The Big Interview
Red Passion writers are always on the alert. At this season's Halifax away game, for example, Paul Lindsay - a sharp-eyed member of the fanzine's editorial group - was just about to tuck into his half-time burger when he suddenly looked to his left and exclaimed, "Bloody hell, that's Mike Lake!" And it was. There was a quick exchange of telephone numbers, Mike and Paul continued to munch on their burgers, and the interview date was finalised. In the end it was Peter Davies who went to meet the silky midfielder whose beautiful long hair was such a crucial, and controversial, feature of the promotion season. So, five years after helping Wrexham to promotion - and, let's face it, being the vital ingredient in the epic '92-'93 success - The Man Who Was God was queueing up for cheeseburgers at The New Shay. What on earth has happened?
Mike Lake lives in suburban Manchester close to a cemetery - appropriate perhaps given the sad and almost tragic nosedive his football career took. One minute, the key man in promotion glory; the next, injured, released and out of work. His house is spacious and full of pine furniture. There's an exercise bike in the spare room and a stack of beers in the fridge. Mr Lake is very generous with his European beer and in the course of the two-hour interview six bottles are shared and enjoyed. His wife is a nurse and his little boy, Charlie, a budding midfield playmaker too. So, Mike, tell us about your time at Wrexham...
What was the background to your move from Sheffield United to Wrexham in 1993?
"It was a loan move first. I'd been in the first team at Bramhall Lane; I'd had a good pre-season and played in the first six or seven games of the season. I'd made my way back from injury, but the United manager Dave Bassett had just signed Paul Rogers. He basically said that Rogers would be his first choice in the centre of midfield, and said it might be worth my while to move to another club, maybe on loan. I'd been at Sheffield for four years and I'd had a few injuries. Bassett said that at my age I really needed first-team football, and said that he couldn't guarantee that. I'm glad he was straight with me and I wasn't left hanging on. I could have stayed and fought for my place, but I felt I was down the pecking-order so far as the centre of the midfield was concerned."
What was it like at Sheffield United?
"I could have established myself there. I got a few goals and we had the odd good run. It was nice to play first-team football and I got to play at places like Old Trafford. In the reserves there I also played at Newcastle. It's very different in the reserves though - it's no good to you really. I suppose that at a big club I could have played about half the games every season. But at a smaller club like Wrexham I could be a regular player. Under Bassett I generally played when I was fit. I probably played about 50 games in four years. I didn't agree completely with his tactics, but I couldn't really ask for more from him. He was dead fair with me personally. I'm still quite friendly with Tony Oghana and Brian Deane. I spoke to Brian the other day and he told me he was in Portugal. At first I thought he was there on holiday; then I found out he'd signed for Benfica! That was a great move - a dream move. Frightening. But he deserved it. Most of the time at Sheffield I was injured. Vinny Jones was there at the same time. He always gave 100% - you always knew what you were getting. You don't play at the level he's played at if you're crap. He was a typical Cockney - too much to say for himself. Bassett liked to have a lot of Cockneys round him all the time. But there was a good team spirit at United - it has to be right on and off the pitch."
How did Flynn spot you?
"I think he saw me in a reserve game at Maine Road. After that I was informed of his interest. I didn't know much about Wrexham. Really, I just wanted to get playing regular again. Playing in the reserves wasn't the most pleasurable of experiences. Flynn said that there were quite a few lads at Wrexham who travelled in from Manchester, and I suppose this was useful to know. He also said that they liked to play football and basically invited me to come down and have a look. I think I was going to go whatever the set-up really. Flynn didn't have to persuade me that much."
What were your impressions of Wrexham?
"I liked the team spirit and there were a good set of lads. Also the training was good - short and sharp - and they played nice football. Mark Sertori and John Paskin were the guys I knew best: Carlo's a big mate of mine and John Paskin is back in South Africa now. The football in the Third Division was quite fast. I'd come from a Premier League club, but I'd been playing in the reserves. There the football was dead slow. Everybody playing in the reserves really didn't want to be there; it wasn't the best - basically just old pros going through the motions. So Wrexham was fast compared to reserve-team football and I obviously had to work on my fitness. I liked playing for Wrexham more than Sheffield United. But I don't think that Bassett's long-ball stuff was as bad as it was portrayed. It wasn't all long-ball; when we were in front in a match we played some decent football; it was just when we were getting beat that we went back to basics."
Who do you remember playing with in the Wrexham midfield?
"For most of the time I played with Gareth and sometimes Wayne Phillips. I never actually played with Mickey Thomas, but he was great in training. No, I tell a lie, I played one game with him - Joey's testimonial. We were together for half an hour. But Mickey was around in my early days at Wrexham and he was a different class."
What about the on-off permanent transfer?
"Well, I went back to Sheffield for a week. All the time we were discussing terms, and I was just trying to get the best for myself. Anyone in any walk of life would try and do this. I wanted to go to Wrexham but the fact was that the terms I was offered were not what I wanted. I'd done well at Wrexham on loan and everything was going fine. It wasn't a major problem, but I knew I could get a better deal elsewhere. All the time I was just hoping that Wrexham would make me a better offer. I felt I'd been lucky coming in to a good team; I'd joined just as things were taking off. In a way I think we complemented each other: myself as a player and the team as a whole. The wrangle over terms just soured things for me; there was no need for it. I just wanted the best deal possible. A year later there was big money in football - at the time I didn't think I was asking for the world. I wanted to sign!"
So what happened?
"I went back to Sheffield on the Wednesday and I knew Wrexham had a big game on the Saturday against Bury. On the Tuesday I'd spoken to Flynn; we couldn't agree terms but I did say that I'd like to finish my full loan spell and play in the Bury game. I could have played at Bury, but Flynn didn't want me to. I think he was a bit miffed and he went out and bought Jimmy Case. So I went back to Sheffield and played at Southampton on the Saturday. Harry Bassett knew I'd had a good game against Southampton the year before, and so he put me in for this one as well. He did that - he had a great memory and would bring you back for one-off games if he felt you played well against a certain side. I met up with United on the Thursday morning and Bassett told me to meet up with the team in Southampton. As it was I was subbed after 10 minutes and we lost 4-1. By the Monday morning I was back in the dog-house, but on the Tuesday or Wednesday Flynn rang and said he'd give me what I wanted. Before that I was half ready just to phone up and say I'd accept what they were offering - the five-hour Sheffiled United training sessions were really getting me down..."
I was at the Bury game - Jimmy Case's debut - and we were awful; I'd say it was a necessity after that that we signed you permanently. What do you think?
"I felt sorry for Jimmy Case. He's one of the nicest men and he was good to play with. I played the odd game with him; he came on a lot as sub and did an excellent job."
I heard you got a letters from Wrexham fans begging you to sign. Is that right?
"I did get a great response from the fans. They were brilliant and I did get quite a lot of letters. They thanked me for my time at Wrexham and said I'd done really well. The general tone of the correspondence was: if you sign for us, great; if you don't it's OK and thanks all the same. People also came up to me at training and at games, but none of it was nasty. It did all help to influence me - but there again I was wanting to stay all the time. I was annoyed about some of the stuff that appeared in the press about the money situation and what I was asking for. It was a private thing between Flynn and me. It basically made Mike Lake look bad; I wasn't asking for the world. Wrexham were doing well, there was talk of spending money on a new player, and somehow it was all turned on me. It's a job after all and I had a family to think of and in the lower leagues especially you've got to think about this. It was also a big move for me, from the Premiership to Wrexham. I wanted to come and I really liked the place. As I said I might have phoned Flynn anyway if I'd had not heard anything..."
How did you feel when you signed?
"Flynn said come and sign and I was made up. I'd always wanted to and I was very happy. I'd signed for the club I wanted to play for and you've got to remember also that they were exciting times at the club - the run-in was on, there were a few big games coming up and I really wanted to be a part of it."
Promotion - and after
Which specific games do you remember?
"Doncaster away. It was the second-to-last game before I went back to Sheffield. I got a last-minute goal - Mel Pejic headed the ball on and it just dropped and I hit it from close in. We really needed the point we got. Also Chesterfield away. We didn't play well, but there was a big crowd. We won 3-2 but it wasn't convincing. It was a big game and we were behind twice. We really pulled it out of the bag! It was a tremendous booster to come away with the three points. I can also recall the games against Cardiff. They beat us at home, which was depressing, but they were top. We did well though because we then went on to beat Carlisle 3-1 at home. We came back well. Northampton away was also a good game. It wasn't comfortable, but we could have won it by more. We were never going to lose it! We never even contemplated losing. I supposed we were a bit miffed not to go up as champions. If we had beaten Cardiff it would have been different, but they went up as champions - a bit of a downer."
What did you do after the Northampton game?
"We celebrated a bit at the ground and on the coach on the way back. We then hit the bar at the Racecourse in the early hours. We had a few beers there. It was quite an exhausting night! And then I had to get home to Manchester!"
Who were your big mates while you were at Wrexham?
"Carlo and Paskin. They were brilliant guys. My time at Wrexham was the best period I'd had in professional football. I'd got promotion twice with Sheffield United, but both times I'd been injured. I'd been involved but I was out of action during the run-in."
What do you remember of the post-promotion season, 1993-4?
"During that season I was a bit disappointed in my own form. My injuries weren't that bad, but I did have some trouble with my knee. I was not the fittest. It was an up-and-down, plodding season for me, but it was OK - my fitness wasn't brilliant. After all the excitement of the previous season, the team never really hit form. It was a bit of an anti-climax. I suppose staying up was an achievement in itself, but you've got to be honest: no-one just sets out to stay up. You should demand the same again. Winning should become a habit. If you lose you're on a downer - questions are asked and you're forced to work harder. When you're winning the spirit is brilliant, the club's made up and everyone feels brilliant again; when you're losing you get really annoyed with your form and the players just get really disappointed. I remember that 5-0 defeat at Exeter. We were on a real downer then; it was really depressing. It was a miserable game and it was a long way back from Devon! I can also recall the games against Notts Forest. I sat out the away leg but played at home. And Brentford - we won 2-1. It was a great result for us because they were flying high. Stockport away I remember too. I knew a few of the lads there so it was a local game. And a few of my mates too were Stockport fans. We lost 1-0. I've also got memories of the Huddersfield away game. The season as a whole was a bit of a disappointment. I suppose we did well just to stay up. It wasn't a disgrace and there were no relegation fears - some people were quite happy."
What about 1994-5?
"During the Shrewsbury game, early on in the season, I felt my leg go again. I'd played pre-season but I couldn't finish the Isle of Man tournament. My knee was sore. I remember the Doncaster game and then at Shrewsbury I went up for a header; I came down and I could feel my knee just go. That was it. I came off and it was the last game I ever played. I had to have another op. Mr Banks in Bolton did it. I'd seen him the summer before for another op and another injection. Up till '94-5 it had never been so bad - I'd just suffered the odd problem in training."
When I used to watch you, the key thing I used to remember was your hair! And in particular the way you kept playing about with it during matches....!
"Yeah, I used to get a lot of stick about my hair from the fans and the lads. It didn't bother me though. I never really realised the full extent of it. I got over it! I cut it shorter a few years ago when I was looking for a job. I had to look trim and tidy then!"
What exactly was wrong?
"I had tendonitis in my knee - basically just wear and tear. It wasn't necessarily an injury that finishes you. The patella tendon got sore; there was a thickening around it. The op just stripped this thickening away. There was a lot of discomfort. With an injury like this, rest can really help you. You also need to put some effort into rehab work. But every time I started working it was really painful. I wanted to get it ready. I had a contract for the full season and I wanted to stay to see if I could sort it out. I tried to get back playing in March. I'd built up the muscle through exercise. I was just about to start again but it went as I was jogging in training. I went back to the chap who did the operation and I did a lot more basic work. The club was fine with me - there was nothing they could do. My contract ran out at the end of the season and I was released."
How did it feel?
"I was gutted and depressed. There was no worse feeling. Being at a football club, doing nothing - but still getting paid! I missed the crack at training. I was just working on my own, in the gym and on the bikes at Sports Connection - on my own with only a couple of apprentices for company. All the lads were jetting off home after training and I was there for another two hours. It was depressing and soul-destroying. Steve Wade looked after me and I also did some recuperation work with Mickey Thomas."
What happened at the end of the season?
"I went to see Brian Flynn and I knew what was coming. I was released, but it didn't feel like the end of my career. I knew I'd be back playing. I had another op courtesy of the PFA, and they also paid for some rehabilitation work I went through. I had a few offers - from Northampton, for example - but I was only really fit to train. I could have got a club, particularly if I'd gone back into non-league, but there was always a problem with my knee. Whenever I started to jog it would start up again and the knee would go. I kept on thinking that I couldn't go through all the agony again. I had a mortgage and I had to get on with my life. I decided to get a job and have the knee looked at again. I tried again - four times in fact! - but I'd rest it for six months, I'd build it up, and it would just go again. Twisting and turning was the hardest: the knee would go, it would be sore and everything would just swell up."RP
In Red Passion 4 Mike talks about Wrexham - the football club - and his former teammates