MARK LAWRENSON was without doubt in my mind the best player ever to play for Brighton and Hove Albion. Peter Ward was exceptional but Lawrenson did it for Brighton and went on to have a glittering career with Liverpool, the top club in the country at the time.
And, whatever your thoughts about his contribution as a pundit – and many are very disparaging – you can’t take away his longevity on our TV screens and across our media.
Although now slightly less prominent as a TV pundit, for a good many years, Lawrenson reprised his successful Liverpool central defensive partnership with Alan Hansen in the BBC Match of the Day studios.
But where did it all begin? Born on 2 June 1957 in Penwortham, Lancashire, Lawrenson joined nearby Preston at 17 in 1974, who at the time were managed by the legendary Bobby Charlton.
Lawrenson made his full debut for the Lilywhites the following year, two months before his 18th birthday. However, it was Charlton’s fellow World Cup winner, Nobby Stiles, to whom Lawrenson was most grateful.
“I was a winger when I joined Preston, while he was coach, and he was the one who converted me to my present position – in the middle of the back four,” Lawrenson told Keir Radnedge in Football Weekly News.
“Nobby was very good with the youngsters. He was almost like a father-figure. He commanded respect not only because of what he’d achieved himself but because of the way he’d help iron out your faults.”
At the age of 19, and thinking he’d never be good enough to play for England, Lawrenson opted to play for the Republic of Ireland when player-manager Johnny Giles (perhaps not coincidentally, Nobby’s brother-in-law) found out that he qualified to play for them through his grandfather.
That debut for Ireland in April 1977, in a 0-0 draw with Poland, came at the end of a season in which he was voted Preston’s Player of the Year.
Within weeks, he joined the Albion for £112,000 (£100,000 + VAT @ 12%) after Brighton manager Alan Mullery persuaded Albion to outbid Liverpool to get their man.
Mullery recalled in his 2006 autobiography how he had taken the board of directors to see Lawrenson perform superbly in an end-of-season game at Crystal Palace, where he marked their new star striker Mike Flanagan out of the game.
Lawrenson recollects how he was on an end-of-season ‘jolly’ in Spain with his Preston team-mates when Brighton chairman Mike Bamber and director Dudley Sizen turned up and ‘sold’ the club to him in a Benidorm beachside bar.
There was nearly a hitch in the deal when his medical showed high sugar levels in his blood – but it turned out he had been drinking blackcurrant-flavoured Guinness while on the Spanish holiday.
Mullery was building on the success of guiding the Seagulls to promotion from Division Three in his first season in charge, and the young defender replaced the experienced Graham Cross, who went to Preston in part-exchange.
Shortly after signing Lawrenson, Mullery told Shoot magazine: “I know a lot of people have not heard too much about him yet. But they will – believe me, they will. He is only 20, is big and strong and will make his mark in a big way.”
And, in his autobiography, Mullery said: “Any manager would love to have a player of Mark’s ability in their side. He had a calm, strong temperament, he never caused any problems and he always performed brilliantly on the field. His presence helped to lift the team to a whole new level of performance in the 1977-78 season.”
Lawrenson made his Brighton debut on the 20 August 1977 in a 1-1 draw against Southampton at The Dell and made 40 league appearances by the end of his first season at the club.
The following season, when Albion went one better and earned promotion to the top division for the first time, Lawrenson was a stand-out performer. In his book, A Few Good Men, author Spencer Vignes said: “His timing in the tackle and ability to read the game belied his relative youth, but what really caught the eye was his skill on the ball, which, for a centre-back still earning his wages in English football’s second tier, was little short of remarkable.”
Skipper Brian Horton told Vignes: “The way he used to bring the ball out from the back had to be seen to be believed.”
In a special Argus supplement of April 1997, to mark Albion’s departure from the Goldstone, Lawrenson was interviewed by Mike Donovan, and told him: “The Goldstone was a great place to play and I was extremely happy there.
“It was an excellent team that played good football the way it should be played – by passing it around. Also, we had a great team spirit, mainly because a lot of the team were outsiders coming in and stuck together. We all played and socialised together.”
Unfortunately, Albion’s first season amongst the elite was only five games in when Lawrenson received a serious injury in a clash with Glenn Hoddle at White Hart Lane.
Badly torn ankle ligaments and a chipped bone was the diagnosis and it sidelined Lawrenson for 12 matches, although his absence created an opportunity for young Gary Stevens.
When Lawrenson was fit to return, Mullery sprung a surprise by utilising him in midfield, but it was an inspired decision and he stayed there for the rest of the season, helping Albion to finish a respectable 16th of 22.
He went on to make 152 league appearances by the end of 1980-81.
It was his sale to Liverpool in the summer of 1981 that was part of the reason Mullery’s reign at the club came to an end. Mullery had negotiated with Ron Atkinson to sell him to Manchester United with two United players coming to Brighton as part of the deal.
But, behind his back, chairman Bamber had been talking to Liverpool and, in exchange for what was then a Liverpool club transfer record of £900,000, he headed back to the North West with midfielder Jimmy Case coming South as part of the deal.
Lawrenson went on to form a formidable central defensive partnership with Hansen after England centre back Phil Thompson suffered an injury, but, as he had showed at Brighton, he was versatile enough also to play at full back or in midfield.
Indeed, Lawrenson made his first start for Liverpool at left-back in a 1-0 league defeat to Wolves. In his first season, Liverpool won the League championship and the League Cup. They won it again in 1982 and retained both for another two seasons, becoming only the third club in history to win three titles in a row. They also added the club’s fourth European Cup in 1984.
Many believed Lawrenson and Hansen were the best central defensive partnership in English football by the time Liverpool clinched the League and FA Cup “double” in 1986.
But Lawrenson was being put under pressure by young centre back Gary Gillespie and an Achilles tendon injury in 1988 prematurely ended his career after 332 appearances and 18 goals, although he earned a fifth and final title medal when that season ended.
Lawrenson tried his hand at management at Oxford United in 1988 but, in almost a mirror image of the situation over his own transfer from Brighton, he resigned after their star striker Dean Saunders, the former Albion player, was sold by the board of directors without Lawrenson’s blessing.
Lawrenson later managed Peterborough United for 14 months between September 1989 and November 1990, but it was a largely unsuccessful tenure.
Apart from one brief foray back into football as a defensive coach at Newcastle during Kevin Keegan’s first reign in the North East, Lawrenson’s involvement since has been one step removed as a pundit and newspaper columnist.
At the most recent World Cup, Lawrenson particularly hit the headlines when many observed his cantankerous and sarcastic observations were just too much.
Never shy of voicing his opinions, they once led to him losing what at the time was a trademark moustache!
He was so convinced that Bolton would be relegated that he said live on Football Focus that he would shave it off if they proved him wrong, which they did!
In 2003, my friend Andrew Setten somehow blagged tickets which gave us the opportunity to go into the exclusive Football Association area at the FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Southampton at the Millennium Stadium and, all those years later, I finally got the chance to meet Lawro and to get his autograph.
• Pictures from Shoot magazine and cuttings from the Evening Argus.