Tommy Lawrence – Sweeper keeper

10 October 2007

PERHAPS the most under-rated goalkeeper in the League during the sixties was our man Tommy Lawrence.


For some unfathomable reason he was never considered to be among the top ‘˜keepers in the country, always to be mentioned way behind Gordon Banks (Leicester/Stoke), Peter Bonetti (Chelsea), and Alex Stepney (Manchester United). But, realising that Liverpool were one of the top clubs in the country during those years, and that Bill Shankly could have attracted any ‘˜keeper he wanted to sign for the club, the simple fact that Tommy Lawrence was the number one No. 1 for all those years speaks volumes about his ability and his value to Liverpool.

One of the most surprising facts about Tommy Lawrence is that he’s a Scottish International, but people are taken aback to hear that he has a Lancashire accent. Tommy was born in 1940 in Daily, Ayrshire up in Scotland, not far from Bill Shankly’s birthplace. His family moved down to Lancashire when he was just a youngster, and he was educated at Culcheth Secondary School. There might be something in the classroom air at that school, as it was also the school attended by Roger Hunt a year or two earlier. Roger’s brother Peter was Tommy’s best mate in those days, and it was no surprise that they would be playing together for local team Croft, where Tommy Lawrence was first spotted by a Liverpool scout.

After leaving school, Tommy Lawrence worked at Rylands, a wire factory in Warrington, while playing as an amateur for Warrington Town. He was offered a professional contract with Liverpool, in October 1957 just a few months after his 17th birthday, by manager Phil Taylor He soon made his debut for Liverpool A team against Manchester City. He gradually established himself as a reliable ‘˜keeper, and was more than ready when his chance finally came five years later in October of 1962. Liverpool were newly promoted that season, and first team ‘˜keeper Jim Furnell was out with an injury. It was not a dream debut as West Bromwich Albion won 1-0 on the day, but his performance was impressive enough for him to keep the No. 1 jersey with 35 appearances, including 6 in the FA Cup run to the semi-final (losing out 1-0 to Gordon Banks and Leicester City).

Liverpool finished in a respectable eighth place by the end of that first season back in the first division, and it was in no small way attributable to the stopping skills of Tommy Lawrence. The following season, 1963-64, was to be the beginning of a glorious era of success for Liverpool, and especially for Tommy Lawrence. He played in all but two League games that season, and also played in five cup ties. The season ended with a League Champions medal, which was clinched with a 5-0 win against Arsenal at Anfield. That performance was not just a feast of goals, but was also a showcase of Liverpool’s defensive strength, which included a penalty save for Lawrence against Arsenal‘s George Eastham.

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  • The next season, 1964-65, began with a sharing of the Charity Shield with West Ham. Liverpool struggled to maintain their form during the season, and finished disappointingly in seventh place, seventeen points behind Manchester United. But, the 1964-65 season will be remembered for the FA Cup. Tommy managed to gain revenge first against West Brom by beating them 2-1 away, and later by beating Leicester 1-0 in a replay in the quarter-final. The semi-final was a convincing 2-0 win over Chelsea, and Liverpool were feeling confident of victory at Wembley. It was a long match, with Liverpool finishing 2-1 winners, giving Tommy Lawrence his second major medal in as many seasons.

    That was also Liverpool’s first season in Europe, where they went on an incredible run, beating Reyjkavik 11-1, Anderlecht 4-0, and Koln (after a tie-breaker and a coin toss), to reach the semi-final against Inter Milan. That match was memorable for all the wrong reasons, especially in the second leg where the referee allowed the ball to be kicked out of Lawrence’s hands for the second goal in a 3-0 loss.

    The 1965-66 season kicked off as usual with the Charity Shield, and was once again shared ‘“ this time with defending League Champions Manchester United. The season was another demonstration of consistency, with Liverpool finishing in first place, six points clear of Leeds, ten points ahead of Manchester United in fourth place, and twenty points ahead of eleventh place Everton. That was Lawrence’s second League Champions medal in three seasons, and was achieved with Tommy Lawrence as an ever-present in goal, conceding the season’s lowest goals against of 34 (next lowest was Leeds with 39; while Manchester United conceded 59, and Everton let in nearly twice as many with 62).

    Liverpool entered the European Cup Winners Cup competition for the 1965-66 season, and reached their first European final to face Borussia Dortmund at Hampden Park. Along the way they beat Juventus, Standard Liège, Honved, and Celtic. It would be a few years before they progressed that far in Europe again.

    The 1966-67 season started with a bang as FA Cup winners Everton were shut out in a 1-0 win as Liverpool took the Charity Shield. Unfortunately, it was the only piece of silverware for that season as Liverpool seemingly went into decline with a disappointing fifth place finish in the League, a fifth round exit from the FA Cup, and a stunning exit from the European Cup following a 5-1 loss to Johan Cruyff’s Ajax in Amsterdam.

    If there was a lack of consistency in the team’s performances over those seasons, it was definitely not due to Tommy Lawrence. In a twelve month period, from April 1966 to April 1967, he didn’t concede a goal at the Kop end. There was only one conceded during that time, and it was in a match when Tommy was sidelined with the ‘˜flu.

    Tommy’s style of play was different to most other goalkeepers of that era. He played behind a mostly flat back four which tended to push forward as much as possible. That sometimes allowed a well timed penetrating pass to breach the last line of defence, giving a scoring opportunity to a quick forward with only the ‘˜keeper to beat. But even if that forward was Jimmy Greaves, or Denis Law, or others of that era, it was not so easy when Tommy Lawrence was in their way. His ability to react quickly to the danger, and his bravery in diving at the feet of onrushing forwards, set him apart from the rest. It’s amazing that with all the times that he came rushing out to make those stops that he wasn’t seriously injured. In all of his eight years of playing for Liverpool, he only missed a handful of games.

    It was his tendency to come rushing out of his goal to stop an attack that caused Joe Mercer to comment, during the 1966 Charity Shield match, ‘œHe comes so far off his line he plays like an extra defender.’ That led to the coining of the term ‘œSweeper Keeper’ which is an accurate description of how Tommy Lawrence’s style of play fit into Liverpool’s. Another accurate description came with the affectionate nickname ‘œThe Flying Pig.’ That was a reference to his physical size, which can be imagined when we see that at 5’ 11’ and 14 stone (about 200 pounds) that he was not the stereotypical athletic figure (for example, Willie Stevenson was the same height, but weighed in at just under 12 stone, or about 165 pounds). The nickname is anything but an insult as it is more in reference to his quick movements in diving around the penalty area than a derogatory comment about his bulk. No matter what his physical appearance may be, his record of 133 clean sheets in 390 appearances is enough evidence of his ability. He had an uncanny understanding with fellow Scot Ron Yeats, and the two of them would control the penalty area with Yeats using his height to deal with crosses and Lawrence using his speed of movement to snuff out attacks on the ground. It was rare to see both players going for the same ball, and most attacks were stopped before they presented too much danger.

    If it was strange that Tommy Lawrence was under-rated and dismissed by the ‘œexperts’ of the day, it’s even stranger that with all the achievements and the medals earned during the mid sixties that Tommy was only capped three times for his country. The first came in June of 1963 in a friendly against Northern Ireland, and it’s a mystery as to why the other caps didn’t come until six years later in 1969.

    In the summer of 1967, Bill Shankly signed a young goalkeeper from Scunthorpe who would eventually be Tommy’s replacement. That youngster was of course Ray Clemence, and he not only later replaced Lawrence, but went on to be the number one ‘˜keeper for more than ten years after. When Shankly convinced Clemence to sign for Liverpool, he told him that, ‘œTommy Lawrence is over the hill and past his best,’ and that Ray would be in the first team within six months. But, as Clemence recalls, ‘œWhen I got to Liverpool for pre-season after signing for them I found out that Tommy wasn’t over the hill and past his best. He was at the peak of his career and I had to wait two and a half years before getting a regular first team place. To underline the point, Tommy Lawrence claimed a first division record in the 1968-69 season by conceding only 24 goals in 42 games, a record that stood until beaten by Ray Clemence ten years later. Any goalkeeper that could keep Ray Clemence patiently waiting in the reserves must have been doing something right, and is perhaps the greatest tribute of all to Tommy Lawrence’s career.

    The beginning of the end for many of Shankly’s sixties greats, including Lawrence, came in February 1970 when Liverpool were embarrassed by losing 1-0 to struggling second division Watford in the FA Cup. Tommy played one more match, fittingly against Manchester City, who were his very first opposition fourteen years earlier, in November of 1971. He then joined Tranmere Rovers on a free transfer, and played there for three years before a knee injury put an end to his professional career. Tommy tried his hand as a player coach with non-league Chorley for a year before returning to Rylands wire factory in Warrington as a quality controller until his retirement.

    It’s often forgotten that Tommy Lawrence made a significant contribution to the Liverpool glory days of Shankly’s side of the 1960’s, but happily there are enough who do remember to have made him number 80 in the 100 Players Who Shook The Kop.

    Keith Perkins

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