The elegance of Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson, Liverpool’s finest defensive pairing

The elegance of Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson, Liverpool’s finest defensive pairing

This feature is part of Duology

Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson’s union in the centre of defence for the all-conquering Liverpool of the 1980s was so hypnotic that time has managed to blur the length of time they operated in tandem of one another.

They shared the Liverpool dressing room for six and a half seasons, until Lawrenson befell a devastating recurrence of an Achilles injury against Arsenal at Anfield in January 1988, which prematurely ended his playing career at the age of 30. Lawrenson’s stunning versatility meant that he played significant swathes of his first two and last two seasons at Anfield in a variety of positions, which drew him away from his indelible partnership with Hansen.

To an entire generation, Lawrenson has been no more than a caricature, a mild irritant of a television and radio pundit, a grumpy old man armed with outmoded theories on the game of football. Even to the majority of Liverpool fans, the club he served with such style and skill, he is all-too-often viewed askance.

The image of this version of Lawrenson is completely at odds with the visage he struck on the pitch as a player. Reassuringly comfortable on the ball, with a turn of speed which could be breathtaking, he was the perfect foil for Hansen who had a sixth sense when it came to positioning and was even more comfortable with the ball at his feet than Lawrenson was.

Bob Paisley picked Hansen up from Partick Thistle in May 1977 for £110,000, and that very same summer registered serious interest in also signing Lawrenson, who had just been voted as Preston North End’s player of the year, in what had been a very near-miss on promotion from the Third Division.

Scared off by the £100,000 asking price for a player who was yet to clock-up 100 professional appearances or kick a ball in the top two divisions of the Football League, Lawrenson instead moved to Second Division Brighton and Hove Albion, who he would help reach the top-flight for the first time in their history two years later.

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

When Lawrenson eventually arrived at Anfield, in the summer of 1981, it was for nine times that once prohibitive £100,000 asking price. During the course of those four years, between 1977 and 1981, Hansen cemented himself in a star-studded Liverpool side.

Faced with the unenviable task of breaking the Emlyn Hughes and Phil Thompson partnership, Hansen initially found himself as the fourth-choice centre-back at Anfield, and he also had to contend with the presence of the legendary but polarising Tommy Smith. By the end of his first season with Liverpool, however, Hansen was the beneficiary of the fluctuating form of Joey Jones and a freak injury to Smith.

When Jones’ form dipped during the second half of the campaign, resulting in the ageing Smith being drafted back into the team and Hughes switching to left-back, a position he had played earlier in his career and ironically one which Lawrenson could have covered had he been signed in the summer of 1977, Smith looked set to bring an end to his Liverpool career in a second successive European Cup final, at Wembley against Club Brugge. Bizarrely, Smith’s place in Liverpool’s European Cup final side was inexplicably lost thanks to him dropping an axe on his foot while chopping wood.

Rather than bring Jones back into the team, Paisley instead turned to Hansen who, despite an almost very costly error, put in a performance of immense overall maturity; a performance which ultimately fast-tracked the cultured defender into a far more prominent role the following season, at the expense of Hughes. The Hansen and Thompson partnership – a partnership deserving of acclaim all of its own – was born.

It was the natural beauty with which Hansen and Thompson linked that so effectively delayed the progression of the Hansen and Lawrenson partnership. When Lawrenson made his Liverpool debut, in August 1981, it was instead at left-back, in place of Alan Kennedy, and when Lawrenson did get his first opportunity to play at centre-back it was in place of the injured Hansen, alongside Thompson, with Hansen missing out on the 1982 League Cup final. Lawrenson’s adaptability even saw him cover in midfield upon various occasions.

During the second half of the 1982/83 season, Hansen and Lawrenson were finally thrown together on a more regular basis, after Thompson spent a sustained period on the sidelines himself. The handing on of the managerial baton from Paisley to Joe Fagan in the summer of 1983 effectively ended Thompson’s Liverpool career and the Hansen and Lawrenson partnership became the undisputed first-choice pairing for Fagan.

Read  |  Why Joe Fagan deserves to be remembered as one of football’s greatest managers

Ironically, amongst Fagan’s very first signings for Liverpool would be the man who would end the Hansen and Lawrenson partnership. Gary Gillespie was brought in from Coventry, where he would spend much of his first two-and-a-half-years at the club on little more than a watching brief, from the bench if he was lucky, yet more often than not from the stands. Gillespie – who had captained Falkirk at the age of just 17 – was restricted to only 26 league appearances in his first three seasons in a Liverpool shirt.

If Hansen’s partnership with Thompson had been one of supreme ease, his partnership with Lawrenson was felt to be almost telepathic. With Lawrenson fast in the sprint and blessed with perfect timing in the tackle, a precision that was arguably surgical in its execution, and Hansen with the ability to visualise his opponents next move, before they had even formulated it in their mind’s eye themselves, Liverpool were endowed with the best central defensive partnership in Europe and the trophies continued to tumble into the Anfield boardroom.

A hat-trick of league titles between 1981 and 1984 were complimented by League Cup wins in each of those seasons and enhanced further by winning the 1984 European Cup, Hansen’s third winners medal in the continent’s biggest tournament. Beating Roma in their own stadium, in front of a partisan crowd, was quite possibly the club’s finest ever achievement. This was the eye of the Liverpool storm.

It was a partnership which was expected to stretch on for years to come, with the managerial succession of Fagan by Kenny Dalglish not viewed as something which would alter the landscape of Liverpool’s central defence. During the fevered run-in to the 1985/86 season, however, Lawrenson succumbed to injury and when Gillespie stepped in to cover alongside Hansen his form was so composed that he retained his place, even when Lawrenson returned to fitness with double-clinching games still to be played.

The league title was claimed at Stamford Bridge, with Lawrenson now watching on from the sidelines, and with the FA Cup final approaching Gillespie was again set to keep his place in the side, with Dalglish unwilling to change a winning side.

On the morning of the final, Gillespie awoke with a stomach bug, ruling him out of the biggest game of his career and opening the door once again for Lawrenson. The change initially unsettled Liverpool, as Gary Lineker opening the scoring for Everton, before Hansen and Lawrenson found their mojo once more, helping in guiding the FA Cup back to Anfield after a 12-year hiatus and in turn making Liverpool only the third club of the 20th century to clinch the league and cup double, to that day.

Original Series   |  Duology

Lawrenson’s return for the cup final averted a potentially awkward summer, where searching questions would have been asked about the future of one of Europe’s finest defenders.

Going into the 1986/87 season, Dalglish was spoilt for defensive choice. Beyond Hansen, Lawrenson and Gillespie he had Steve Nicol and Jim Beglin, talented attacking options at full-back who had succeeded the Anfield legends that were Phil Neal and Alan Kennedy, while the promising Barry Venison had also been picked up from Sunderland and Gary Ablett was beginning to emerge as a rare success from the Liverpool youth system of the 1980s.

The conundrum of making three central defenders fit into two positions was eventually eased for Dalglish by a series of injuries that made Lawrenson’s versatility crucial to the campaign. Nicol suffered his most injury-disrupted season in a Liverpool shirt while Beglin was the recipient of a devastating broken leg, inflicted during a League Cup quarter-final against Everton at Goodison Park. He would never play for Liverpool again.

As Lawrenson alternated between both full-back positions, the Hansen and Gillespie partnership continued to blossom. When Liverpool faced Wimbledon at Anfield at the end of March, they were top of the First Division and just over a week away from a League Cup final against Arsenal. Slipping to a 2-1 defeat was an unexpected turn of events, yet the bigger blow was losing Lawrenson to a ruptured Achilles. In his absence, Liverpool lost at Wembley and then relinquished their grip on the league title.

It took Lawrenson six months to recover from the injury and when he returned to the Liverpool squad, the landscape had changed dramatically. Ian Rush was now in Turin with Juventus and his replacement, John Aldridge, had been joined by John Barnes and Peter Beardsley. With this came an alteration in the way Liverpool played.

The new style was perfect for Lawrenson but, still seeking to regain peak fitness, he was on the outside, looking in, at the start of the new era. Rumours of unrest led to links to a move away from Liverpool, with Alex Ferguson interested in taking him to Manchester United.

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Lawrenson did eventually return to the side in mid-September, due to an injury to Craig Johnston, which necessitated Nicol stepping into midfield, but the signing of Ray Houghton in October further complicated Lawrenson future. In and out of the team, Lawrenson struggled to find the fitness of old yet blended into the side with ease when he did play, as he was predominantly fielded at left-back, gifted the easiest job in football during the 1987/88 season, playing behind the hypnotic Barnes.

When Arsenal travelled to Anfield in mid-January, Lawrenson was back in the line-up and it was here that his Achilles ruptured for the second time. His forlorn departure almost slipped under the radar completely on a day when Liverpool put on a masterclass of a performance that was so far detached from traditional English football that Michel Platini, watching on from the commentary box for European audiences, was moved to eulogise it as some of the finest football he had ever witnessed.

Publicly, optimistic noises were made about Lawrenson’s hopes of a swift return. Reassurances were made to Jack Charlton about his projected availability for the European Championship finals. Within weeks, however, Lawrenson announced his retirement as a player, something predicted in pointsbet review, instead becoming the shock new manager of Oxford United. Football was left stunned. Liverpool never truly replaced him and it was arguably the hammer blow of losing Lawrenson which cracked the very foundations of the Liverpool dynasty.

The Hansen and Lawrenson central defensive partnership had been the best in Europe, but it was Lawrenson’s ability to excel in a variety of positions which brought that partnership to an end. Liverpool had stayed on top of the game in England for so long and it was thanks to evolution rather than any revolution.

Ron Yeats had passed on the baton of Liverpool’s defensive kingpin to Hughes, Hughes then showed Thompson these priceless skills who, in turn, was the teacher of Hansen, responsible for passing that knowledge on to Lawrenson and Gillespie. Lawrenson was lost to Liverpool as a link to the next generation of central defenders, as was Gillespie, who struggled with regular injury problems beyond the end of the 1987/88 season.

By the summer of 1991, Liverpool had lost not just Lawrenson but also Hansen and Gillespie. The club have never won the league since. You can plot the initial dynastic damage to the loss of Lawrenson. Wonderfully symbiotic, Hansen and Lawrenson were a joy to watch and they brought an aesthetic art to central defending to the English game, which was simply not of this green and pleasant land.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp

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