July 2014 – Its the day after the World Cup Final. Given the rather mixed reaction to Mark Lawrenson’s commentary on the BBC last night I thought i’d dig out this piece i wrote for the Brighton zine; The Seagull Love Review late last year profiling his first few years at the club. The truth is, as a longstanding Albion fan, I’m rather fond of Mark Lawrenson…
Its just after 1pm on August 6th 2011. Robbie Savage and Dan Walker are unhooking their microphones, as the first Football Focus of the season, live from the Amex, has just come off air. Round the back of the West Stand and proudly posing for photos next to his blue and white silhouette is their colleague; football pundit, commentator and broadcaster; the still imposing, but now going slightly grey around the temples; Mark Lawrenson. The jokey accusation from veteran fans, that has somehow become folklore, that he’s erased those years at the Albion during the club’s imperial phase from his memory, appear completely ill-founded as he signs autographs, laughs and reminisces about a town he had once fondly described as “football daft with gates of 24,000 on a regular basis at the Goldstone..I defy anyone not to like living in Brighton”.
Lawro’s successful media career, where to put it mildly, he divides opinion, continues to flourish of course following a stab at management which like the boss who played him in Preston’s first team at the age of 17; Bobby Charlton; was short, curtailed and with no second act. But as a player. As a player. No wonder we were football daft.
Thirty five years earlier Mike Bamber, Brighton’s chairman is on a flight to Spain. His young manager Alan Mullery has just charmed the board but especially rich businessman, future Tory MP and Albion director Keith Wickenden to stump up £500K (the equivalent of £3m today) out of his own pocket to fund a signing of a player they all admitted they’d never heard of.
It’s the summer of 1977, and the 20 year old central defender, Preston North End’s player of the year for the previous season, is on holiday. Johnny Giles had only recently called up the youngster for the Republic of Ireland squad and he’s in the form of his life. Sporting shoulder length hair, he’s spending his fortnight in the bars of the Costa Del Sol, drinking pint after pint of Guinness laced with blackcurrant because “he likes the taste”.
Mullery, himself, has only seen Lawrenson play three times but as he hadn’t given Peter Ward, then in the middle of his 36 goal promotion winning season, “a kick in two games” he’s convinced. Bamber arrives in Spain late at night . Mark has had a few beers and later cheerfully recalls he signed a “blank contract… I believed everything he said” and had spent half his trip on long distance calls back to a member of Preston’s board asking whether he should sign for the newly promoted second division club. His own stepfather. Bamber closed the deal there and then.
When he visits the Goldstone a few days later for a fitness test. He fails. The doctor tells Mullery he’s convinced he’s a diabetic. All that blackcurrant of course.
He was announced to the press later that month. “He is only 20, big and strong and will make his mark in a big way. The thought of spending that sort of money on an unknown does not frighten me” said the bullish Mullery . Lawrenson made his home debut alongside fellow Preston signing; Gary Williams; against Ron Atkinson’s Cambridge United.
Lawrenson was an ever present in 1977/78 and in 3 further glorious seasons with him at the back, its no coincidence with that Albion progressed to finish in their highest league positions to date. These were also my formative years as an Albion fan which colours my judgement but i remember his 6ft plus presence, his command at the back, the excitement when he effortlessly strode past opponents going forward. I remember his tache, I remember his hair.
(Pic via Goldstone Wrap)
There’s a curious anecdote by a mate of Peter Ward in his biography recalling that late 70s rite of passage for bored players seeking to impress with what today would be a lurid tattoo “Mark was in digs with a chap called “Dinky” Doo and his wife Kay who was a hairdresser. Mark took the plunge and had a perm”
And those of a certain age will debate for hours his merits in the all time Albion player league versus that other contender; his fellow permed rival Ward. I have sadly had these arguments into the night but its hard not to concur with Alan Ware from Albion Roar who argues that Ward left Albion for European Cup winners; Nottingham Forest where ultimately he struggled, didn’t establish himself as a first team regular returning to the Goldstone for a disappointing loan period. Lawrenson conversely left the Albion, with Bamber making a healthy million pound profit, for European Cup winners Liverpool and flourished. His partnership with Hansen brought numerous league titles and silverware. Shall i go on ?
Its 2013; Mark is sporting a grey beard making faces at Mark Chapman, making weak jokes at the expense of Spurs and pouting on Match of the Day 2. I hadn’t really thought about Lawrenson as a player and the Albion for many years. He’s had few if any descendants. Gordon Greer; a solid central defender who has adapted well to both Gus and Oscar’s play out from the back style so successfully he’s managed to transform of all things a Scottish defence, but he rarely ventures past the half way line with confidence. Danny Cullip ? Guy Butters ? All very solid. Very very solid.
Last month at Blackburn Rovers, in amidst an unlikely victory, there was one brief moment overlooked by some. A commanding strong tall young holding player won the ball with ease, stood up and strode away from the penalty box. He picked up speed, looked up, past one player, past two and shook off opponents and still kept going . Now over the halfway line …he inevitably lost the ball. Its taken a while, but Albion’s young ex Chelsea No.38 might, just might. Perhaps even Lawro, in his pundrity autumn, would notice and recognise in himself a certain Rohan Ince.