MATT LAWRENCE

The for­mer Mill­wall cap­tain re­veals all in our Good, Bad & Ugly fea­ture

The Football League Paper - - INSIDE: - By Chris Dunlavy

TWENTY years ago, Matt Lawrence stepped off a plane from New York doubt­ful he’d ever forge a ca­reer in the game. “I’d just grad­u­ated from univer­sity,” says the 41-year-old. “And at that stage, I was plan­ning to go back over and do my masters. Foot­ball was a pipe dream re­ally.”

A trial with Wy­combe soon changed that. Signed by the Chair­boys in 1996, the full-back made his de­but that same year and, over the next two decades, won two pro­mo­tions, cap­tained Mill­wall to the FA Cup fi­nal and made over 640 ap­pear­ances for the likes of Ful­ham, Crys­tal Palace and Gilling­ham.

Now a suc­cess­ful an­a­lyst, Lawrence re­calls those for­ma­tive days across the pond, the heady days of Mill­wall un­der Theo Paphi­tis – and the silky-skilled be­he­moth who left him on his back­side.

FIRST CLUB

Wy­combe Wan­der­ers in 1996. I’d just grad­u­ated from univer­sity in the States. I went over there on a soc­cer schol­ar­ship, to Hartwick Col­lege in New York.

I did Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture and, con­trary to pop­u­lar per­cep­tion, I did have to work. It’s the not the same as a bas­ket­ball or Amer­i­can Foot­ball schol­ar­ship, where it’s 80 per cent sport and 20 per cent stud­ies.

You have to study se­ri­ously and if you don’t keep up a cer­tain GPA (Grade Point Av­er­age), you don’t play in the team.

The stan­dard was pretty good. Peo­ple like Tim Howard, Clau­dio Reyna and David Weir all took that path. Nowa­days the guys tend to leave col­lege and go straight into the MLS. That wasn’t around in ’96 so I came home. I had six weeks with Grays in the Di­adora League, then two weeks on trial at Wy­combe be­fore they of­fered me a con­tract.

Go­ing to the States prob­a­bly left me four or five years be­hind peo­ple in this coun­try, but I wouldn’t change it. Liv­ing in New York for three-and-ahalf years isn’t bad and I’ve still got a lot of close friends over there. I also think it ex­tended my ca­reer at the back end. Be­cause I hadn’t slogged my body to death from 16-21, I’d had a chance to fin­ish grow­ing be­fore the pun­ish­ment started. Peo­ple like Michael Owen, Kieron Dyer and Jonathan Woodgate all paid a price for that.

BEST MAN­AGER

I’ve been lucky to work with a few na­tional team man­agers – Lawrie Sanchez, Peter Tay­lor and Kevin Kee­gan. But the man I’d put above them all is Neil Warnock.

I know Neil isn’t ev­ery­one’s cup of tea. And even I can’t put my fin­ger on ex­actly what makes him so suc­cess­ful. I guess it’s just his man­man­age­ment. He just knows how to cre­ate a har­mo­nious dress­ing room. At Palace, it was al­ways self-po­liced, with just the right amount of ex­pe­ri­enced pros to look af­ter ev­ery­one else. For any team, get­ting that blend is half the bat­tle.

He doesn’t treat ev­ery­body the same. Psy­cho­log­i­cally, he knows who to cud­dle, whose a*** to kiss, who to shout at. He won’t bawl out a weak-minded player who’ll curl up and cry in the cor­ner. He’ll shout at the thick-skinned ones and make out it’s their fault be­cause he knows they can take it. Ba­si­cally, he knows how to make peo­ple play for him.

BEST TEAM-MATE

There are a few con­tenders. Tim Cahill, Paul Bracewell, Vic­tor Moses. But the over­all best player was Chris Cole­man at Ful­ham. He was head and shoul­ders above ev­ery­one else.

Not nec­es­sar­ily in terms of tal­ent, though he cer­tainly had plenty of it. He made the game look easy and was very strong, very good in the air, a qual­ity passer of the ball. It’s a dread­ful shame that his ca­reer was ended by a car ac­ci­dent, be­cause I think he’d have been even bet­ter.

But his big­gest strength was as an over­all team-mate – he was great on the pitch, in the dress­ing room, on a night out. A peer­less per­son to have around a club.

FIRST PRO­MO­TION

With Ful­ham to Divi­sion Two in 199697 – though I never re­ally felt part of it. I didn’t join un­til Fe­bru­ary and only played about 15 games. By then all the hard work was done and it felt a bit weird get­ting a medal.

For me, the first ‘real’ pro­mo­tion was with Mill­wall to the Cham­pi­onship in 2001. We had a tal­ented side with the likes of Tim Cahill, Lu­cas Neill, Paul Ifil, Neil Har­ris and David Liver­more. Great times.

FUN­NI­EST PLAYER

Danny But­ter­field at Palace. Cen­tral to ev­ery­thing on the pitch, and in the dress­ing room. If you ever needed a physio taped to a lamp­post on a night out, he was the man to do it. And he knew all the old-school tricks like cut­ting holes in socks. But it wasn’t just the phys­i­cal pranks. Danny had the gift of the gab and was a very warm hu­man be­ing to boot. A great per­son­al­ity who was also a lot more tech­ni­cally gifted than peo­ple ever give him credit for.

FUN­NI­EST IN­CI­DENT

Dur­ing one of my first pre­sea­son trips, we went to some north­ern army bar­racks – I think it was Cat­t­er­ick or some­where like that.

I walked into one of the rooms to find two of my team-mates en­gaged in a com­pe­ti­tion. What kind of com­pe­ti­tion? Well, I think the Viz like to call it re­lax­ing in the gen­tle­man’s way. For a wet be­hind the ears kid straight out of univer­sity, it was a bit of a shock – cer­tainly more funny pe­cu­liar than funny ha-ha!

BIG­GEST ACHIEVE­MENT

If we’re talk­ing pure foot­ball, I’d prob­a­bly say cap­tain­ing Mill­wall in the 2004 FA Cup fi­nal, which we lost 3-0 to Man United.

Over­all, it’s just be­com­ing a foot­baller. I wasn’t one of th­ese peo­ple like Michael Owen or Wayne Rooney who is des­tined to be a pro from the age of nine. I had lots of tri­als at clubs as a teenager and never made it. I did my A-lev­els, then went off to uni- ver­sity. My path was very un­usual so to have made a ca­reer in the game is some­thing I’m proud of.

LOW­EST MO­MENT

Get­ting rel­e­gated with Mill­wall in the 2005-06 sea­son. The FA Cup squad had been break­ing up for a while, with Tim go­ing to Ever­ton and Lu­cas to West Ham. The ham­mer blow came when Theo Paphi­tis, our chair­man, left and took his big pot of cash with him.The bud­get was slashed to about a quar­ter of what it had been and the club was dec­i­mated. We were never go­ing to avoid rel­e­ga­tion. It was a hor­ri­ble sea­son.

That was when I de­cided to leave

for Palace. It’s some­thing I re­gret now but, at the time, I just wanted to stay in the Cham­pi­onship. Mill­wall even of­fered me a lot more money than Palace but it wasn’t about that.

TOUGH­EST PLACE TO GO

Carlisle on a Tues­day night. I played al­most ex­clu­sively for clubs around Lon­don, and not the glam­orous ones who can af­ford flights and ho­tels.

It’s bad enough get­ting up there but when you know you’ve got a six-seven hour coach jour­ney back and you won’t get home un­til four in the morn­ing, it’s just mis­er­able. I’d like to thank the Foot­ball League sched­ulers for that...

TOUGH­EST OP­PO­NENT

David Gi­nola at Spurs. I played against him in the FA Cup when I was at Ful­ham, away at White Hart Lane.

I hadn’t re­alised just what a man­moun­tain he was. He looked about six two, six three and at least 13 or 14 stone. But he could move that frame around, go both ways and play with ei­ther foot. I didn’t have any tools to stop him, re­ally.

I’ve been on the same pitch as bet­ter play­ers, like Ron­aldo in the FA Cup fi­nal. But thank­fully he was on the other side of the pitch. Gi­nola was my di­rect op­po­nent and he’s the big­gest test I’ve ever faced.

FAVOURITE PLACE TO GO

It’s very hard to choose one. Maine Road, the old Man City Ground, was a won­der­fully his­toric place with a great at­mos­phere. White Hart Lane is very sim­i­lar. Lof­tus Road is al­ways re­ally tight with a great noise.

But if I had to pick one it would be Up­ton Park, specif­i­cally as a Mill­wall player. That fix­ture has to be seen to be be­lieved.

Rau­cous, hos­tile, deaf­en­ing – just an amaz­ing oc­ca­sion. I loved it and it got the adrenaline go­ing like nowhere else. Even the walk from the sta­tion up to the Bo­leyn Ground was an ex­pe­ri­ence.

AM­BI­TION

I’m do­ing a lot of me­dia work for talkSPORT and BBC Lon­don. I want to make a suc­cess­ful ca­reer of that. Long-term, I hope to live a long and ful­filled life. Foot­ball-wise, I just want to be re­mem­bered as some­one who, how­ever lim­ited in abil­ity, al­ways gave their all. LIS­TEN to Matt and Ian Dan­ter’s (talkSPORT) pod­cast called Foot­ball Men on iTunes, or Au­dioboom. Also read Matt's bi-weekly col­umn in First Touch news­pa­per if you are in any NYC foot­ball bars, or down­load the free App ‘First Touch: Soc­cer and the City’

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Im­ages

Best man­ager: Neil Warnock

Best team-mate: Chris Cole­man Fun­ni­est player: Danny But­ter­field Favourite place to go: Up­ton Park AYE, AYE CAP­TAIN: Matt Lawrence takes con­trol in his Mill­wall days

Big­gest Achieve­ment: Cap­tain­ing Mill­wall in the 2004 FA Cup Fi­nal Tough­est op­po­nent: David Gi­nola

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