Being nicknamed “The Flying Pig” doesn’t sound like much of a term of endearment but when it came to Tommy Lawrence, the great Liverpool goalkeeper of the 1960s, it captured perfectly the extraordinary agility of a giant in both stature and talent.
The death of Tommy Lawrence this week risks reducing the man to a caricature courtesy of the viral clip of him in a vox pop interview in the streets before a Merseyside derby of a few years ago, the interviewer having no clue who he is. But Lawrence is worthy of more than just an internet anecdote, instructive though that is, even if not in the way its circulators intend.
What it does is show the humility that was ten a penny in players of his generation. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine a similar event with a player from today in 40 years time. The reporter would most likely be met with a “Don’t you know who I am?” followed by a flounce.
Lawrence played in a time when football had a sense of proportion about itself, when it was confined to the back pages of the newspapers and was not a slave to television. If Lawrence played now, the affectionate nature of his nickname would have been corrupted into a million mean memes, pundits would be pondering the proper weight for a goalkeeper and we’d doubtless get a “hilarious” feature on his diet.
All of which would have missed the real fact of the matter which was that if he was a good enough goalkeeper for Bill Shankly, if he was a good enough goalkeeper to win two league tiles and an FA Cup with Liverpool, then he was a good enough goalkeeper full stop.
Not for Lawrence the desire to capture column inches, to push his profile, to become bigger than his club, not that Shankly would ever have stood for that kind of nonsense anyway. Instead, for Tommy Lawrence, it was simply about doing his job as best as he could, week after week.
That he did and, in so doing, he began a revolution in the goalkeeping trade, for while his successor at Anfield, Ray Clemence, took the concept to new heights, it was Lawrence who instigated the role of sweeper-keeper, mopping up behind his defenders, allowing the back four to push up and so compress the midfield and win that battle. It meant they inevitably had to leave space behind, but Lawrence was there, ever watchful, ever ready to dart out of his area and make a clearance, ever ready to use his feet as well as his hands.
This was new thinking, a stepping stone on the evolutionary road to today where for many, goalkeepers have to be as dextrous with their boots as they are with the gloves. Lawrence was a pioneer, but he wouldn’t shout it from the rooftops. As far as he was concerned, he was simply doing his job for the team.
That concept of keeping a low profile and of being a team player is something which looks increasingly alien to modern eyes, certainly at the top end of the game where all too many footballers look to try and transcend their club and become a law – and a brand – unto themselves.
Few are as determinedly “individualistic” (that’s a euphemism for self-involved) as Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez. There are few better players in the Premier League, that is beyond dispute, but there are also few who so obviously put their interests before that of the team. While Arsenal will miss his ability when he’s gone, theirs might be a more harmonious environment afterwards and who knows, they might benefit from it.
Meanwhile, if I was Pep Guardiola, I’d be asking a few Manchester City veterans just what happened to their seemingly inevitable march to the title in 1971/72 once they’d signed the similarly maverick Rodney Marsh…