I'm Not Really Here - Paul Lake
Paul Lake ends the second chapter of his autobiography by relating an anecdote that perfectly defines both his sadly short, star-crossed career, and the deft, self-deprecating, effortlessly conversational tone he assumes as a writer.
Already a first-team regular at Manchester City despite still being a teenager, Lake recalls buying his first car - a sky blue (what else!) Ford Escort - and he regales the reader with a detailed account of how he planned to make a gloriously cool, stylish entrance into Maine Road the following match day, eliciting jealous nods and envious looks. But, in his excitement, he flooded the car's engine on the drive and had to abandon it on the side of the road and take a bus to the match, earning a fine for being late on top of everything else. Lake concludes the anecdote with the phrase "sadly, it didn't actually happen that way" - an ominous glimpse of what's to come and a chilling metaphor for a career bursting with promise, yet ultimately doomed to break down and lay dormant on the roadside.
Lake, a native Mancunian and lifelong City fan, chronicles his meteoric rise through City's youth team ranks as the book provides a panoramic cross-section of English football culture in the late 80s/early90s in a behind-the-scenes manner that is as revealing as it is entertaining. Lake is an able, affable raconteur and eyewitness to memorable events like City's joyous promotion to the First Division in 1989, the international football scene as a member of England's Under-21s and reserves in the shadow of World Cup 1990 and, finally, the inaugural season of the Premier League in 1992. Along the way, Lake shares everything from boot-room banter to boardroom intrigue and encounters big-name personalities ranging from Sir Alex Ferguson to Paul Gascoigne.
All was going according to plan until Lake ruptured his cruciate ligament in a match against Aston Villa, sending him into a harrowing downward spiral of surgery, misdiagnosis, rehab, false starts and stifling depression. Lake spares nothing while recounting the brutal, barren years spent on the fringes of the game he loves, reduced to matchday meet-and-greets by the club he loves, as he struggles to reclaim his health and career. Finally, Lake is granted a form of redemption when he decides to become a sports physio to try and help ensure that other athletes receive a level of care and diligence that was denied him; the reader is again presented with a cutaway view of modern English football, as Lake works his way up through the leagues as a physio, finishing with a stint at Bolton.
But what Lake truly excels at is recalling the warm, soft glow of specific, yet universally similar, childhood memories. He looks back at receiving his first Mitre match ball on Christmas morning, reflects on damp, dusky evenings spent chasing the ball with his brothers in the waning light and remembers arguments among friends over who gets to be a certain player as they faithfully re-enact World Cup matches. Lake skilfully relives an entire continuum of childhood memories and dreams, culminating in his actual realisation of every sport's fan's ultimate fantasy - starring for your boyhood club.
Lake's memories, while singular to his experience, capture an essence universal to anyone who has ever stepped on a schoolyard pitch or field, and that is I'm Not Really Here's greatest strength.