"Guardiola surprised Madrid, and all of us" - Man City's Paul Lake
The enticing Champions League Last 16 tie, Guardiola tactics, dealing with injuries, mental health issues, and UEFA's European ban, all covered in this fascinating interview.
It was one of the most mouth-watering Champions League ties of the round of 16. Pep Guardiola's record-breaking Premier League winners desperate to finally get their hands on the elusive trophy against Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid team looking to add to their unmatched continental heritage. The first leg in the Spanish capital saw the former Barcelona manager throw up a few surprises in personnel and formation, and Manchester City left the Santiago Bernabéu with a 1-2 victory.
Note that this interview took place ahead of the original date for the second leg in March, before football, and most other aspects of life as we knew it, came to a grinding halt due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On Manchester City’s win at Real Madrid in first leg
It’s obviously a huge challenge and to go there on the back of what’s been a cloud over Manchester City in terms of Financial Fair Play situation and the ban proposed by UEFA [since resolved] and to go there and play like we did with such quality and commitment, to really take the game to Real, and also with the formation that Pep Guardiola had chosen which nobody could see coming. I think all those things combined, meant for an exciting game but also one that the fans, the team and the manager can be proud of.
I read your autobiography and I know that you were a really big Manchester City supporter even before you were a football player, so right now you must be over the moon.
Yes exactly, and as a Manchester City fan, over the years where City have struggled to find any real credibility, and where our seasons were defined by victories against Manchester United, if we were even in the same league as them. So with the investment into the club and with the direction from Mancini through Pellegrini and obviously into the incredible Pep Guardiola, City have seen a meteoric rise and on the back of that we have been so fortunate to be able to experience Premier League titles and national cup victories with the FA Cup and the Carrabao Cup. But obviously the Champions League is the one that has eluded City and is the one that everyone is talking about and would be the ultimate if Manchester City could achieve that. But as you know and I know it is such a difficult thing to achieve. It isn’t just about the quality of the team and how you play, there are a lot of circumstances that can change and can work in your favour or against you, which was the case with the VAR situation in last season’s semi-final second leg against Tottenham Hotspur. It’s difficult but there is always that aspiration and it would be wonderful if one day we could achieve that.
Here in Madrid when people talked about Manchester in the 90s it was all about United. They don’t know about your time at City and when you beat them 5-1 in the derby.
Of course. As you can appreciate when I was playing backing in the mid-80s to the 1990s, Manchester City were very much in the shadow of Manchester United and that has been the challenge for a long, long time. In our situation we didn’t have any real finances, where we had to play home-grown players, so much so that there quite a few occasions where there were 5 or 6 home-grown players that would start in the team, lacking experience but obviously by playing regular football over the seasons they did manage to get to experience, in game management and knowledge to become better decision-makers, and that put us in good stead. And then we came back into the Premier League, although back then it was called the First Division, and ever since then we have been up the divisions and down, up and down, it’s been such a rollercoaster for City until since about 2011 when we won our first trophy in the FA Cup – beating Manchester United in the semi-final – and then the Premier league title in 2012, once again pipping United in such an incredible way, one that will never be repeated. And for all lovers of sport, and football in particular, to win games in that fashion is so memorable and so exciting, and that just encapsulates the real highs and lows of elite football, when you can be so close and moments away from a trophy that you’ve worked hard all year for, and have it snatched from you in the final seconds. That’s why we love football and that’s why, at times, we hate football, but I can assure you as a Manchester City fan, never mind a player, it’s been really, really tough to be in United’s shadow but over the last few years we’ve been able to compete and we are more than able now to hold our own.
I’m a big fan of music from Manchester. I know you enjoyed music there too…
It’s interesting when you talk about that. At that time in the early 90s Manchester was really put on the music map, and it’s not often that London is looking over shoulder to see where the real happening place is in the country and it was definitely Manchester. It was really cool. It was different, it was vibrant, it was exciting and it was really raw. You had music from the likes of the Smiths in the 80s right the way through to Oasis and then you had bands that were fashioned around the style of music that Oasis brought to Manchester and the Stone Roses before them, so the music was really, really exciting. And there was also a sense of pride about Manchester, everyone had something about the part of Manchester they came from that they were attached to, really proud of, and with City and United being recognised from football, and United very much the dominant one, and in terms of music Manchester was the real hub at that time. Everybody wanted to know about Oasis, the Stone Roses… everyone wanted to know we they got their inspiration from, from the lakes off the Smiths before them, and there’s no getting away from the likes off the Beatles, David Bowie, the Stones, the Who… who probably influenced so many bands over the years. It was just so different, and even to the extent where people were making the connections between music and football. So in nightclubs it was jeans and football shirt, it wasn’t just about the music, so they were making these connections and loyalties. And then the magazines and media of that time were picking up on the fact that Noel Gallagher and Liam Gallagher where huge Manchester City fans, so much so that the most exciting thing about the team at that time was the association with Oasis because the team wasn’t particularly good. It was quite interesting actually how that relationship has never waned, and I’m sure you saw the highlights off the Real Madrid game and Noel Gallagher was in the stands jumping up. That never goes away. It was a really, really exciting time and on the back of that lots of bands that were influenced by Oasis and by the Stone Roses were then branching out and trying different things in terms of their style of music, so it really was a hotbed of talent in the north west and was certainly a highlight for me at that time as a young man being happy playing football, for the team I supported, and then going out into Manchester at the weekends and loving the vibe and the music it was a really cool time to be a young man.
I’m so jealous of you. I’m a little bit younger although I went to Manchester three weeks ago and saw a concert by Explosions in the Sky, I don’t know if you know them, and then went to see the famous Hacienda and it’s such a shame it’s now an apartment building.
I know, I know. And when you listen to the story of how the hacienda came to be and all the problems that were faced and that New Order pretty much propped up the hacienda for many years, which was unprecedented. It just shows that for all the brilliance and excitement of the music, there were certainly businessmen that needed to rethink their strategy.
You talked in your book about how you love your City ’89 jersey, but City played in the Bernabéu linked to the hacienda with yellow stripes. Did you like it?
Oh yes, I loved it. And once again that’s hats off to that legacy, something we are all proud off and so when the club does that it’s just something different that’s recognition of what was there before, of what was important to the people of Manchester, and that’s how you rekindle the connections with the fans because you appreciate what the fans do and what they like. And it’s also an education for the players who may not be aware of the association and just how important music is to Manchester. So with that in mind I think it’s a wonderful way to tip a hat of respect to what people have done in the past. It was a really nice touch.
It was heart breaking to reading in your book about all the problems you had with your knee. It’s difficult to imagine how a young man had to deal with 16 knee operations.
That’s right it was. It was obviously a time when I was still young man, I was learning about injuries, about what I was trying to deal with, but there were so many unanswered questions for me. When you put your trust and faith into people that are from the medical world you make the assumption that they obviously have your best interests at heart but also that they understand that if something wasn’t working or it wasn’t the best option for one individual to be able to undertake, then they would seek the best minds in the world of sport to be able to support someone like myself who, at the time, was linked with all the top clubs in the country. I had approaches from Manchester United, from Liverpool, Arsenal and even at that time Glasgow Rangers, who were a top team, and they’d all put a bid in for me. And that was the season just before my injury when I was making my way into the team. So it just became a catalogue of mistakes: from choosing the wrong consultant without the required experience for a professional sportsperson, to then having the incorrect advice given on rehabilitation from the consultant, and every time I had an operation it would create more problems rather than find solutions. Not only did I have to retire, I then had to have an operation to straighten my leg, because it had bent so badly with all the operations and the over stresses to try and return to football, I had overloaded the knee joint and it couldn’t cope. As a consequence I had to have what is called a tibial osteotomy, which is an operation to basically straighten my leg. So that put paid to a lot of my physical health for the future, so much so that in the last 10 years I’ve had my right knee fully replaced, and I’ve had to have my left knee straightened because of all the operations and the compensation I was making for my right leg. As it stands today, I’m now actually having problems with my left knee. So, it’s taken a while but it’s been a constant reminder of what might have been. And although it’s nice to be remembered by City fans with a real fondness of the player that I was or the player that I could have been, at the same time, being defined by an injury has been really tough because, and I’m sure you’ve spoken to players with far more talent than I was blessed with, but even so, we all see ourselves as being successful, as being winners, and as younger men we would win games, be the top players in our team and striving to be the best that we could be. So to be associated with something that is seen as a real negative, and as a failure rather than a success, is the legacy that I’ve had to deal with, and on quite a few occasions I’ve found that difficult.
I read the story of Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper that took his own life due to problems with depression, and it feels like we need to talk more about the mental health aspects of the game, something that is often seen as taboo.
Yes, absolutely. That’s the right word to use. Certainly in terms of professional sports people but in particular men and that recognition that nobody is perfect and you can never truly assume what is going on in someone’s head, in terms of their perception of their current situation. It may be masked by the fact that they have problems at home with parents being ill or a personal relationship or with children or with not being able to deal with injury, when they can’t understand why they are not able to stay fit. Look at someone like Vincent Kompany who is incredible, whose fortitude has been relentless in terms of staying fit and being able to deal with long-term injury. But no one provides you with that skill set to say this is how you deal with it and because a lot of people are dealing with situations from their previous life experience. If you are 17, 18, or 19 years of age you don’t have those experiences and at the same time if someone has depression or real anxiety issues then that’s invisible. But if someone has a knee injury, whether a cast on their knee or a brace, then we can visibly see that, but when someone has a mental health problem that can be hidden away. The worst case scenario for a knee injury can be to not be able to play sport again or to not be able to run as fast or walk as far, but the mental issues as a consequence of injury and illness can lead to someone taking their own life. So that’s the difference and the reason it’s important. And to be fair, there are a lot of footballers today who are speaking about it, in the Premier League and the FA and the Football League have all collaborated to ensure we recognise the importance of speaking about injury and anxieties and sharing problems so that it doesn’t lead to the potential inevitability of someone taking their own life. And not only for that individual but the knock-on effect for the wider family and for the children. It is so desperately sad. And so the more we can talk about it and, it’s not a sign of weakness, it is actually a sign of strength to stand up and see ‘you know what, I’m not coping particularly well with this’ because then you can speak to people, you can gather the skills and the understanding of what I need to do to help myself. Because there’s only one of me and no one is inside my head giving me those directions. I have to work them out for myself in my own time and at my own pace. But if I speak to people and get help from friends, relatives, professionals, medical people, the more information you can gather and the more people you can speak to, you can share your problems and concerns with people that have faced the same issues, if not those far worse than you, and can tell you how they dealt with them, which may work for you, and keep sharing and keep talking about it. That is the best way to be open and honest. We all want to be happy, we all want to be fulfilled, to have our best lives and our best days, so the things that we can control we can look to find strategies to control; the things that we can’t control are out of our hands. I didn’t ask to get injured, I didn’t mean to get injured, and not only did it cost me a life of sport and dreams, it cost me a huge financial hit to my whole lifestyle and the sacrifice that I made, and that my family made to give me that chance I couldn’t pay them back in that way. I’ve learned that I can give as much as a husband, as a father, as a friend. As someone that can share their experience of injuries to help other people so there are other things in life that I can do. Life isn’t defined by one thing, although if you allow it to it can be, but if you’ve got the support and love and friendship of people around you then there’s no end to what you can achieve and you can find fulfilment albeit in a complete different area of your life.
After your injury you went to help other people but also got yourself a physiotherapy degree, on the other side of the game but to help other players going through what you did.
That’s right. And again it was about giving players the opportunity to understand they can get the best support. Even if you’re not playing for Manchester United, Chelsea or Manchester City it doesn’t mean you can get the best support for your injury. So what I would do is, because every club has insurance, I would make sure that we saw the right people, I would phone up the right medical people from other clubs, bigger clubs than those that I was working with, just to understand who would be the best person for this procedure. And then for that player to be fully informed, and then to go and see two or three different consultants and to decide which consultant, which expert, that individual and his family wanted to go with to get that medical help and that expertise. So I would do that for all players whether it was a head injury, or shoulder, knee, back, hip… and that’s where the game comes together because we all want everyone to have the best opportunities and the best chances, so by getting the best, the most experienced, the most successful consultancies is the best way to help these players. And then as the injury progresses the mental health of the individual stays positive and that person remains in a good place and I would just be positive and always err on the side of caution, but for the right reasons. And I learned from what I wasn’t given and the attention that I wasn’t shown, to make sure that that person who was maybe going home to a wife and children, or maybe going back to an empty house, who is going back and thinking 24 hours a day about their injury, is trying to give them strategies to cope and to be able to share their concerns. To make them feel wanted, to feel part of the team and the squad, and to make them feel important. I was left out, I was almost ostracised because I was injured, and I was made to feel like I was a nobody, like I was worthless. And that was my own football club, the one I had supported and I still support. And it wasn’t the club or the badge, it was individuals working at the club who didn’t have the knowledge to understand by treating me that way that’s how I was made to feel. That’s the negativity that surrounds injury about the potential for a long-term injury, in particular, that it can be managed in the right way, and academies and clubs today are in a far better place to be able to do so.
As a young player with so much potential, I find it difficult to understand why the club treated you so bad.
I can tell you that on many, many occasions I question that myself. The club at the time was run by people who were not only small-minded but they didn’t appreciate the importance of investment in their assets, they didn’t understand. The fact that I had major knee surgery but I could have returned to be the player that I was, they didn’t see it like that. As far as they were concerned I had a serious injury and I’m never going to be the same again and almost then just forgotten about. It’s amazing to think that I was insured for peanuts and not only myself but several home-grown players in that team that in today’s values would be 20, 30 or £40 million, because of the age of the players and our potential, we were insured for about only £10,000. Is unthinkable. It just shows you how far away that was from how the club is run today and how players are treated today. It was basically run like a very small club, very small-minded, and sadly if you got injured you paid the consequences of that mismanagement.
I find it incredible to believe especially with the surgery in America.
Again, if you think of the psychological impact of that, not only working so hard on my own in America, having to force the club to get me over there and having to be supported by my teammates who offered to pay for the flights. But it wasn’t about the money, it was about the principal, because that told me all I needed to know about how my club felt about me, that they weren’t even prepared to invest in that. So when I got myself to a stage that I could return home to then be told that I was being put into economy class and I couldn’t even sit down properly because the amount of knee flexion I had to have meant that I couldn’t bend my leg properly. So every 10 minutes I had to get up and walk around and that was a flight to America all the way to Manchester. When I arrived in Manchester airport I couldn’t stand up straight, my knee had swollen to twice its size, and it cost me almost another three weeks to go back to where I was. This was purely because of the lack of care and the lack of attention and the lack of responsibility that we all have for young people. I work for the Premier league now working for academies; it’s everyone’s responsibility to provide safeguards, and to give everyone the best chance and the best support. And that was a case in point about how little they thought of me. People look at the old chairman of Manchester City and they’ll have different feelings towards that individual, but he was the one who made the final decisions and he was the person that I literally had no time for, and I had a stand-up argument with him. That relationship was completely broken on the back of how he made me feel as a 19–year-old who spent four years trying to get back fit and always being made to feel like I was a failure, and always being made to feel like I was off no significance and no importance to the football club.
Wow, Paul. That’s really tough listening to that story, really difficult. We need to move on to City’s problems of today, and the UEFA ban that they’ve been given.
Well it’s a really contentious situation because there are issues with UEFA, long-standing ones that have been unanswered, and certain situations that have developed. What’s frustrating for most City fans, and for fans in England in particular, is to understand the truth behind it. Because, like most City fans, I’m one of those guys that if my club has done something incorrect, which goes against the rules, then we should be punished. I understand and agree with that wholeheartedly. But it feels like we haven’t been told the truth about everything. When we read the paper from City’s perspective and we listen to what the CEO has to say and that they were going to fight it because of these other things that have not been taken into account, then it’s so unclear as to the rationale of why UEFA are treating Manchester City in that way which feels like it’s unbalanced. As an example, when Manchester City’s players came out for a game a minute late the club was fined more money than clubs who have been found to have racially abused other teams’ players. We understand that there are TV rights and other things that need to fall into place but it just shows you that it feels like it’s heavy-handed in some respects and that there is inequity in how we’re made to feel, and how we feel like we’re being treated differently. We just want to know the truth but I’m not sure if the truth will ever come out.
It’s difficult to know, yes. And what happens if City win this year’s Champions League?
Exactly. And it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. It would be comical if City could win the Champions League and then not be able to defend that in the following season. These are things that the game often throws up and situations that you don’t think will ever come about. You can imagine that the UEFA board are going to be absolutely sweating every time City score a goal or play well, just in case… But you and I know that Bayern Munich look incredible at the moment, Barcelona are always going to be Barcelona, always one of the favourites. We still got to play Real Madrid in the second leg, and if you’re ever going to write off a team like Real Madrid then you shouldn’t be involved in football. That’s a nonsense because we know how good Real can be, with or without Ramos, they’re still an incredible team and a team that will be hugely difficult. And everyone talks about City being the favourites but for me that’s not the case, for me Liverpool are the favourites, in terms of their form and in terms of keeping all their players fully fit and they have been incredible this season in the Premier league, untouchable. So for City to win it there are so many teams – we’ve not even mentioned Juventus or Atlético – so it’s going to be so difficult, but Pep Guardiola is a magician, not just in terms of how he sets his teams up, but also in terms of how he treats people and treats his players. If anyone can get a team and galvanise that squad to be able to get towards that then there’s no better man that we could hope to have in our corner than Pep Guardiola.
Yes, no one in Madrid expected that starting XI and Zidane didn’t appear to know what to do in that first leg. It was really good change from Guardiola.
It’s obviously something we, as fans, don’t always think off, when we saw the team and we’re thinking he’s just changed Gabriel Jesús for Sergio Agüero but then seeing how he set up, and thinking that ‘okay it must be Bernardo Silva playing as a false number nine,’ because he’s played there in the past. And then seeing Kevin de Bruyne playing so much higher up the pitch; with Jesús on the left-hand side to basically cancel out any overlapping play on their right-hand side where we know Real Madrid are very strong, like with Carvajal getting forward and causing all sorts of problems. So tactically it was very astute from Guardiola and that can sometimes backfire if the team doesn’t play like that very often and you’re asking players to be very disciplined, especially asking strikers to be disciplined defensively. That’s something strikers don’t like to do. So for Jesús to do that, and do it so well, and still be such a threat going forward, it was a really excellent display. We know we have players like Rodri, De Bruyne and Gündogan who are superb in midfield, and I felt that Kevin and İlkay in particular were sensational. But all around a pitch it just felt like Real were toothless, they didn’t really provide any threat that we know they have. And again you come back to their formation, we didn’t expect that either, but you still feel like there is so much more to come in the second leg.
You played as a defender in your day. Do you think that Gabriel Jesús fouled Sergio Ramos before he scored?
Well, it is something we see here in England as well, and a lot of it across European football and La Liga, that it doesn’t take any contact for players to go down, and even the sending off, there was nothing in that. But by the same token, the amount of times that other teams have done the same things to City, when they’ve won free kicks or penalties or had players sent off for seemingly ridiculous challenges that would never really bring a grown man down. But with that one he seems to get in front of Ramos and the referee feels like he has nowhere else to go but to send him off for being the last man. But I understand, and again for the hands-on with Jesús, if I did that to you in the box, and push you with my hands, then you would fall forwards, but it felt like there wasn’t that much contact. And yet, as a Manchester City fan, if that happened to me, and for example Gareth Bale did the same thing to Nicolas Otamendi, and you scored a goal, then I would say it was a push, and it shouldn’t be a goal. Every time a decision goes for you, you can argue the reasons why it should be a goal, and when it’s against you can argue why it shouldn’t have been. That’s another reason why football can be so frustrating at times, but I can assure you that the number of times this season that VAR decisions have gone against Manchester City is unbelievable, and that’s another issue that the game needs to try and address because it’s leaving so many fans feeling really bitter, and not enjoying the experience that is supposed to be the most exciting, celebrating your team’s goal.
Thank you Paul for your time and for sharing all your thoughts. Reading your book has really given me a sense that I know you personally and it was a pleasure to speak to you. All the very best in the second leg in Manchester.