Jamie Lawrence was a combative midfielder for Sunderland, Leicester City, Bradford City, Wigan Athletic and the Jamaican national team. Discovered whilst playing for Cowes Sports on the Isle of Wight while he was still serving a prison sentence, Jamie made his debut for the Black Cats in 1993. Famous for his various hairstyles and colours, Lawrence’s autobiography, “From Prison to Premiership” is searingly honest about his life and his career. Jamie is currently the fitness coach to the Ghanaian national team and he runs his own football academy in Wandsworth which has been credited for keeping many young men from South London out of prison. Here, Jamie talks exclusively to John Warrington for Box to Box Football about Leicester City’s title ambitions, Jurgen Klopp, and a host of other topics as the 2015/2016 looks set for a dramatic conclusion.
When I arrive, he’s already there, sat at a table, looking fresh despite just completing another gruelling training session. A pint of Guinness sits in front of him as he tweets opinions on the Merseyside derby which is playing on the big screen of a South London pub, close to the Wandsworth academy he runs. Growing up in the 1970’s, he was a Liverpool fan. I’m tempted to call him a glory-hunter but despite the fact he’s 46, he trains like a man twenty years younger and so, caution gets the better of me. If I’m being truthful, one thing you could never, ever accuse Jamie Lawrence of is being a glory-hunter. Everything the former Sunderland, Leicester City and Bradford City midfielder has earned in life has been down to his legendary dedication and work ethic. Paul Merson, Lawrence’s former boss at Walsall, once told me he used to ‘sweat buckets‘ just watching the ex-Jamaican international train.
“I would have loved to have played for Jurgen Klopp” Jamie proclaims after Liverpool score their fourth and final goal of a one-sided game.
“I’m buzzing for the Liverpool fans. He’s got charisma, he has a fun-side to him, but he’s also demanding and he’ll get up the noses of opponents. They’re going to become a force over the next couple of years once he gets a few of his own players in”
“He also sent out a big message to his players when he dropped Sturridge. If you don’t work hard enough, you won’t play”
So what are the differences between Klopp and the man he replaced, Brendan Rodgers?
Jamie Lawrence: “Football is a simple game as long as you work hard enough. But he used to over-complicate things. Too much text book stuff, overthinking things and putting square pegs into round holes and as a result he didn’t get the best out of his players. Louis Van Gaal is the same”
The very mention of the Manchester United manager makes me twitch and although I want to talk to Jamie about Leicester City, I can’t resist the opportunity to ask if he thinks Jose Mourinho should replace the Dutchman.
JL: “If I was a Manchester United player, I wouldn’t want him. He’s too confrontational, always looking for a fight and he makes the mistake of publicly criticising his players. He might win United a couple of trophies, but he’d be gone in two or three years because of the way he treats people. And what was all that about with his physio? Rightly or wrongly, footballers have got all the power in the modern game and you can’t treat them the way he does if you want to bring sustained success to a club”
“If they’re not going to give the job to Giggs, they should go for Pochettino; he’d suit them down to the ground. It could happen, you know, even if Spurs win the league. United are one of the biggest clubs in the world and you can see where his career is headed. If he doesn’t go this summer, he will do soon, to United or to one of Europe’s other big clubs”
So does Jamie Lawrence think Spurs will win the league or can Leicester maintain their lead at the top of the table?
JL: “If Leicester beat Swansea at the weekend, I think they’ll do it. After that they’ve got United and at the moment they don’t hold the same fear for opposing teams as they used to. But if I was Claudio Ranieri, I wouldn’t want to be going to Stamford Bridge on the last day of the season needing to win. Chelsea are still good enough on their day to destroy the fairytale”
While many people, including Lawrence were surprised by the appointment of the amiable Italian, their form this season does beg a question about his predecessor. Bearing in mind Leicester have essentially used the same group of players as they did last season, does this in any way point to underachievement by Nigel Pearson? Jamie is unequivocal in his response.
JL: “No way! I know myself when you go up a league, it can be hard. And they weren’t like Aston Villa have been this season. They’ve hardly looked like winning a game. But when Leicester were on that losing run, they still looked a half decent side. Once they got a couple of wins under their belts, they found some confidence and it all ballooned from there. Pearson deserves a lot of credit for where Leicester are now. Remember as well, Ranieri kept Pearson’s backroom staff and they’ve helped him a lot”
While Leicester City’s astonishing title challenging exploits have captured the imagination, some of the charm was tarnished when tabloids recently revisited Jamie Vardy’s pre-season indiscretion. Lawrence though, who himself has been on the receiving end of a number of racist incidents both as a player, and a manager, was surprisingly tolerant of Vardy’s misdemeanour.
JL: “Don’t get me wrong. I hate racism. There is no place for it in football and there is no place for it in society, but what Vardy did was spur of the moment. The racism I’ve experienced has been profound and deep-rooted within that person. That sort of person never apologies. That sort of person tries to justify their actions. What Vardy did was wrong, very wrong. Without wanting to make light of it, this was more like a playground taunt from someone who should have known better. At a club like Leicester with the camaraderie in that squad underpinning everything they are achieving, it would be impossible for a person with ingrained racist beliefs to be a part of that. The same with England. He’s apologised, he’s been punished and we all make mistakes in life. Look at me! More than anything I sincerely hope he’s learned something from it. If he has, and I think he has, then we should all move on from it”
While one of his former clubs is making waves at the top of the Premier League, another of them is treading water as it fights to get away from the bottom three in what is now an annual battle to avoid relegation to the Championship. While some supporters claim that under-investment is at the root of their problems, Lawrence believes it is geography which has made life so tough for the Black Cats in recent seasons.
JL: “The good players want to live in London, Manchester or Liverpool. There’s a lot going on in these cities and when you’re young and wealthy, I can understand that. But Sam (Allardyce) can change that. If he keeps them up, and I think he will, he’s the sort of manager who will attract better players because he’s such a good manager. Players will come and play for him and if they’re in the Premier League next season, I can see them consolidating in a mid-table position”
Finally and inevitably the conversation veers towards the club closest to Jamie’s heart; Bradford City. As soon as I mention the Bantams and their push towards a play-off spot for the Championship, that trademark Lawrence grin lights up and his eyes mist over.
“I’m going on Saturday” he says to me with the wide-eyed excitement of a child who is looking forward to attending their first ever game. “Walsall at home and there’s no question of divided loyalties. Bradford are my team”
I ask what the football has been like under Phil Parkinson this season and he pauses, searching for the right words and making sure that what he says can’t be construed as in anyway critical.
“I do a few radio commentaries up there” he says finally. “During the first few weeks of the season, they got off to a slow start and I said I thought they were playing too long. But as soon as they started playing a bit more football they’ve gone from strength to strength and I really hope they can do it”. He pauses again and gets up. It’s time for him to go. “Can you imagine it? Leicester winning the Premier League and Bradford City getting promoted again”. He points at his empty Guinness glass and winks. “I’ll have a few more of those if that happens”. Picking up his heavy training bag he heads towards the door and I hear him say, “I might run home”.
“How far is that Jamie?” I ask.
“13 miles”. Half a marathon, I think to myself. It’s 10:30pm, and I believe him!