ligament been treated properly - but clearly he feels let down. Such is his affection for Manchester City that he rarely criticises the club as a whole. Instead, the chairman Peter Swales (since deceased) emerges as the focus for his anger. On one occasion, mid-rehabilitation, Lake confronts Swales as the two pass each other at the Maine Road reception: "In the last two years, you haven't once picked up the phone to see how I am. Not f***ing once." He asks Swales to compare his treatment to that of Adams at Arsenal: "Drink-driving, smashing his car up, getting sent to prison . . . Yet his club still paid his appearance money and bonuses, even when he was inside."

The sense of injustice and "lack of respect" is evident again in a passage in which he describes his return from Los Angeles, where he has had the latest operation on his knee. The club has paid for only an economy ticket for the eight-hour flight, and he has spent it with his leg "folded up like a concertina". Landing at Manchester Airport, unable to walk, he is forced to request a wheelchair. "It made me realise how low in status I had sunk." This experience was later identified as a trigger for the depression that ensued, his daily routine becoming characterised by the Seroxat in his washbag, the Priory appointment card in his wallet and the unplayed CDs in his glovebox.

Music figures prominently in the book, from Lake's pride in his Shaun Ryder-style fringe, to hanging out with the City-supporting Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and Reni of the Stone Roses, to witnessing a pre-fame Oasis gig at the Hacienda. Even the chapter headings are song titles borrowed from his favourite Manchester bands. Lake's unwillingness to play his CDs was a sign of mental decline.

The other thing the book offers is a sense of how much football has changed since the Premier League was created in 1992. The local boy playing for his childhood team is a rarity today, and Lake's beloved Astra GTX would shame today's training ground car parks-cum-luxury car showrooms.

But the very strangest moment in the book is a half-time team talk during an end-of-season game against Bournemouth in 1989, when a win would have brought promotion back to the top division. Rather than the manager Mel Machin addressing the players, they get the "gee-up" from the comedian Eddie Large, who runs through his 1970s-based impressions - Harold Wilson, Deputy Dawg, Frank Carson and, naturally, Benny from Crossroads. City, 3-0 up before Large's intervention, let in three second-half goals. Promotion is postponed. It's difficult to imagine Roberto Mancini considering such motivational techniques today.

One odd thing about this very personal book is the gaps in Lake's account of his home life. There is plenty about his parents (the opening chapter, "Sheila Take a Bow", is named in honour of his mother) and about his brothers and twin sister, but his first marriage and subsequent divorce hardly register. That the book is ghosted by his second wife may explain the absence. But this is a minor gripe. I'm Not Really Here is that rare thing - a footballer's autobiography worth recommending.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires