Johnny’s letter this week is to a Liverpool legend and the only pundit to have turned dead-panning sarcasm into an artform. That’ll be Mark Lawrenson, then.
Why the love?
Because he retired 25 years ago, anyone under the age of 40 will have little to no recollection of him as a player. But those who do will remember a wonderfully elegant, thoroughbred, Rolls Royce of a defender, who had pace and vision and coupled that with a never-say-die resolve. He was tough – lord knows you had to be back then – yet in an era which specialised in brutal centre halves, Mark was anything but. He was hard and clever in equal measure. In many ways he was like a modern defender, tasked with bringing the ball out of defence and keeping possession, and he was bloody good at it.
It was no coincidence that his arrival at Liverpool in 1981 led to an incredibly successful period. That season, Liverpool won the League title and the League Cup, then 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. He was also a much-loved Ireland international.
He’s been on our screens and radio since 1992 and spent many years in punditry partnership with ex-teammate and fellow centre-half, Alan Hansen. While over the years, some have felt he was too downbeat, others like myself saw a man who wasn’t afraid to put a brake on the hyperbole and hero worship all too prevalent in modern football. He’s got better and better as the years roll by. Lawro stands out against the froth-ocracy who want to whip everything up into something fantastic when we know it isn’t. He doesn’t flip flop and he’s not easily impressed. And I’m sure that’s why he’s always in work. There’s nothing fake about him, nor is there any overly polished media-trained blandness. He’s honest and straightforward and seems content in his own skin, and that gives the viewer or listener a sense of relaxed certainty.
As the years have gone on, even many of his erstwhile critics have fallen back in love with him, in the same way many of us did with Andy Townsend. We’ve all had a drink. We’re all older. Now we understand that none of this is worth a hill of beans. All that matters is that we have a good time and get on with loving, rather than hating.
He’s a unique presence and he brings something very different to the party. Primarily sarcasm, at which he is absolutely brilliant. Also, as a big radio fan, I think you can tell the good guys from the rest. It is such an in-your-ear, nowhere-to-hide medium that the vibe between commentator and co-comm is very discernible and it always feels like everyone is happy that Lawro is there. He paints with a colour that is all his own.
I must say, if you only see or hear him on TV, you are missing out on some gold on 5 live. If you’ve got a couple of hours to fill, especially on a Sunday, get Lawro in. He can spin gold until the next news break like no-one else.
He has that classic, ever so slightly camp Lancashire accent that is the sonic equivalent of a cynically raised eyebrow. The fact that most sentences end with a downbeat gives a lot of what he says a sceptical tone but, importantly, not in a crushingly negative way. Pleasingly, he’s not one for any modern linguistic nonsense like the rising inflective or starting every sodding sentence with ‘So’. I bet both of those things annoy the living daylights out of him almost as much as Twitter does. If you ever hear him say the word Twitter, it is always with acidic, withering contempt.
He’s a really good storyteller, able to give rhythm and pacing to a tale from his footballing past. And of course he is legendary for puns and terrible jokes. Again, this sets him apart. Yes they are awful and yes he knows they’re awful, but they are a unique colour in the tapestry of football life.
I’ve always loved his one-word responses to commentators:
“He looks in pain. Do you think he’s badly hurt, Mark?”
(Delivered with as much stating-the-obvious certainty as possible. “No.”
Of course, being a man of 60 years, having grown up in an era where life was considerably less sensitive and very much more brutal, any football person is going to occasionally commit a gaffe which will set Twitter alight and cause accusations of said football person being a very bad man. So Mark has done well to body swerve a proper big boo-boo, though 2011’s “Two Benders playing against London clubs, that’s unusual,” comment must have made a few BBC knees tremble.
But y’see, making jokes is a tough business. Someone is always the butt of a joke, and in today’s hysterical environment where being offended has been turned into a lifestyle, and where such offence is prime steak to a media forever looking for meat to feast upon, to even attempt humour while broadcasting is seriously dangerous and not just a little rock ‘n’ roll.
His ability to end a sentence with “not” in order to contradict his previous statement makes him a kind Wayne’s World of football. Not.
Also likes to end a sentence with “is he/did he not?”. For example: ‘He started out as a striker, did he not?’ This is a good technique for discussions because it makes a statement and then invites others to come in. And he most definitely loves a “most definitely” too.
His predictions of Liverpool’s results are legendary because he never casts them as losers. This annoys the hell out of people, but what they’re failing to understand is that he doesn’t care. He appreciates that the whole thing is a nonsense and to be cross about such a thing is daft. He knows he is the only sane man in the madhouse.
One of our fine commentators got in touch to say this about Lawro:
“Lawro is a man who, unlike many other so-called experts, actually goes to matches, and is totally genuine. There’s no false “how are you mate” when you catch up with him.
“He knows the game and loves the game. Plus he actually knows your name, which is terrific. At a funeral of a dearly loved Radio 5 colleague we all met in a pub beforehand, Lawro had already covered in advance whatever the bar bill would come to, but you only knew that when you attempted to pay, he certainly wasn’t going to mention it.
“If I had to choose a meal with any ex-footballers now working in the media he’d be at the head of the table – first name on the team sheet.”
Isn’t that absolutely heartwarming?
A TV producer told me:
“Lawro is a great guy to work with. Very funny and a brilliant storyteller. You sometimes forget he was a big player in a historically great team. No airs and graces. Always gets a round in.”
I suspect a crucial aspect to being a successful long-serving football pundit is to be a good team player, a good tourist and be very clubbable. And clearly, Mark is all of those things.
Famously had a lush ‘tache for many years. Is one of those men who, even after shaving off the fungus, seems like he’s actually still a mustachioed man. Clothing is just distinct enough to be memorable but not fashionable enough to express vanity or self-regard. Only gets as ostentatious as wearing a stripey shirt with a white collar. Must own all manner of sensible, well-made, moderately expensive menswear. Dark cashmere coats, plain heavyweight cotton tailored shirts, maybe even a pale pink polo shirt for the golf. Possibly has just one pair of very expensive leather shoes which will see him through most of a decade.
It may surprise under-40s to know that Mark was a dashing, rather rock ‘n’ roll looking man in his youth, he also had incredibly wide shoulders.
What the people say
It’s inevitable when you’re a distinctive, characterful, colourful broadcaster that you will annoy some people. That is one of the qualifications you need to have to be great at the job. No-one made good being middle-of-the-road.
To be interesting you have to be who you are, you have to strike a distinctive tone. I think there is such joy in embracing all things Lawro and many people agree. When I asked on Twitter for comments, I got loads. I think he has a lot of secret fans – people who know it’s not cool to like Lawro in the way it is to like James Horncastle but who nonetheless feel nothing but good vibes when he’s on radio or TV. I think these comments perfectly express what we enjoy about the man. Some are very funny.
‘I imagine he’s a very dry wit and excellent company off screen. I’ve gone full circle with him, and think he’s ace again of late. He does also, most definitely, know his stuff if that sort of thing matters to you.’
‘Having met him personally a couple of times, couldn’t hope to meet a nicer guy.’
‘Always felt that no football match he was covering could affect the mood he happened to be in that day. Loved him for that!’
‘Would love him to release ‘If’, spoken in the same style as Telly Savalas. Thinks he’s the king of laconic humour. I do love him….but not in the way he’d probably appreciate.’
‘So cynical when doing co comms, but usually works out quite funny. That’s sort of his thing now. Has improved from his misery stage of a few years ago.’
‘His complaints while watching a dire 0-0 Euros group game (for example) are just hilarious. In the era of Sky hype it’s quite a nice antidote. He’s better on radio, and refreshingly humble about his own playing career.’
‘Reminds me of an elderly, but good-natured snail.’
‘Always commentated and analysed games as if he was suffering from a dark rum-induced hangover.’
‘In fairness his grumpiness and biblically hysterical 1-1 predictions for big games is hilarious.’
‘His Dad jokes are something to behold.’
‘His hair looks like the roof of a cottage.’
‘He was a truly wonderful player – in today’s market he would be worth many, many millions. I feel it is his self-deprecation that stops people remembering quite how good he was. As a pundit he has a Sancho Panza role of broad humour, insight and saying what he thinks. Nice.’
‘Possibly the greatest comm/co-comm badinage in the Croatia qualifier in 07. Croatia take the lead again at 3-2 and England look abject. Motty loses his sh*t after a period of silence; “say something Mark!”. “I can’t, John!” Loved him since then!’
‘He’s occasionally a bit too knowing, but a sense of humour and a back catalogue aren’t to be dismissed…relies on having a good commentator to “co” with. Loves the game, as passionate and blinkered as all of us.’
‘Does a bit of work on Irish radio on Saturdays and always talks sense, with plenty of Lawroisms thrown in.’
‘For our younger readers – an absolute thoroughbred of a centre half. Like if David Luiz was being controlled by Ronnie Moran instead of…..you know.’
‘On the greatest day the world has ever known (Birmingham’s Carling Cup win) his famous sense of humour hit heights never before seen. “Zigic is 6’8′ when standing and 5’6′ when jumping.” For that alone, I shall always love him.’
‘He was on @QuicklyKevin recently and he was really entertaining, I thought he’d be a bit awkward and uninteresting but came across as a really nice, down to earth bloke with some funny stories to tell. I’d happily have a pint with him after that.’
‘On the one hand he’s a caricature, a relic from a punditry age gone by, but then I hear him on Irish radio and he’s fully up to speed with the modern game. His sarky comments on co-comms are glorious too.’
‘Cult legend in his own lifetime. Bumped into him at the CL Final in Rome 2009. Happily posed for photos with a load of beer’d up United fans. Including me. Given the result, was a highlight of the trip.’
‘Few greater joys than hearing him laugh uproariously, half off mic, to the witty aside of his comms partner during a dreary dead rubber World Cup stalemate.’
‘Aw man, he is so entertaining for his absolute grumpiness and the glimpse of any poor defending. And his sense of pride that is so visible every time he makes what he thinks is the funniest joke ever. And where would he be without his brilliant predictions each week. Legend.’
‘Used to annoy the hell out of me, but like a kidney stone, passed through. Now I quite like him – like an older Andy Townsend in that respect.’
‘His misanthropic co comms were sometimes a very accurate reflection of the dirge he was watching.’
‘I love Lawro. He’s biased, grumpy and gives awful puns but like your uncle he knows way more than you and can tell you so with just a sideways glance.’
‘Should be lauded for his use of “NOT”.’
‘A truly unique character amidst a sea of identikit flotsam. Has the air of a man who discovered the elixir and isn’t about to share it with the likes of you or I.’
‘He is a unique voice and presence among the punditocracy. There is, was and will only ever be one Lawro.’
‘Comes across as genuine when he’s being grumpy, unlike other pundits who are deliberately trying to be controversial. Clearly loves the game and his bluntness is sometimes a nice antidote to all the hype. Another one of those people who are better on the radio than the TV.’
‘Love these quotes from Lawro re his role as defensive coach at Newcastle under Keegan: “I did absolutely nothing. Honestly I did absolutely nothing but my CV looks great because we finished second and got into the Champions League. I trained every day – I was first pick of the staff in the five-a-side! I got myself fit and all that and after three months I said to Kevin “Look, I’m earning money under false pretences here”. Self-deprecating and disarmingly honest to a fault.’
‘Lawro has the air of someone who was in ELO and fell out with both Jeff Lynne AND Roy Wood. Probably even Bev Bevan.’
‘Questionable sartorial taste and terrible puns – when Valencia keeper Canizares dropped a bottle of aftershave on his foot, Lawrenson remarked the injury had “scuppered his chances of a move to Cologne”. Easy to forget what a superlative defender he was.’
‘They played him Andy Cole’s “Outstanding” song on Football Focus in the week of its release, asked Lawro his opinion and he just wearily shook his head and said “absolute toilet”.’
‘Always liked Lawrenson. One of my first newspaper jobs as a temp was to call him out of the blue and ask some rubbish questions. He was very, very nice about it. (Barney Ronay)’
‘Met Mark when I did a Five Live Premier League preview show in February 2015 – he was lovely. I also spotted him write my name down on a piece of paper after I introduced myself so he wouldn’t forget it and could reference me by name during the show. Which he did often. (Sachin Nakrani)’
I fervently hope that Mark is in our lives for many years yet, because there’s no-one else who can express being unimpressed or disgruntled in quite so magnificent a manner. I’ll leave you with 5 live’s absolute commentating star, Ian Dennis, who got in touch to say this.
“Lawro is a joy to work with. He is so easygoing, no ego whatsoever. His career both on and off the pitch speaks for itself, especially when you consider his longevity as a pundit. He’s so modest, what people might not know is how generous he is in every respect. Funny, kind, modest, a genuine top bloke and it’s always a pleasure to be in his company.”
Frankly, we should all hope to be so well regarded. To all doubters, I say free your mind: Lawro is a national treasure and lord knows we will miss him when he’s gone.
Better still, he’d probably hate all these nice things being said about him because, like all us Northerners, he’s built to resist hate, not to accept love. But love it be. Cheers Lawro!