By the age of 29, Mark Lawrenson was a crock. His career as a footballer had been effectively ended when he sustained an injury to his achilles during a match against Wimbledon in March 1987. It had happened in a challenge with John Fashanu, but the Gladiators host-in-waiting was entirely blameless. “He never touched me,” said Lawrenson in 1995. “The tendon just went as I was running along.”
Five months later, Lawrenson returned to the Liverpool first team, ignoring the advice given to him by several doctors, who told him to quit. “I had an operation and carried on playing for 16 months but I was an impostor. I had lost all of my pace and couldn’t put myself about,” Lawrenson admitted to Ivan Waterman of the Sunday Mirror in 2000. “I knew the end was coming, I had prepared myself mentally. I knew what was on the cards”.
In January 1988, nearly a year after the original injury, Lawrenson limped off during a game against Arsenal. A few weeks down the line, aware there was no way back, he retired as a player. Liverpool went on to win the 1987-88 First Division title without him, but Lawrenson got his reward nonetheless: the match with Arsenal had been his 14th of the season, and entitled him to receive his fifth league winners’ medal.
Yet by the time he got it, he was already manager of Oxford United. Back then, the club was a plaything of media baron Robert Maxwell. Indeed, had history unfolded slightly differently, the team Lawrenson took over might well have been mandated out of existence by Maxwell five years previously. “On March 16, 1983,” wrote Piers Pennington for When Saturday Comes in 2001, “the then owner of Oxford [Maxwell] announced that he was on the verge of taking a controlling interest in Reading, which would lead to a merger of the two clubs. Home games would alternate between the Manor [Ground] and Elm Park until a new ground could be built, Didcot being the favoured site. The new club would be called Thames Valley Royals.”
As it was, the proposed amalgamation fell through after mass protests from fans of both teams. Nevertheless, it was another indication of Maxwell’s ruthlessly self-serving approach to football: in January 1982 he had coughed up a paltry £128,000 to assume control of Oxford, a club in dire financial straits and, through his mouthpieces in the press, portrayed himself as United’s saviour. Yet there was little doubt about his motivation, as pointed out by Ed Horton in WSC’s 1993 anthology My Favourite Year: “When Maxwell bought Oxford United he was getting the same sort of deal he got at the New York Daily News. For a small amount he got, through gratitude and fear, a free hand to do as he pleased; and, crucially, a new arena into which his empire could spread.”
Still, it is undeniable that for several years Oxford benefited from his presence, on the pitch at least; off it was a different matter. Under Maxwell’s ownership, The Us climbed from Third Division to First, and went so far as to win the League Cup in 1986. It was comfortably the most successful period in the club’s history. “Maxwell’s name was chanted from the terraces”, notes Horton.
Two years after the cup triumph, that was still the case, but for very different reasons. Bored with Oxford’s limited potential, Maxwell had departed and, after a failed effort to seize power at Old Trafford, took over at Derby County in the summer of 1987. At Derby, Maxwell had simply usurped his son Ian’s position as Rams head honcho and, meanwhile, almost as an afterthought, installed another biddable son, Kevin, as Oxford chairman. Within half a season, United were the worst team in the First Division.
By then, supporters of the club were in open revolt against the regime, which moved repeatedly to silence its detractors. Into this poisonous atmosphere strolled the lugubrious and naive Lawrenson; mere days after saying goodbye to Liverpool, the champions elect, he was in charge of the weakest and most chaotic club in the league. A matter of weeks later, Oxford finished dead last in the First Division and were relegated. It was an inauspicious start to Lawrenson’s managerial career, but the real drama came the following season, when he dared to take on the Maxwell dynasty.
The man unwittingly at the heart of it all was Oxford forward Dean Saunders. The Welshman had impressed during his spell at the Manor Ground, netting regularly for a side floundering in the top flight in 1987-88. The following season, with Oxford in the second tier and Saunders again scoring freely, it was only natural that bigger clubs began taking an interest. Seemingly, however, Lawrenson and Kevin Maxwell had reached an agreement ensuring Saunders remained until the end of the current campaign. Should Oxford not earn promotion, only then would their star man be allowed to leave. Lawrenson felt the diminutive forward was integral to United’s future success, and believed he would be kept away from the clutches of the leading First Division teams. But he ought to have known better than to take a Maxwell at his word.
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The morning of a league match against Blackburn, in October 1988, Lawrenson got a nasty surprise in the form of a phone call from Kevin. “It was an hour and a quarter before kick-off, and I’d just finished talking to the players about tactics and how we would go about things”, explained Lawrenson in the Independent. “I was in my office sorting out tickets and such like, all the routine sort of things that you do before a match, and I was least expecting what would happen next.” As it turned out, Maxwell senior had taken a fancy to Saunders, and decided that the striker’s services were required in Derby. Kevin was only too happy to defer to his father’s wishes, and the deal was done: Oxford would be losing their best player with immediate effect.
Saunders himself told the story of the “negotiations” in a 2012 interview conducted by Lawrenson for Football Focus. After the Blackburn match, the Oxford manager had informed the young forward of the impending transfer. In shock, Saunders was whisked off to meet Arthur Cox, the Derby boss, who was in the stadium that day. The Welshman had little or no choice in relation to his future, but requested a car to sweeten the deal. He was swiftly put through to speak to Robert Maxwell via telephone. “Now listen here, Saunders,” the Derby chairman said to him. “You’ve done well for the Maxwell family so far at the Oxford. And now you’re going to go and play for the Derby. So what car do you want?”
Saunders asked for a Mercedes or BMW, but in the end got a second-hand Ford Granada. Nonetheless, he was out the door at Oxford and Lawrenson, who had over the course of several months badgered Saunders into signing a new contract, was livid. He issued an ultimatum to the Maxwells, but received short shrift. At a crisis meeting with Robert and Kevin, Lawrenson was fobbed off. The deadly duo believed he should simply do what they told him. Lawrenson had no such intention, but before he could resign, he was sacked.
And so, within 48 hours of the Saunders incident, Lawrenson found himself unemployed and embittered by his first taste of management. Supporters of his former club were just as unhappy at the situation: “Four thousand fans signed a petition demanding that the Maxwells get out of football,” says Ed Horton. “This was prefaced by an angry post-match sit-in and a march of 200 fans down to Headington Hall [Robert Maxwell’s stately home just outside Oxford]”. But it came to nothing and United finished 17th in the Second Division in 1989, while Derby County romped to 5th place in the top tier, their best performance since 1975.
Meanwhile, the out-of-work Lawrenson tried to resurrect his playing career with brief spells at Barnet and in Florida with the Tampa Bay Rowdies. It wasn’t meant to be, and in the autumn of 1989, the former Liverpool defender took charge of fourth division Peterborough United. In some ways, given the drama of Lawrenson’s time at Oxford, his spell at Posh was nothing more than a footnote. But it still provided an interesting case of history repeating itself.
The man who brought him to Peterborough was John Devaney, who had been a director at Oxford when Lawrenson was manager. Like Robert Maxwell, Devaney had rescued a club in financial peril, but appeared to be motivated more genuinely by philanthropy. He was a figure respected by many at Peterborough: upon replacing Devaney as Posh chairman in 1992, club legend Chris Turner said of the man he succeeded, “But for his intervention four years ago there wouldn’t be a Peterborough United now.” Adi Mowles, chairman of the Posh Independent Supporters’ Association in 2013, told BBC Radio Cambridgeshire that Devaney fundamentally “changed the club. We’d been through some awful awful times previously to his arrival […] Personally I’ve got some great memories of him […] He was a massive influence on the football club …”
Yet he still managed to upset Mark Lawrenson. After winning just four of his 25 games as manager of Oxford, the Preston man’s career at the Posh had begun in a much more positive fashion. By his own assertion, Lawrenson’s team had “made quite a good start to the 1990-91 season”, but come November 1990 were beginning to stumble. The end came, as Lawrenson said to the Independent in 2002, “when the chairman rang me up one Saturday morning and ordered me to drop five first-team players because we could not afford to pay them the agreed appearance money”.
This time, Lawrenson was able to tender his resignation before the sack came. Once more, he had fallen foul of a chairman’s miserliness, though the more cynical will point to the poor run of form Peterborough were going through at the time. His team had won 25 of 64 matches, a vast improvement on the Oxford days, but Lawrenson was not encouraged and would not return to management. At the age of 33, he had given up on making the transition from pitch to dugout.
There was a brief spell as a coach at Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, but as a “defensive specialist” for one of the most gung-ho attacking sides ever to play in Britain, it was a role doomed to failure. Ultimately, life as a gaffer had turned out to be disastrous for Lawrenson. Dean Saunders, Robert Maxwell and the heady allure of HTV West, for whom he began commentating shortly after leaving Peterborough, had brought an end to a managerial career that never really got started.
By Luke Ginnell. Follow @HeavyFirstTouch