Ask a selection of Mansfield Town fans to name their favourite player of the last 15 years and Liam Lawrence is a name that is sure to figure strongly. The talented midfield playmaker played more than 150 times for the club and in the first part of a two-part Chad interview, he recalls what proved to be a traumatic final passage of his Stags career.
He’s played at Old Trafford, Anfield and The Emirates, represented the Republic of Ireland 15 times and played overseas in Greece, yet one of the memories that sticks most vividly in his head came during his stint at Mansfield Town.
It’s not, it has to be said, a particularly fond memory. Penalty misses rarely are.
But even, now, almost 10 years on, Liam Lawrence still can’t believe his spot kick in the play-off final against Huddersfield struck the crossbar.
It was to prove a pivotal moment in the Stags’ history as they went on to lose the shoot out at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium as the Terriers went up to what is now League One.
Keith Curle’s team of promising youngsters, by contrast, was quickly broken up, with Lee Williamson leaving for Northampton, Bobby Hassell for Barnsley, Craig Disley for Bristol Rovers and Lawrence himself for Sunderland, bringing in £175,000 plus add-ons.
A little over four years later, Mansfield were kicking off their first season in the Conference, having been relegated from the Football League for the first time in their history. It could have all been so different.
“It was horrible - I will never forget that feeling,” said Lawrence. “It was a massively disappointing way to end what was one of the best seasons of my career.
“We had been building for a couple of seasons and as a team we had a lot of young lads who were all doing quite well.
“From my own point of view it was one of those seasons where everything clicked into place and I started scoring pretty regularly.
“I think I’d scored something like 12 penalties, so it was gutting to miss at Cardiff with what was at stake.
“I’d decided to chip it down the middle because I knew the keeper was going to have to dive in order to try to make a save.
“I’d practice it in training and been scoring, but I just got too much on it, too much power.
“These things can happen when the pressure is on - we saw it in the Manchester United v Sunderland League Cup shoot-out the other week - but it wasn’t easy for anyone to take at the time.”
Lawrence had first moved to Mansfield at the age of 14 after being released following a five-year stint on the books of Nottingham Forest.
Sheffield United were also showing an interest, but the promise of a YT deal saw him join the ranks at Field Mill and make steady progress along with other talented ‘home grown’ youngsters.
Supporters first became aware that Mansfield might have something a bit special on their hands when Lawrence played a starring role against future club Sunderland in an FA Youth Cup tie.
Lawrence said: “It was a shock to be released and at that point you wonder if you are going to realise your dream of playing professional football.
“But we had a good nucleus of youngsters at Mansfield and it definitely helped us that we were all coming through together.
“Steve Parkin was in charge when I first went to the club and he stamped his authority on it and taught a lot of the young lads the value of discipline.
“It was Billy Dearden who gave me and some of the others, like, Lee, Bobby and Dis, a chance and we were all really hungry and ready to work hard.
Lawrence’s senior bow came in January 2000 - a home Football League Trophy tie against Blackpool where the Stags went down 1-0 - and his League debut came in another home defeat to Halifax a month later.
But things improved considerably from then on and the following season came a sign of things to come as the Retford-born player, still a teenager, made 18 appearances, scoring four goals.
At Bloomfield Road, Blackpool, Dearden chose to unleash his full arsenal of young talent against a Seasiders team that included experienced former top flight campaigners such as Mike Milligan and Paul Simpson.
The Stags were denied victory by a late Brett Ormerod strike in a 2-2 draw, but the Stags’ display - which included a brace by a recently signed striker named Chris Greenacre - demonstrated the kind of attacking prowess that was to soon become a feature of their play.
“It was at the old stadium before all the redevelopment against a very experienced Blackpool side,” said Lawrence. “We were brilliant on the day and unlucky not to win.
“I also remember a game not long after that when I ran most of the length of the field to set up Shayne Bradley against Leyton Orient.
“You could see at that time the team was coming together with the young lads and the likes of Rhys Day and Chris Greenacre being signed from higher division teams.
“When you first break through, though, you are not thinking about that, you are just concentrating on each game, but promotion was always a possibility with the team we had.”
See the second part of Chad’s exclusive interview with Lawrence online tomorrow.