He broke his arm and missing the finale of the momentous 1978/79 season. However, nothing could take away Mark Lawrenson’s winning of the ‘Player of the Season’ ahead. As Brighton headed into the First Division for the first time, the world was certainly his oyster.
Here is fitting tribute in Marshall Cavendish’s superb Football Handbook (Issue 53) publication:
‘When I came to Brighton I’d only played once for the Republic and the boss said he was going to find out ifI was still eligible for England. It wasn’t on, but I wouldn’t have changed anyway… It was a bit strange in front of the Dublin crowd at first, but now I can’t wait to get that Eire shirt over my head.’
Brighton’s place in the First Division was on the cards for most of last season. And in the cards too, according to Mark Lawrenson.
‘We were destined to go up. Hard work is vital but your name’s got to be on that Cup or League title as well,’ declares the Brighton defender.
‘I said all season that if we went up it would be fate, being the right place at the right time.’
Fate certainly seems to have had a say in Lawrenson’s own short career.
He was 19 and settling in comfortably with Third Division Preston when he suddenly found himself on the move.
‘I never really wanted to leave. The only reason I went was because Preston needed the £2oo,ooo transfer fee.
‘I was on holiday in Spain. They rang me up and said, Look, Brighton have been in for you. You don’t have to go if you don’t want to… but, we’re a bit short of money.
Football or ‘A’ levels
‘Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I came to Brighton, but if Preston hadn’t been hard up they would never have sold me and I wouldn’t have been pressuring them to leave.
‘They’d offered me a great contract for two seasons and I was quite happy to stay there.’ Affection for the club is in the family.
‘My stepfather’s a director at Preston, my mum’s been a fan for years and I’ve been watching them since I was a nipper.
‘Also, my dad used to play for them, Tommy Lawrenson. I was too young to judge for myself, but people tell me he was a decent player. Trouble was, he was a winger and that was a bit unfortunate because the first choice for that position was Tom Finney.’
Although Mark caught the Preston bug, he was in no hurry to rush into the game… so fate gave him a shove.
‘When I was 17 I was told to choose football or carry on with my ‘A’ levels. I thought: ‘Sod it, I’ll go and play.
‘I could have gone to West Ham or Blackpool, but it had to be Preston. Bobby Charlton had been my hero as a kid and, funnily enough, he signed me for the club.
But the man who had the biggest influence on me turned out to be Nobby Stiles.
‘He was a hard man in training. There were so many Scots at Preston that we used to have an eight-a-side England v Scotland game and all the Scots would hate you for 20 minutes.
‘They used to kick lumps out of Nobby so he’d roll his sleeves up and get stuck back into them. I’m sure in his mind he was back at Wembley or Hampden.
‘He also had a lot of skill. He doesn’t get the recognition he deserves for that, but you look at the way his Preston team plays now.
‘When I signed pro he was just a player at Preston and then he became coach to the reserves and the youth team.
‘He used to have us back in the afternoons to work on certain things. He was great because he let you get on with it in your own way but was always in the background to offer advice.’
Mark followed in his father’s footsteps on Preston’s left wing.
‘I played on the wing in the reserves, then Nobby tried me out at the back and I worked my way across from left-back to the centre of the defence.’
His days as a winger probably accounts for his willingness to carry the ball, rather than just always using it long.
He also has the mobility to contain the liveliest strikers.
‘I’d rather mark nippy players. It’s more of a challenge. Against big men it’s all crash, bang, wallop. I prefer to mark a Peter Ward than, say, a Dixie McNeil.’
If anything, Mark replaced Ward as the idol of the Brighton crowd.
Is he aware of it? ‘I suppose I am really.
Sometimes when I get the ball there’s a bit of a roar.’
Crowd response is another thing he’s looking forward to next season. If you ask him what it is about the Second Division he’ll be most glad to leave behind he says simply, ‘Oldham, and grounds like that on a wet February night… hell.
‘Hopefully that’s all in the past now. I’ve played at places like Anfield and Old Trafford, but in the reserves for Preston in front of a couple of hundred. It’ll be a different experience to go back as a First Division player and be surrounded by people instead of empty terracing.
‘In fact, it’s our place down in Brighton which might look a bit grim to some of the visiting sides. It’s not really a First Division ground at the moment, but they’re looking for somewhere else to build a new stadium altogether.’
Mark’s been an international player for the past three years, and surely fate decreed that he’d play for a country he’d never even visited.
Dublin debut Mark explains: ‘Preston’s coach was Alan Kelly, who was also assistant coach of the Eire team.’
Mark’s mother is Irish and the combination of Kelly’s influence and Mrs Lawrenson’s ancestry saw him making his debut for Eire against Poland in Dublin when he was I9.
‘When I came to Brighton I’d only played once for the Republic and the boss said he was going to find out if I was still eligible for England. It wasn’t on, but I wouldn’t have changed over anyway.
‘It was a bit strange in front of the Dublin crowd for the first time, but now it’s like a fever. I can’t wait to get that shirt over my head.’
After narrowly missing out in ’77-78, Brighton made a shaky start last season.
But Mark says: ‘People began to write us off, then we came back with a hell of a run.
‘It’s got to be fate. Even after I broke my arm against Bristol Rovers I only missed the last three games even though it took eight weeks to mend.’
Boss Alan Mullery is in no doubt what life without Lawrenson would have been like.
He says: ‘If he hadn’t been playing for us we would have been at the bottom.’ An exaggeration, perhaps, but an indication of Mullery’s estimation of Mark’s part in a momentous season for the Seagulls.
The fans agreed, making Mark their player of the year.
It was all in the cards, of course!