Back in 2005 I had the pleasure of interviewing Tommy Lawrence for our very first issue of the Essential Guide and was deeply saddened to hear of his passing last week. As a tribute, here is the interview again.
Someone who knew all about what it felt like to be a foot-balling legend is Tommy Lawrence, who played for Scotland. Tommy played professional football for Liverpool for seventeen years. Born in Ayrshire in 1940, Tommy moved with his family to the Warrington area in 1951. A keen footballer, he played in the Under 15 local team at Croft with another local football legend Roger Hunt. Here Tommy played as a midfielder, but his goalkeeping skills soon caught the manger’s eye and from then on he continued his career between the posts. He went for a trial at Liverpool F.C. having been spotted by their scouts. He became part of the ground staff, painting stands, cleaning boots and helping with ground maintenance, playing in the ‘B’ team squad as an amateur at weekends.
In 1957 at the age of seventeen Tommy signed with Liverpool as a professional for the ‘A’ team. He received 15 guineas for signing, and earned £7.00 a week during the playing season, and £5.00 in the non-playing season. Each weekday he and Roger, who had also joined Liverpool, caught the bus from Culcheth to Warrington, the train to Liverpool, and another bus to Anfield, where they spent the day training with the other players. “It was hard” he remembered “and boring. We hardly saw a ball until Thursday. It was all fitness and long distance running.” During the first four weeks of the pre-season, training consisted of running to the training ground every day, fitness training and then running back. “There were no training shoes, we just wore plimsolls. We could hardly walk our legs were shattered!” 1957 saw the arrival of manager Bill Shankly. “He changed the training. We used a football every day. It was much better”
At the age of 19 Tommy was moved to the Liverpool reserve team where he played about two hundred games, and in the 1961-2 season he was promoted to the 1st team. His debut game was against West Bromwich Albion, when Liverpool lost 1-0. Liverpool were promoted to the first division in the same year, and during that time Tommy hardly missed any games (three in nine years). “I was very lucky” he commented, “I only had one bad injury with Liverpool, where I broke my finger in 1964″
Tommy recounted Liverpool’s impressive successes throughout the 1960’s. In 1964 they celebrated with a First Division Championship win, also reaching the 6th round of the F.A. Cup, losing to Swansea City. They went from strength to strength, winning the Charity shield in 1964, 1965 and 1966. They were controversially beaten in the semi-final of the European Cup (three days after the F.A. Cup) by the notorious Inter Milan team. This was Liverpool’s best chance of winning the European Cup but the Spanish referee had accepted bribes by the Italians, and as manager Bill Shankly admitted, there was nothing that could be done about it after the event. Needless to say, the referee’s career in football ended right there.
In 1965 Liverpool won the F.A. Cup for the first time, beating Leeds United 2-1 after extra time. Tommy remembered Billy Bremner scoring the goal for Leeds. After the match the players went up to collect the cup. Team captain Ron Yeats went first, then Tommy was given the base to take care of. The team arrived back at the Savoy Hotel for drinks before the celebration party. When Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly asked Tommy for the base of the cup, he couldn’t remember what he had done with it. It was recovered some time later having been left on the coach at Southend “and that” said Shankly “was as far away as you were from Billy Bremner’s volley!” In 1966 Liverpool won the First Division and reached the final of the Cup Winners Cup, losing to Borussia Dortmund 2-1. In the 1968 – 69 season Tommy broke the all-time record for the “least goals let in since time began” conceding only 24 goals in 42 games. During that year he didn’t let in one goal at the Kop end at Anfield.
Tommy affectionately became know as the ‘Flying Pig’ because of his superb ability and aerobatics despite the fact that he weighed almost 14 stone. He also became known as the ‘Sweeper Keeper’ after Joe Mercer saw Liverpool beat Everton 1-0 in the Charity Shield game at Goodison Park. “He comes so far off the line he plays like an extra defender,” was Mercer’s appraisal of Tommy. In those days all the goalies tended to stay on their line, but Tommy started breaking records and letting less goals in. These days many keepers play this way. In 1967 the young teenager Ray Clemence arrived at Liverpool from Scunthorpe. He was Tommy’s understudy for three years, training with and learning from him. “I knew he was going to become a great goalkeeper,” said Tommy. In the 1971 -72 season eight of the older Liverpool players were dropped from the team, Tommy being one of them. Ray Clemence took his place. After that Tommy signed for Tranmere Rovers and with Ian St. John, Ronnie Yeats and Willie Stevenson played about ninety games for the club, until an injury to his knee ligament put a stop to his footballing career. Throughout his career, Tommy gained six international caps for Scotland. In 1969 Scotland played against Germany in a World Cup qualifying game on home ground at Hampden Park. Tommy remembered there were 114,000 spectators at the game. The result was a draw, 1-1. Had Scotland won, they would have qualified for the finals in Mexico instead of Germany, who, many of us remember, beat England in the quarter final.
I asked Tommy how football had changed since he used to play professionally. “The pace is a lot faster,” he answered, “but I think that the good players then would still be the good players today. Everything is lightweight these days, the boots, the ball, the gloves.” Apparently only the strong kickers took corners in Tommy’s day, as the ball was very heavy, and in wet conditions it became heavier still; “We’d be able to the balls these days right over the stands!” Goalkeepers wore woollen gloves in Tommy’s day, and couldn’t wear them if the weather was cold, snowy or dry; bare hands were preferred, “We used to rub Fiery Jack into our hands to keep them warm.”
Tommy recalled an incident when a Leeds goalkeeper made a mistake and threw the ball in the back of his own net because he had taken his gloves off in the snowy conditions. The song “You need hands” was sung then and has been since! Tommy considered his best save to be against Bobby Charlton in 1967, when Liverpool beat Manchester United 2-1.
When he started playing Tommy’s meagre wages were no more than those of his non-playing friends, a situation which continued throughout most of his career at Liverpool. In 1965 when Liverpool won the F.A. Cup final he was paid £30 a week. On winning, each player received a share of £10,000, which, between the squad of eighteen players, and after tax, amounted to the sum of £280. No comparison to what professional footballers are paid today! “ I don’t blame the players of today for getting what they can,” said Tommy, “but it makes it hard for the smaller clubs to keep going, because the wages are out of their league.”
These days footballers attract a great deal of media attention. When Tommy was playing, footballers could socialise without the added pressure of being recognised everywhere they went. There were no agents controlling their every move and no paparazzi to interfere in their lives. Tommy remembers tours in Europe and America where the team travelled several days in advance of the games, having fun; something which isn’t done today. “Players don’t mix any more, they keep themselves to themselves. When asked whether he would have preferred to be a player today or back when his career was at its height, he replied, “I’d rather have the money that players get now, but it was much more fun back then.”
Even though his professional football playing days were behind him, Tommy remained involved with Liverpool Football Club with a number of ex professional footballers giving something to the community in a different way. He served on the charity committee with a number of ex-players. They met every two to three months to raise money for various charities raising money for Childline, paid for a Variety Club Sunshine coach, and provided a Labrador dog (called Shankley) to be trained as a guide dog. They have donated to the Anthony Walker fund and the Princes’ Trust. Money was raised in various ways including Golf Days, where people paid to play golf with Tommy and other ex-professionals. In fact, for the some of the charity functions, all the original 1965/66 team players turned up; “We’ve got the best old boys club around.”