Interview: Mark Lawrenson on playing and punditry

Former Liverpool player and BBC Match of the Day pundit Mark Lawrenson. Picture: Getty Images
Former Liverpool player and BBC Match of the Day pundit Mark Lawrenson. Picture: Getty Images
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POPULAR pundit and former Liverpool star has always had a certain way about him whether on the football pitch or in the TV studio. His football tales have a certain flair, too, writes Aidan Smith

“I’m in Preston a lot right now – let’s meet there,” says Mark Lawrenson, a fastidious fellow who checks on the progress of my train and gives me very precise directions to where he’ll collect me. Once he was in Preston all the time; it was where he was born and, originally, the limit of his footballing ambitions. These days his 80-year-old mother needs a bit of looking after so Lawro and his sister do it in shifts. There may not be three bigger Preston North End fans anywhere.

Mark Lawrenson, second left, celebrates his goal for Ireland. Picture: SNS

Mark Lawrenson, second left, celebrates his goal for Ireland. Picture: SNS

His mum, Theresa, is a massive influence on his life. His dad and stepdad figure in the story but she’s the constant. It was Theresa who wanted her laddie to be a priest and tried to have him train in Scotland, which you never know, might have qualified him to play for us; who wouldn’t let him wear jeans when he was growing up, which could explain the fashion crimes he commits on TV; who would ferry the hot prospect to juvenile tournaments as word spread round the county about his talent; who still tells her pals, even though she’s been doing this since 1975 and his North End debut: “That’s my son, that is”; who scolds him after his every appearance as a pundit: “Get your haircut.”

And Theresa, through her Waterford-born father, is the reason he ended up wearing the Republic of Ireland’s green rather than England’s white, which was particularly bad news for Scotland in 1987 when he scored the only goal at Hampden to put a severe dent in our hopes of qualifying for the European Championships.

It’s the day after Lawrenson’s 58th birthday and now we’re approaching a coffee shop, him with that long-limbed lollop familiar from the mud-caked penalty-boxes of his Liverpool pomp. The door is shutting and I half-expect him to extend his telescopic right leg to catch it, similar to how he used to hook the ball off Gary Lineker’s toes in Merseyside derbies. In shorts and a tracky top – he’s off down the gym after this – he sips his latte and remembers a diminutive Scottish challenge, seen off without fuss.

“We thought you were the Diddymen,” he says. “Gordon Strachan, Ally McCoist, Pat Nevin – and wasn’t [Davie] Cooper playing, too?” And his goal? “Ah yes, the 90-yarder. No, I just ran on to it and hit it, not fantastically well, just early. Jim Leighton wasn’t quite set and we won comfortably.”

The game was notable for being the first competitive one for Jack Charlton as the Republic’s manager, the start of an adventure in which Irish fans would wingding round the big tournaments, hosting epic parties in Stuttgart, Genoa and New York. Sadly for our man, injury caused him to miss them but he’s a quiz question, having uniquely played for both Charlton brothers. “Bobby at Preston hated management. I remember him with the opposition teamsheet, hand shaking. But he was lovely to us and my mum still speaks to [his wife] Norma.

“Big Jack, though, had the right temperament. The squad get-together for Scotland was at Lilleshall. He’d already met the other guys but this was the first time for the Liverpool lot: Ronnie Whelan, Jim Beglin, myself. John Anderson, who played for Preston, had hitched a ride with him from the north-east. ‘Ando’, we said, ‘what was that like?’ He said: ‘Twenty seconds down the road he put on a bloody fishing tape’.

“We were supposed to be there two days but Jack said we didn’t have to stay that long. He was very laissez-faire. The Liverpool boys were asked to watch at first: free kicks and throw-ins. I remember he had an umbrella but, in his defence because, as we know, international managers shouldn’t do this, it wasn’t up. Then he turned to us: ‘Have you muppets been taking this in?’ ‘Oh yes, Jack’. ‘Right, on you go.’ And he wandered off behind a goal to practise his golf swing with his brolly, not looking back at us once.”

Well, there probably wasn’t much he could have taught Lawro, who had already won four league titles and a European Cup with Bob Paisley’s Mighty Reds, where Scots were well to the fore, not least Alan Hansen. Was there ever a more elegant, swellegant centre-back partnership than these two? I flatter Lawrenson by telling him that such was the pair’s – that word again – fastidiousness in the tackle, always trying to retrieve the ball without any actual contact, that it seemed they were having a private contest to complete the 90 minutes with their shorts still spotless. “No, that was Al – the game was too easy for him. I’d finish with cuts, bruises, socks round my ankles, hair a mess, snot everywhere. He’d saunter off all immaculate for an unnecessary shower and a check of the racing results.”

Still, Lawro was a classy player and I happen to think he is an entertaining pundit as well. So he has spoken of football men who “know their onions and cut their cloth accordingly”, but haven’t we all? He has said “decapitated” when he meant “capitulated” and reached for “culpable” only to find “palpable”, though I’m impressed by a footballer knowing there’s such a word. It’s no surprise to discover he is an aficionado of Dorothy Parker because he can be quite waspish. During the last World Cup, his remark that Switzerland’s Josip Drmic should “put a skirt on” prompted 172 complaints, but I rather like his grumpiness, sarcasm and political incorrectness.

Lawrenson’s father Tommy was a draughtsman to trade who played one game for Preston. “It was at Tottenham and recently I was sent a fantastic photo from a bloke who works on the Spurs match programme: it’s dad on the wing with Sir Tom Finney on one side of him and Sir Alf Ramsey on the other. But he wasn’t that bothered about football – I still meet old boys now who tell me this. So he saved up his money to buy a newsagent’s.” Lawro’s parents’ marriage ended – “A bit messily” – but the PNE link resumed through stepdad Tom, a club director. His mother’s fond hope for a religious calling for her boy could have taken him to Dumfriesshire. “I told her I’d go if the school allowed football but it didn’t.” He stayed local and was schooled by Jesuits who gave you a ball with one hand and administered discipline with the other and a whalebone ferula. Having just sat his A-levels he made his Preston debut against Watford. “All my pals from school were there to slaughter me. I always say it was the proudest moment of my career. Everything else that came after was a bonus, really.”

Important Deepdale figures were Arthur Cox (“he kicked me every day until I kicked him back, then said: ‘My work here is done’); Nobby Stiles (“a sensational bloke though, sadly, he’s not well right now”); and Jimmy Scott, the Scottish chief scout, who shipped in a few hardy lads from the homeland, including the Baxter brothers, Stuart and Michael, and Ricky Thompson. Lawrenson appreciated the Scottish influence everywhere he went. “I think Scots bring a lot to a team: hunger, passion, arrogance in a nice way and an ulterior view on a regular basis, which in England is good for balance.” He certainly appreciated it at Liverpool where the tartan triumvirate of Hansen, Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish were already installed when he joined in 1981 from Brighton for a club record £900,000.

“Arsenal and Manchester United both wanted me. Man U offered more money and Arsenal were actually going to give me less. Terry Neill, bless him, tried to sell Highbury from the point of the view of the heating under the marble floors. But it was always going to be Liverpool, and all the more so after Bob Paisley came to collect me from my hotel. I’d been all suited up for three hours to meet a man who’d just masterminded another European Cup triumph but who was wearing slippers and an old pullover with a stain on it and a tear in the ‘V’. He looked like your grandad.”

The first encounter with Souness was just as memorable. “Graeme had this corker of a black eye, looking like he’d come out of Wizard Den (a fancy dress shop on Merseyside). I couldn’t stop staring at it. ‘This?’ he said. ‘I came second. Mind you, there were three of them’. Then in my first training session, Graeme and Alan Kennedy had this almighty punch-up. Joe Fagan separated them and said: ‘Shake hands, even if you don’t like each other’. Opposition teams were frightened to death of Graeme. People thought he was arrogant but he was actually quite self-deprecating. He took over from Phil Thompson as captain and really he could have been skipper within two weeks of coming to Anfield. In that Scotland-Ireland game I played midfield. Imagine how pleased I was, as someone who never wore shinguards, to find out Graeme wasn’t up against me.

“Kenny was brilliant too. ‘Where are you going to be staying, big man?’ he said, and took me round the estate agents in Southport.” Married for a third time to Susie and dad to Sam 15, and 11-year-old Ruby, Lawro is still there, neighbours with Dalglish, Hansen, Whelan, Beglin and – phew – Gary Gillespie. “We’re all dotted round Royal Birkdale where we can’t be members, but that’s another story.” In this version of Stella Street for retired Reds, do they borrow each other’s hedge trimmers? Lawrenson, sheepishly: “I think we’ve all got gardeners. We’re right lazy b*****ds.”

The dovetailing defenders Hansen and Lawrenson were simpatico from the off, Lawro once speculating that this was because they’d both studied Latin at school. He also joked: “Hansen’s so tight he got married in his backyard so his chickens could eat the rice.” The pair never bickered on the pitch, only falling out on the BBC’s Match of the Day, but remain the best of friends. “Al remembers everything, all the minutiae. Kenny calls him Norris after McWhirter.”

Oh to be a snail on the fence when these guys break open the beers on a sunny afternoon. Hansen, who never fancied it, could listen to the other guys’ tales of football management. Lawrenson’s stint at Oxford United was fleeting but highly colourful, thanks to the meddling ogre Robert Maxwell, who once administered a reprimand while perched on a delicate Chinese table which Lawro wanted to see disintegrate.

He is seen on screen less since Hansen retired – a shame, I say. “Punditry’s a career now,” he suggests, to explain the rise of leaner, keener, younger men in tighter-fitting shirts. Ah, but Lawrenson’s blousons are still something to behold. “I can’t believe they get talked about.” Really? Then he throws one of those luscious pouts, of the type exaggerated by impressionist Alistair McGowan. “The original I bought in Majorca where I have a place and maybe it was a holiday purchase and a bit zingy. Then I started getting sent other shirts, each one a bit bolder, embarrassing my kids some more. The last few have been from Mancini’s of Burnley – no relation to Roberto, I think.” (The shop probably counts as a boutique. Burnley may still have discotheques, too).

So what did he think when McGowan exaggerated the mimicry some more, putting him in a Sgt Pepper suit and having him poledance? “Hilarious – and very good for the profile come contract negotiations with the Beeb.” This is a man who has always been teased about campness. “I had to tell [Liverpool chief exec] Peter Robinson I wasn’t gay because some rumours were flying around – all started, I think, after a hairdresser friend of my ex-wife had given me highlights. Everton fans made up a nice song, of course. When I got asked if I was gay my response was: ‘Give us a kiss and I’ll tell you’. Even now when I’m out with the family people will go: ‘Oh, so the rumours aren’t true’. The other night at a football do I went on after the comedian. I said to him: ‘Mate, you did me as raving homosexual’. But he was pretty funny.”

Now Lawro is laughing because he is remembering how he thought his friendships with the Anfield Scots were being imperilled by Dalglish becoming the hardline manager. “Kenny couldn’t travel in the car with us anymore. He wouldn’t let us out on Thursdays anymore when he knew I liked to look in at the champagne bar I used to run in Southport. Back then, Kenny didn’t really touch booze but he’s discovered it now. He was still playing, of course, and we used to have unbelievable rows on the pitch. Because he was such a perfectionist, he’d expect me or Al to thread a ball through seven pairs of legs and if it wasn’t quite the perfect pass – and I mean only two centimetres out – he’d deal with it and then go: ‘You’re an effin’ this and you’re an effin’ that!’ He’d get it right back from us but afterwards there would be handshakes, all forgotten.”

Prior to King Kenny’s reign, Lawrenson had won a European Cup in the most dramatic circumstances and lost another in the most tragic. “The Heysel final should never have been played – we were following orders from the Brussels chief of police, who reckoned a bad situation would get even worse if we didn’t get out there. My father-in-law saw all the bodybags outside the stadium and thought a terrorist bomb had gone off.

“I dislocated my shoulder inside three minutes and just burst into tears. The club doctor had me laid flat out, swinging a big carton of milk, when the guys came off at half-time but nobody spoke. I was taken to hospital, fed on to a conveyor belt just like the ones I see at the big Tesco warehouse on the M6. When I woke up from having my arm put back, there was a soldier with a machine-gun at my bed. I had to be smuggled out of the hospital with my tracksuit badge hidden and when the team bus left the airport it got whacked.” He has never watched the game and never will.

The previous year, Liverpool beat Roma on penalties, with Souness refusing to be cowed by it being a home final for the Italians, leading his men on a stroll past their ultras before kick-off. “We went back inside to get changed singing the Chris Rea song, I Don’t Know What It Is But I Love It. Roma’s coach Nils Liedholm admitted afterwards that when his players heard that he knew they were beaten.” What’s Lawro grooving to right now? “Susan Boyle’s version of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here – it’s fantastic.”

Next Saturday, he will be in Dublin for official warm-up duties. “It’s me and Rod Stewart, a quarter-Irishman and a half-Scot, mongrels together.” He can’t see Ireland winning, thinks Scotland have more chance of qualifying for these Euros. No regrets about not opting for England when they more regularly appeared at finals? “None at all.” I try to press him, suggesting he might have been able to stop Diego Maradona slaloming through the whiteshirts’ defence, but he just gives me another of those pouts.