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Roker Report Meets... Liam Lawrence! Highs, lows & the row with Keano which led to him leaving

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Joining Roker Report for a chat today is former Sunderland and Republic of Ireland international winger Liam Lawrence.

Sunderland v Chelsea Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

RR: A nice easy one to begin with for you Liam. Who was the best player you played alongside during your time at the club?

LL: It has to be Julio, doesn’t it? Deano was alright, a good all-rounder, but Julio could win you a game or be the catalyst to set someone up out of nothing. He was awesome. I’m surprised he didn’t end up playing for more clubs in the Premier League. He was frightening in training, he made people look stupid.

Soccer - Coca-Cola Football League Championship - West Ham United v Sunderland - Upton Park Photo by Adam Davy - EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

RR: Rewind back to the day you joined the club in June 2004. You’d had a really successful season for Mansfield and it was rumoured that a few clubs came in for you, but you opted for a move to Sunderland. Who else did you speak to? How early did you know about the interest from Mick McCarthy, and why did you choose us over others?

LL: We played Sunderland in a pre-season friendly and they were looking at me for the best part of a year after that. I’d scored 22 goals at Mansfield that season, but I was available on a Bosman free. Crewe, Cardiff, Leeds and Sunderland were after me.

I went to Leeds first because I was already in Yorkshire, but I just didn’t get a feel for it. The vibe, the people - I just knew. My agent said “Sunderland have been on the phone, shall we go up?”. When I saw the training ground and the facilities, it was jaw dropping compared to what I was used to in the lower leagues. It was magnificent. It still is.

Once I spoke to Mick McCarthy it was a done deal. I didn’t even speak to Cardiff - just told my agent “no thanks” and signed for Sunderland there and then.

RR: Mick signed a lot of up and coming players that summer, such as yourself, Dean Whitehead and Stephen Elliott, but it was you that he seemed to have the most faith in from the beginning, whereas the likes of Deano and Sleeves had to be a little more patient. Why do you think things clicked into place so quickly under Mick McCarthy?

LL: I always respected Mick McCarthy because he was so straight down the line and honest. Some managers can say one thing and mean another, but Mick was dead straight forward and told you the truth.

I always give 100% on the pitch and in training and I think he saw that and that mirrored the respect I had for him. Giving 100% should be a given in football - if not, you’re in the wrong game.

I tell that to all of the young lads I’m coaching now - it’s the bare minimum. Mick McCarthy’s teams were always about energy and we had that in abundance, we had loads of it.

Soccer - FA Cup - Fourth Round - Brentford v Sunderland - Griffin Park
Sunderland’s manager Mick McCarthy helps Liam Lawrence after he runs into the advertising boards
Photo by John Walton - EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

RR: There seemed to be great character in the squad - the camaraderie amongst the group both off and on the pitch was fairly evident. Do you have any particularly funny stories from that time?

LL: We had two masseurs at the club, Bill Wilson and Micky Holland, who were hilarious! We all gelled together really quickly as a unit. There were a lot of younger players at the time, and you had the old heads too - Breeny, Carl Robinson, Stevie Caldwell. We just all seemed to get on together really well, especially in the promotion season.

I know the next season didn’t really well work out well and that made it tough mentally, but with the budget Mick was given you were up against it from the outset; you were treading water straight away.

RR: One of my big memories of your time at the club and in particular that season was the away game down at Wigan, when the ball “went out of play” before you set up Marcus Stewart to score the goal that effectively, in the eyes of many supporters, set us on our path towards promotion. We had seven thousand fans down there that night. What are your memories of the game?

LL: I was showing my little boy this on Instagram the other day. The ball doesn’t look out to me still, by the way!

There were rumours that I was going to be starting that day - I hadn’t started the week before, but Mick grabbed me in the hotel before the game and told me I was starting. I think I must have looked shocked but he just said “don’t be surprised, I trust you and I know you’re going to do well”.

As for the game, Jesus - those fans that night were fantastic. When I crossed it in for Stewy (Marcus Stewart) and he controlled it and scored... the scenes were absolutely incredible. Seeing those fans when it went in... wow. It wasn’t just an end that they took over either; it was an entire side of the stadium.

RR: How did you celebrate promotion?

LL: We went on a bender after winning promotion against Leicester actually. We all went out and had a good drink!

The night we won the title was away to West Ham on the Friday night and I remember Alan Pardew saying to us before the game “I hope you’ve all been on the drink celebrating; we (West Ham) need a win” - but we went and won it in the last minute with a beauty from Stephen Elliott.

Soccer - FA Barclays Premiership - Newcastle v Sunderland - St James Park
“I knew the pressure he was under; so I ran straight to Mick”
Photo by Owen Humphreys - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

RR: The following campaign was a real struggle for many, many reasons. I’ve spoken to the likes of Andy Welsh, Sleeves, Neill Collins and the like and the general consensus was that the quality just wasn’t quite there in the squad. You were one of the better performers that year - what’s your thoughts on the fifteen-point season?

LL: The budget absolutely killed us - that’s the bottom line for me. We needed more quality and we just couldn’t afford it. The money was still big, but it’s not like the money you get nowadays when you get promoted. If it was today, we could have maybe brought in some more quality.

We never got pumped though really; it was weird. We’d lose 2-1, 3-2 or 1-0. The fans never turned on us though, they kept with us throughout even though we went down with 15 points. We all stuck together as one. For example, we got a point in the game at Old Trafford but also got relegated at the same time - but the fans that night were always with us.

It’s not like now where you can see the fans frustration at the players on the pitch, I think they knew the effort we put in, we never lay down - it was just a lack of quality.

RR: One moment every Sunderland fan will remember from your time here is the screamer that you scored in front of the Gallowgate at St James Park. What was it like to score that goal? Why did you run straight to Mick McCarthy?

LL: My family still say it was one of the best games they’ve ever been to. The atmosphere, the occasion. It was a brilliant derby and amazing to be part of.

It was massive to score that goal. I knew the pressure Mick was under and he still kept picking me and putting his faith in me, so I ran to him and the coaching staff. It was a moment for us all to celebrate together. That’s all it was.

Soccer - FA Barclays Premiership - Newcastle v Sunderland - St James Park Photo by Gareth Copley - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

RR: Rory Delap joined the club towards the end of that season and also played with you at Stoke. I have to ask - why the hell did nobody know he could throw a ball the length of a football field when he was at Sunderland?!

LL: (Laughs) yeah, that’s a good question. I don’t think I ever saw Rory take a throw in at Sunderland - not even in training. It never came about at Sunderland.

I think it was developed at Stoke in all honesty. He took a throw in for us and everyone just thought “what the f**k?” and Tony Pulis thought he’d use that as a weapon against the opposition.

RR: Why did so many former Sunderland players end up at Stoke?

LL: There were loads of us! Deano, Danny Collins... you could probably name a team.

I think the two teams had mutual respect. When two teams work together on transfers that often, it becomes easier to work with them and the transfers happen faster. I think the two clubs had a decent understanding.

Pulis thought highly of the lads at Sunderland because he thought they worked hard. I remember him talking about us after a game against us at the Britannia that we won 1-0; Michael Bridges scored late on from a corner. He praised us after the game and said he was impressed with how we worked our socks off and deserved the points. I think that was always in the back of his mind.

RR: Following our relegation a summer of change came, and we started the season with Niall Quinn as Chairman and Manager. How well did you get on with Niall? Could you sense a shift in mindset when he bought the club?

LL: I got on with Quinny really well. He gave me a new contract as soon as he came in the door. I was runner-up for player of the year the season before and he came in and said he wanted to build a team around the likes of myself and Dean Whitehead.

Even when I fell out with Roy Keane, I got on with him fantastic. He was great with me and always available to chat to. When he was manager though he tried to play me on the left hand side, which didn’t work out. He wanted me to try and cut in but it just didn’t seem to click for me on that side to be honest with you.

Soccer - Coca-Cola Football League Championship - Sunderland v Birmingham City - Stadium of Light Photo by Nigel French - EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

RR: Fast forward to the time Roy Keane walked in the door. You’re a huge Manchester United fan, if I remember correctly. What was it like when he came to the club?

LL: It was eye-opening for me. I was a huge Manchester United fan and I loved Keano. He was the best player at the club (Sunderland) even though he’d retired. He was a brilliant footballer even then at the age of 38/39. He’d join in training and he was the best thing I’ve ever seen - he was amazing. He could do everything.

The more I got to know him, and the more he got to know us as a group of players though, the more I didn’t like how he was with us.

I knew he would demand us to be the best and the club to be the best and I totally understood and agree with that, but some people overdo it and it ends up upsetting certain players - it ended up upsetting me.

RR: Reflecting upon your thoughts at leaving the club, was it a case of Roy had no choice after certain circumstances, or was it clear early on he didn’t see you as part of his plans? Did you ever want to leave?

LL: I know what you mean (the video) and I think it has to be touched on because it was part of my time at the club. To be fair to Roy, he called us into the office after it emerged and basically said as long as it doesn’t effect your football or the club we’ll move on from it. It wasn’t the reason I ended up having to leave the club.

I had been in and out of the team in the run up to a 4-1 defeat at Preston where we played terribly, and Roy tore shreds off each one of us individually; one by one. He slaughtered us.

The Thursday after the game, we played eleven versus eleven - you’d have the eleven playing on the Saturday against some of the other lads who weren’t in the starting line up - but I wasn’t in either team. Me, Robbie Elliott and a few of the other lads were left to stand and watch on the sidelines. Normally in that situation if there’s five or six lads you’re not using you’d send them off to do work with another coach. I wasn’t having it, it was ridiculous. I was a professional footballer and I was standing there doing nothing - so I thought “that’s it, I’m going in”.

I went in to see him in the office and a lot of swearing went on. I said some things, he said some things. It was heated. We almost came to blows.

As I left his office, he (Keane) said “keep your phone on, that’s you finished”. I went to my car, rang my agent and told him what had happened and within the week I was on the way to Stoke.

When my loan was coming to an end at Stoke I rang Quinny and asked him if there was a chance to come back; if there was any way I could return - I loved it there, the people were fantastic, the fans were great with me and I had a house there - but he said just said “No, I don’t think so - not whilst Roy is here” and that was that.

RR: How would you sum up your time at the club in three words?

LL: Learnt a lot.