Sunday, 26 May 2013

Liam Lawrence

2012 - present : PAOK (Greece)

I know I’m a long way away and out of sight but I’m hoping the manager {Trapattoni} hasn’t forgotten about me.

Famous last words for Liam Lawrence's international career. Sadly, in spite of playing good football for a decent team in a decent European league; Lawrence has not been even mentioned by Irish manager Giovanni Trapattoni, since the midfielder went to Greece in 2012.

Lawrence was born in Nottinghamshire in the English East Midlands on December 14th 1981. His first professional contract was earned with Mansfield Town in 1999, and over the next ten years he would climb the divisions with Sunderland and Stoke City, becoming a Premier League player by 2009. 

Lawrence's grandfather was born in Kerry, and the midfielder grew up in a distinctly Irish household, playing for England was never his dream. His debut came against Nigeria in 2009, and between then and now he would earn a further 14 caps, scoring 2 goals.

Lawrence with Ireland
In 2011, he found himself on the sinking ship that was Portsmouth FC, and following their relegation he was told by Irish coach Giovanni Trapattoni to find a better club.

So, on August 13th 2012, he moved to Greece, joining a small band of non-domestic/non-British based Irish players at the time.

His new team Panthessaloníkios Athlitikós Ómilos Konstantinoupolitón (PAOK for short) are one of Greece's biggest clubs. After foundation in 1926, they would go on to win 2 league titles and 4 cups, as well as a decent Cup Winners' Cup run in 1974. Problematically for PAOK, they play in the same country as big hitters like AEK Athens, Panathinaikos and Olympiacos; limiting their trophy haul. Their home stadium is the 28000 capacity Toumba Stadium and their lengthy nickname is Dikefalos tou Vorra (the Double-Headed eagle of the North).

Briefly in the late-1970s PAOK were managed by Northern Ireland legend Billy Bingham. Lawrence was the second Irishman to play for the club, after Dubliner Paul Bannon's spell in the 1980s.

He was handed the no.20 shirt by manager Giorgos Donis, a young coach who had played in England. Some interesting names were joining the Irishman at the club's Nea Mesimvria training ground. Included were former Liverpool stopper Charles Itandje, ex-Real Madrid midfielder Pablo Garcia and Greek captain Dimitris Salpingidis

Lawrence (front-row, second from right) with PAOK in 2012

The club had finished the previous season 5th, and were thus eligible to play in Europa League qualification for Lawrence's maiden campaign. They had already disposed of Israel's Bnei Yehuda before he arrived, and so he made his debut for PAOK against Rapid Vienna in the Play-offs for a Group Stage berth. The game was Lawrence's first ever European match, and he entered as a 68th minute substitute. The Greeks won 2-1. However, the Eagles would lose the corresponding fixture 3-0 in Vienna, and were out of Europe.

Just over a month after his arrival, the Irishman found the net for his new club. In a September league fixture with Asteras Tripoli, Lawrence sparked a comeback with a 46th minute equaliser, and PAOK went on to win 2-1.

Later on that month, he scored again in a 4-1 win over bitiser rivals Aris. His 12th minute stunning strike made it 1-0 to PAOK. But it was a dirty game, which saw 3 red cards, including one for the Irishman for lashing out at an opposing player in stoppage time.

Lawrence scored a cracking volley against Aris

By all accounts, Lawrence was bedding in well. Liked by team-mates and respected by fans, he was achieving far more than he did in Britain. In February, he was even awarded with the MVP title by fans for his contribution that month.

"It's been really good and better than I thought. Coming to a different league, with a different language and new surroundings was going to be a challenge, and some of it has been an eye-opener," he told the Herald.
"The atmosphere here is something I have never experienced before. I played in derby games in England, and I always thought that Portsmouth-Southampton or Sunderland-Newcastle were intense games, but this is a different level."

PAOK finished the season in 2nd place, yet 15 points behind champions Olympiacos. In the subsequent play-offs to determine European places, they finished in 1st, and will play in the UEFA Champions League for 2013-14.

Lawrence's contribution was vital. He started 19 matches, playing 22 in all and scored 3 goals. His heart and determination can also be measured by the 7 yellow cards and 1 straight red that he was shown in his maiden season.

"The football side of things has been great, I've loved it here, we had a good season by finishing as runner-up and we have a good chance of making it into the Champions League."

In the Greek Cup, Lawrence scored a penalty in PAOK's 6-0 Fourth Round demolishing of Kallithea. Unfortunately, the club lost to Asteras 3-2 on aggregate in the Semi-Finals. On April 29th, Donis was punished for this failure and was sacked by the club's chairman, Zisis Vryzas, and duly replaced by Georgios Georgiadis"They want instant success here and they don't hang about," said Lawrence. "Our fans went mental when we lost the cup game and here, the fans get what they want." Olympiacos would win the cup, securing the double. 

In 2013-14, Lawrence will be playing in the UEFA Champions League. He might be one of only two Irish players doing so, along with Celtic's Anthony Stokes. Yet neither player has appeared for the Republic of Ireland in two years. The PAOK winger himself fears his Irish future is over (at least while Trapattoni is in charge); "Never say never but I think the writing is on the wall for me. If I am in the Champions League next season I might get looked at again but I wouldn't hold my breath" he told the Herald in May 2013.

Its difficult to know how long Lawrence will stay in Greece. At 31 he is getting to an age where he is probably considering where to retire. Greece would be nice, but his family remain in England while he is in Salonika. That is tough, no matter what business one is in. 

"The football has been good but the personal side has been tough," he admits. "It's tough being on your own and you have the language barrier but it's been an experience.
"It will be hard to stay out here, I miss my two boys and I've not seen my mum since Christmas so I will need to have a think."
Anyone would feel for Lawrence, but as an Irish football fan, I still hope he decides to stay in Greece and play in the Champions League. Lord knows, Irish football needs it.

A video of Lawrence's PAOK highlights

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