They Could Have Been One Of Football’s Greatest: Manchester Derby Special

28 November 1990 English Football League Cup, Arsenal v Manchester United, Lee Sharpe is interviewed with the match ball after scoring a hat trick in United's 6-2 victory. (Photo by Roy Beardsworth/Mark Leech Sports Photography/Getty Images)

As it is the Manchester derby this weekend, Part 12 of this series looks at a player from each side that could have been one of footballs greatest. Both players had the world at their feet and played at big clubs. Trophies and England caps galore looked to be heading their way during a long career. Sadly it didn’t work as planned for either. Two hugely talented players failed to get what their talent deserved.

For parts one to 10 please click on the links below. For criteria please see part one.

P1 Robin Friday   P2 Dean Ashton     P3 Kieron Brady

P4 Jason Koumas     P5 Brian Clough     P6 Freddy Adu

P7 Frank Worthington    P8 David Bentley     P9 Gianluigi Lentini

P10 Jean-Pierre Papin     P11 Asamoah Gyan

They Could Have Been One Of Football’s Greatest: Manchester Derby Special

Paul Lake

A talented midfielder anddefender, Lake had huge amounts of potential and was expected to star for both club and country for many years. Unfortunately, a knee injury cruelly took away a career that was heading for the top.

A star for Manchester City’s reserves, winning the treble in the 1985-86 season, it wasn’t long before he was in the first team. The midfielder made his debut in January 1987 and scored on his home debut the following month. He became a first-team regular at Maine Road the following season. As City secured promotion in 1989 from the Second Division he played in every outfield position. He was now becoming a crowd favourite.

Although this was a memorable season it almost ended early for Lake. After being knocked unconscious in a game against Leicester City, he suffered a blocked airway and could have died. He was lying on the pitch for minutes until a doctor could reach him. After this incident the FA changed their rules so that a doctor is now present at the side of the pitch during games.

A great time to be a blue

During City’s first season back in the top flight, one of Lake’s and City’s most memorable days occurred. Manchester City beat bitter rivals Manchester United 5-1. It’s a day that Lake, a boyhood City fan, crowd favourite and now an England Under-21 international, would never forget. He narrowly missed out on England’s Italia 90 World Cup squad, but many believed inclusion in the senior England side and also the captaincy of his country was not far away. It was only a matter of time.

At the start of the 1990-91 season he was handed the Manchester City captaincy and a deserved five-year contract. However, this was as good as it was going to get for the talented youngster.

Disaster Strikes

Just three games into the new season and with new England manager Graham Taylor in the stands, disaster struck. Midway through the second half of the game against Aston Villa, Lake caught his studs in the turf and fell awkwardly. His anterior cruciate ligament had ruptured.

After surgery and months of rehabilitation, his knee collapsed just shortly after beginning a light training session. More months of rehab passed, and when he was finally given the go ahead to start playing again, his knee re-ruptured just minutes into a practice game.

In June 1992 he was once again given the all-clear. Pre-season friendlies came and went without incident and he began the season in City’s starting eleven. Unfortunately his return did not last long. The ligament snapped for the third time away at Middlesbrough.

Retirement and life after football

Several years of rehab, alternative medicines and bouts of depression followed. In January 1996, aged just 27, Lake retired from football. After retiring he took up physiotherapy and worked at several football clubs. He later became an ambassador at City before taking up a role with the Premier League. Last year he had a total knee replacement and for the first time in over 20 years he can live life without pain or medication.

Unfortunately Paul Lake’s story is another case of “what if?” A hugely talented player with a long, successful career ahead had it cruelly taken away from him.

Lee Sharpe

Known for his pace, skill and goal celebrations, Lee Sharpe wowed the Old Trafford crowds. After signing from Torquay United aged just seventeen, it didn’t take the youngster long to make his mark on the red side of Manchester.

Sharpe made his debut soon after signing. Due to the sale of winger Jesper Olsen and the ineffectiveness of Ralf Milne, he took no time in adapting to the limelight. He went on to make 30 appearances in his first season. The following season due to increased competition, Sharpe had to settle for just 18 appearances, although he did score his first goal.

Success, injuries and illness

He was then a key figure in United’s European Cup Winners Cup success and also scored a famous hat-trick at Highbury as United won 6-2. He has since said that this is one of his best memories.

Now first choice after seeing off various threats to his position on the left wing, Sharpe would come against a future United legend in Ryan Giggs for his place in the side. Due to injury and illness (he had viral meningitis in 1992), Sharpe was unable to put up much of fight for the left wing spot. When he had regained full fitness the form of others in the side meant he often had to play out of position.

A memorable night

Injuries kept on coming and so did the off the field adventures. However, when he did play he rarely let anyone down, often scoring crucial goals. His most famous night at Old Trafford arguably came in 1994 when United entertained Barcelona. He first set up Mark Hughes to score the first goal of the game. With United trailing 2-1 with 10 minutes to go he spectacularly back-heeled a Roy Keane cross into the net for the equaliser.

With emergence of David Beckham and the form of Giggs, Sharpe was never guaranteed a place in the first eleven. After eight years, 265 games and 36 goals, it was time to move on. In 1996, Leeds United spent a then club record fee of £4.5 million for his services.

He scored five goals in 26 appearances during his first season at Elland Road, but then injuries struck again. A knee injury kept him out of the entire 1997-98 season. Upon returning to full fitness he was unable to regain a first team place.

A loan to Sampdoria came soon after. Another loan move, this time to Bradford City, came after his unsuccessful spell in Italy. He did enough at Valley Parade to earn a permanent deal. After helping City secure promotion and helping keep them in the Premier League, it was once again time to relocate.

Retirement and life afterwards

Spells at the likes of Portsmouth, Grimsby Town and Exeter City followed but the old magic seemed to have disappeared. He retired from professional football in 2003 at the age of 32.

He was once a poster boy of the game and loved the off-field lifestyle that football brought. But he was also a skillful winger with an extrovert goal celebration. If injuries and illness had not taken his toll, we could now be talking about one of the greats who battled Ryan Giggs each season for a first team spot. Who knows, he may well have won the battle too.

He is also a player who could have and should have won more than the eight England caps he did. However, instead we talk about unfilled promise and goal celebrations. He is now a TV celebrity, football pundit and since 2009 he has been involved in the charity ‘Ambassadors in Sport’.

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