Steven Gerrard collects the ball on his instep while holding off one defender as another, sensing danger, sprints towards him. The Liverpool captain - here in his lesser Team England form - waits for contact and promptly falls to the floor.
“I… I suppose that’s a foul,” said Guy Mowbray on commentary. “In a good position, too. It was only a little tap.”
Mark Lawrenson, licking his lips, eyes aflame with inspiration, hair flapping like the wings of an old biplane, in grey and brown and about forty other shades of grey, leans towards the microphone with intent and says: “I guess he should’ve been a plumber, then, Guy.”
Today is Mark Lawrenson’s birthday. “Lawro”.
You know, Mark Lawrenson: five near-consecutive top flight titles with Liverpool, three league cups with Liverpool, thirty-nine caps for Republic of Ireland, Beazer Homes League (Midlands) runner-up with Corby Town. A Liverpool legend - nearly. One of the most reviled members of the sporting commentariat - certainly.
But maybe we’ve unfairly overlooked a national treasure. I certainly have: I once watched England vs. Algeria in a pub near Tower Hill - sneaking out of the office at lunchtime for four swift halves - and when Lawro appeared, someone shouted “Lawro is a cunt!” at the screen and everyone cheered. I cheered too. I didn’t feel bad about it until now.
Today is Mark Lawrenson’s birthday - a day he’s probably had a few hours at Rokers Golf Course, Surrey booked for months. "A party for ten," Lawro said. "At least." Texts to friends, ex-teammates, erstwhile Match of the Day colleagues, staff, temps, caterers, starting off slow - “Just a reminder, lads!” - before turning the screws as his big day loomed - “You could’ve at least said ‘no’, Gary.”
He definitely buys himself a cake. “Happy birthday, Lawro!” it was supposed to say, he told the woman that twice over the phone, but they’ve gone and written “Happy birthday, Laura!” and Lawro just stops and looks at it for a while, wonders if there’s slightly less icing in ‘Laura’ than ‘Lawro’, and eats it quietly by himself in the living room.
And it’s not really his fault, is it, not really, this seeping feeling of hatred many feel against him. He’s not a bad bloke. I mean, I’ve not looked into it, but he seems nice enough. Sure, he has the hair of a four-episode arc salesman who falls in love with Rita in Coronation Street and runs off in the night. Sure, he’s possibly the only man in the world to look even worse without a moustache. But he’s the sad-sack hero that defines the indefatigable “Oh, well, I guess I’ll just keep going” spirit of the British isles, and for that he should be celebrated - or at least faintly non-hated.
When Gary Neville retired in the first days of 2011, Lawro must’ve felt the cool wind of change on his indefinitely damp brow. Neville soon found himself in the studio of Sky Sports - football’s cool step-dad - and immediately changed the way we think about commentary. Despite being a weasel despised by everyone except his own Man United fans, Neville won over the masses with his passion, insight, and relentless banter.
Lawro couldn’t really live with that.
“He can be as good as he wants to be,” said Mark Lawrenson. “That's how good he can be.” “England are numerically outnumbered in the midfield,” said Mark Lawrenson. “These managers all know their onions and cut their cloth accordingly,” said Mark Thomas “Lawro” Lawrenson.
He belongs to a bygone era - one of soft corduroy furnishing and a bit of blue for the dads. Where a little wink-and-nudge is just as important as understanding the insidery nuances of the modern game. He’s an artefact of a simpler time - one that I, for one, miss and wasn’t even there for.
There’s something warm and cosy about Mark Lawrenson. Like how sometimes you just want to go and hang out somewhere that has snooker tables even though you have no idea how to play the game. It’s just nice having him around, saying things that don’t make sense, making jokes that nobody laughs at. He was the audience surrogate - or at least, the dad surrogate. Who do the dads have to look to now? Every other dad-age man in football punditry is a miraculously buffed and manicured and healthy looking ex-player who had a wand of a left in his prime and still boasts a Disneyfied twinkle in his eye. Mark Lawrenson looks like he smells of fags and crisps. He looks like he’d try every ale in the pub - “Ooh, is that a new one, Davey? I’ll try th-- Oh, I don’t like that. Or do I? Let me try it again.” - and then just order a Fosters-top.
There is a moment, in an interview with The Guardian’s Scott Murray back in July 2011, just a few months after Neville’s commencement as Lord of the Pundits, where Lawro broke. They were talking about gin. Lawro says he favours Hendricks, usually.
Murray: The connoisseur's choice. With a stick of cucumber?
Lawro: Aaaaacccchhhhh! No, no, no, NO CUCUMBER! I HATE CUCUMBER! [Regains composure] No. Lime.
Murray: But cucumber with gin is quite the fashion these days ...
Lawro: [with supreme disdain] Nah, I'm from the north. Cucumber reminds me of my mother making me eat sprouts.
That was the moment when Mark Lawrenson realised it was all over. The delayed explosion inside him shakes him to his foundations. Now, I don’t know much about construction, but foundations seem pretty important.
Can you imagine a player having a breakdown over cucumber in the modern game? They’re all programmed to think football and nothing else. You put a cucumber in front of Harry Kane, sat on a sofa in a warehouse-studio in Clerkenwell surrounded by agents, managers, manager-agents, agent-managers, and he’d say “That is a cucumber”. He’d have no opinion on it. Throw a cucumber at Mark Lawrenson and he’d have a full-blown malfunction.
What I’m trying to say is: I’m sorry, Mark Lawrenson. On behalf of the nation, I apologise. Your treatment, after years of loyal service, has been funny, sure, it was funny, like you got torn to shreds on Twitter every Saturday night, but it wasn’t fair. We didn’t know how good we had it. Now everyone thinks they understand the finer details of the 4-2-3-1 and say words like gegenspressing without anyone hitting them. Now all that’s left is Danny Murphy and Jermaine Jenas silently smiling at Gary Lineker as he smiles at the camera. Now all that’s left is forensic replays of a Lee Cattermole misplaced pass relayed endlessly by clunky technology man-handled by Jamie Carragher as Gary Neville howls like jackal in a Hugo Boss jacket.
I guess it’s true what they say: you don’t know what you’ve got until Mark Lawrenson is gone.