Mark Lawrenson: one of the finest and most classy defenders of his generation

Mark Lawrenson: one of the finest and most classy defenders of his generation

Jolted by an unexpected and most unpleasant sensation, the elegant defender fell to the turf. The Wimbledon striker, John Fashanu, was the closest opponent to him as a sharp, shooting pain pierced the back of his leg, just above the heel. The Republic of Ireland international automatically jumped to the conclusion that Fashanu had stamped on him from behind. No contact had been made, however. It was just one of those unfortunate instances when a footballer goes to ground for no apparent reason. A ping, a twang of some description. It was late March 1987, just eight days prior to the League Cup final.

The elegant defender in question was Mark Lawrenson. Not only would he miss out on Wembley, but the remainder of his season was over too. He would miss pre-season training, and despite returning to the Liverpool first team in mid-September, a recurrence of the Achilles tendon injury he sustained in that game against Wimbledon, this time the following January against Arsenal, was enough to end his playing career. Lawrenson was just 30 years old.

In the absence of Lawrenson, and already deprived of the services of Jim Beglin and Steve Nicol, Kenny Dalglish was forced to field Ronnie Whelan as a makeshift left-back in the League Cup final at Wembley against Arsenal. It was a weak link which was seized upon by George Graham’s side, and the cup went to Highbury, rather than Anfield.

A faltering Liverpool, still with seven games in which to retain their league title, contrived to let Everton in, as they won just two of those last seven. When Lawrenson limped out of the beautifully stylistic 2-0 win over Arsenal that following January, no-one immediately appreciated it would be the last time he would ever pull on a Liverpool shirt.

Fast approaching three decades since he last kicked a serious ball in anger, to a generation of younger football fans, Lawrenson is nothing more than a grey-haired, cantankerous old pro, harking from the archaic days before the dawning of the Premier League. A talking-head from BBC TV and radio, one with which to disagree on an all-too regular basis.

There was a starkly different Mark Lawrenson during his playing days. Effortless, oozing controlled class with every movement, blessed with the calm thought processes of the genuinely gifted. Fast, extremely comfortable on the ball, with impeccable timing in the tackle, and the original exponent of ‘the telescopic leg’. In an era when most clubs still operated with a pair of traditional stoppers, both Lawrenson and Alan Hansen, his central defensive partner at Liverpool, ascended to be recognised as one the best, if not the very best centre-back pairing in Europe.

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Born in the suburbs of Preston, Lawrenson followed in the footsteps of his father by playing for his hometown team, the door to a career in professional football being handed to him by the then Deepdale player-manager, Bobby Charlton. Those initial seasons in the Third Division served a double purpose for Lawrenson. Being so besotted with the Lilywhites, it was a dream come true to play for the club his father had briefly represented, alongside the legendary Tom Finney.

Part of a Preston side which threatened promotion during the 1976/77 season, under the tutelage of Everton’s former league title and FA Cup winning manager, Harry Catterick, it was a bitter disappointment when they faded during the run-in. As Catterick stepped down, to be replaced by Nobby Stiles, the Preston board decided to cash in on their prized asset. In high demand, Lawrenson became the subject of a transfer auction. Bob Paisley was one of the interested parties, but Liverpool found themselves outbid by Second Division Brighton.

Alan Mullery, who had led the Seagulls to promotion from the Third Division ahead of Preston, had enjoyed a close-up view of Lawrenson’s abilities and was more than happy to make the highest offer for the services of a player just short of his 20th birthday.

Lawrenson made the step-up in levels a seamless one. Within two years he and Brighton were winning promotion to the First Division for the very first time, finishing runners up to their growing rivals, Crystal Palace. In 1979/80 Lawrenson made his arrival in the top flight. Losing four of their first five games, it was something of a rude awakening. A further eight-game stretch without a win took Brighton into mid-November, where they found themselves anchored to the bottom of the First Division.

A surprise win away at the European champions, Nottingham Forest, initiated a new beginning, however. Despite going on another significant winless run – this time encompassing 10 games of which seven were drawn, a run which was eventually ended with yet another victory against Nottingham Forest – Brighton eased to a reasonably comfortable survival.

The 1980/81 season proved to be Lawrenson’s last year at the Goldstone Ground – another season which swung from sweet to sour then back again. Avoiding relegation once more, aided by winning their last four games of the campaign, and with one eye on trying to consolidate their First Division status with some summer squad restructuring, Brighton decided the time was right to sell their increasingly valuable defender.

With an array of interested suitors, it was Liverpool who won the race for Lawrenson’s signature, paying out £900,000 for a player they could have had for just £100,000 four years earlier. The transfer was facilitated by Jimmy Case agreeing to move in the opposite direction, for a fee of £450,000. At the age of 24, Lawrenson’s best years were still to come.

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Lawrenson’s first two seasons at Anfield were fruitful, in both appearances and trophies, yet they were nomadic in regards to the positions he was asked to fill. Initially slotted in at left-back in place of Alan Kennedy, he was forced to bide his time playing the waiting game, before obtaining his favoured position in central defence.

With Alan Hansen maturing season-on-season and Phil Thompson still on top of his game, Lawrenson only got game time in central defence when either Hansen or Thompson were injured. As luck would have it, from Lawrenson’s perspective, Hansen was injured when Liverpool made the trip to Wembley for the 1982 League Cup final, where against Tottenham, Lawrenson would collect his first major domestic honour.

Two months later, when Liverpool faced Tottenham once more, this time in the league at Anfield, it was the day when Paisley’s side clinched the title, completing one of the greatest comebacks of all-time. Twelfth on Boxing Day, Liverpool took the title with one game to spare, Lawrenson scoring the crucial equaliser with a towering header on an afternoon when he’d been asked to play in midfield.

Lawrenson was fast making himself one of several new and exciting elements to a greatly rejuvenated Liverpool side. As the likes of Ray Kennedy, Terry McDermott and David Johnson had begun to be eased out of the side, Lawrenson, along with Whelan and Ian Rush were emblematic of a fresh, new streak which ran through Paisley’s champions.

The 1982/83 season saw more of the same for Lawrenson and Liverpool, although he played more games in his favoured position due to Hansen missing the start of the season, and during the second half of the campaign also, when increasing injury problems for Thompson finally threw Lawrenson and Hansen together on a more regular basis. The title and the League Cup were retained.

Lawrenson even got his name on the scoresheet at Goodison Park, in one of the most one-sided Merseyside derbies ever contested. Liverpool ran out 5-0 winners, as Rush famously scored four of the goals, but it is often forgotten that Lawrenson was the scorer of the other goal that day.

The retirement of Paisley in the summer of 1983 saw Joe Fagan take over the managerial reigns at Anfield. Fagan immediately marginalised Thompson and paired Lawrenson and Hansen as his first-choice central defensive partnership. Rather than regress in the wake of Paisley’s departure, that season saw Liverpool push on for even more success. A hat-trick of league titles secured, an all-Merseyside League Cup final replay won against Everton, and then a European Cup final won against Roma in their own stadium. It was a startling return of trophies.

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The following season was one of the most testing in Liverpool’s history. Off the pace on the pitch during the opening months, they almost turned it around to spectacular effect, losing out in a tight FA Cup semi-final replay to Manchester United, and reaching a fifth European Cup final.

On an evening that should have delivered a fascinating game of football, 39 people died on one of football’s saddest nights, amidst chaotic scenes. Liverpool and Juventus played out the final against a volatile backdrop. Lawrenson, who had picked up an injury two weeks before the final, lasted just three minutes before being replaced by Gary Gillespie.

In the wake of the Heysel Disaster, Liverpool had to pick themselves up and adjust, not just to life without European football, and within the ramifications of the events in Brussels, but also under the stewardship of a new manager. As Fagan fulfilled his early season intentions of relinquishing the role, Liverpool turned to Dalglish to lead them forward.

After a series of early teething problems, inclusive of Dalglish having to dispense with some old teammates, and Lawrenson’s partner Hansen declaring it to be the worst Liverpool side he had ever played in, they found their momentum. As the early pace-setters Manchester United imploded, Liverpool eventually overhauled neighbours and defending champions Everton to clinch the title on the final Saturday, at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea, who themselves had been handily placed during February, in one of the most dramatic title races in English football history.

Seven days later at Wembley came the first all-Merseyside FA Cup final. Lawrenson, however, was set to miss out on the big occasion. Having picked up an injury two months earlier, he had returned with the team on the crest of a wave. With Gillespie having deputised brilliantly for Lawrenson, Dalglish was at pains to alter a winning side.

Lawrenson didn’t even make the bench at Chelsea when the title was clinched a week earlier, and he was braced for disappointment at Wembley, until Gillespie awoke on Cup final morning with a stomach bug. Lawrenson was back in the side at the eleventh hour. A 3-1 victory brought Liverpool the league and cup double; a totally unexpected concept when labouring through the autumn and winter months. Lawrenson’s return to the side for the Cup final meant potentially difficult questions about his future were sidestepped in the summer of 1986.

The 1986/87 season saw Lawrenson return to the role he had filled in his early years at Anfield. With persistent injuries to Nicol and the later loss of Beglin, Dalglish paired Hansen and Gillespie together at centre-back for most of the season, with Lawrenson floating across a variety of positions; always in the team but drifting from position to position.

Read  |  When Mark Lawrenson turned his hand to management

This was, of course, until that fateful jolt of pain against Wimbledon in March 1987, an incident that triggered the beginning of the end of his playing days. When Lawrenson hobbled from the Anfield pitch against Arsenal in January 1988, positive noises were made that he would make a full return to the side. Lawrenson himself gave Jack Charlton numerous reassurances that he would be fit and available for the European Championships that summer.        

At international level, Lawrenson had opted to represent the Republic of Ireland, winning his first cap while still at Preston. In a team of rich talent, his path to the finals of the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, and Euro 84, had been blocked by difficult qualification groups. Euro 88 was different, however. With qualification gained, Lawrenson seemed set to play on one of the biggest international stages at last.

Lawrenson’s Achilles injury robbed him not just of continued success at club level, but also the opportunity to play at Euro 88 and onward to Italia 90. One of the game’s great and classical central defenders was denied the chance to grace the big international tournaments.

It came as a complete shock to the game when Lawrenson announced his retirement from football in March 1988. It came as an even bigger shock when he was unveiled 24 hours later as the new manager of First Division Oxford United. Struggling at the foot of the table, Lawrenson couldn’t turn Oxford’s fortunes around quickly enough, and he attained the unusual status of league title winning player and relegated manager in the very same season.

Before the year was out, Lawrenson had departed Oxford, when in a game of family transfers, their chairman Kevin Maxwell oversaw the move of star striker Dean Saunders to Derby County and their chairman – his father – Robert Maxwell. Lawrenson would venture into management one more time, at Peterborough United, yet despite a promising start, financial constraints proved frustrating, and he was once again gone.

Beyond a spell as defensive coach at Newcastle United under Kevin Keegan, Lawrenson has restricted his involvement in the game to his media duties, where he went on to become such a polarising figure that even many Liverpool fans took against him. Within this, Lawrenson’s legacy on the pitch has become shaded somewhat.

With retirement in 1988 at the age of 30, it isn’t outlandish to suggest that, had he remained injury free, he would have still been playing at the highest level when the Premier League came into being in 1992. Liverpool’s regression as the dominant force in the English game can be traced back to the loss of Mark Lawrenson, a player who Dalglish opted not to replace. He was essentially the first domino to fall when it comes to the ending of the Liverpool empire, and he was one of the finest defenders of his generation, something which today remains widely ignored 

By Steven Scragg  

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