ARE worse ways to while away an afternoon than talking footie in Mark Lawrenson's lovely conservatory in sunny Southport - where it is actually piddling down, but never mind. The Lawrenson home is a large detached job with a sea view. It stands the distance of a firmly struck pitching wedge from the home of his fellow BBC pundit Alan Hansen, which is an even larger detached job, with an even better sea view. Mind you, you would want Hansen (handicap two) to hit the wedge shot across the road, not Lawrenson (handicap quite a lot higher).
While we are talking, 20-month-old Sam Lawrenson careers merrily around the place. Sam is a Preston North End fan, insists the old man, who admits that he would rather see his beloved Preston in the Premier League (they are 1-0 down to Birmingham after the first leg of the play-off semi-final) than Liverpool, for whom he played with such distinction, beating Alaves in the final of the Uefa Cup. But should both come to pass, then Lawrenson will be very happy indeed, too happy even to dwell on the fact that this Saturday sees the end of Match of the Day as we know it.
Lawrenson was an ever-present in the last Liverpool team to win a treble - an even more illustrious combo than the one dangling before them in Dortmund this evening - that of League Cup, League championship and European Cup. It was 1984 and rotation was strictly for crops. He and Hansen were at the peak of their majestic centre- back partnership, with Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish in devastating tandem up front.
If anybody had suggested then that Liverpool would endure more than a decade virtually barren of silverware, they would have been stuffed into a straitjacket. But that's what happened. Until now. For Lawrenson and Hansen read Hyypia and Henchoz. For Rush and Dalglish, Michael Owen and his double-barrelled accomplice Heskey-Fowler. Is this team too the stuff of which trebles are made? Tonight we will find out.
Lawrenson is confident. "I just can't see them getting beat at the moment," he says. "Alaves are a very attacking side, and that will suit Gerard Houllier's counter-attacking philosophy. He nearly always has six behind the ball and who's to argue? And for all the talk of rotation, he usually has Hyypia, Henchoz and Hamann playing, which is such a good base to build on. I don't think the goalkeeper's the best in the world, but he's a good shot-stopper and a very confident boy. I can't see what Smicer gives, personally. He's not my favourite player, him and Danny Murphy, but good sides aren't necessarily the best 11 players. It's what fits. Look at [John] McGovern with Nottingham Forest and even Alan Kennedy playing for us. Not the best footballers, but it worked."
And the $64,000 question. Does the Finnish-Swiss partnership stand comparison with its distinguished Irish-Scottish forebear? He smiles. I think he's been asked this one before. "Hyypia's very much the rock, and Henchoz plays off him. What were me and Hansen like? I don't know. We certainly knew how bad we could be. There was one day at Coventry when little Terry Gibson scored three past us." We'll come back to the good old days, but what about Liverpool's future? Can they win the championship next season? Again, it's a familiar question. "I think they'll be closer. But they need a new goalkeeper to put pressure on Westerveld. And, as well as Carragher's done, they need a new left-back.
"Ziege is good if they play with wing-backs, but he can't play in a four, I don't think. I think Houllier will also look for one more midfield player.
"And if Robbie goes he'll need another striker. You need four strikers these days, as Manchester United have shown.
"There are some Liverpool supporters," Lawrenson continues, "who think I'm a Manc, because I'm always going on about United. But they set the standard.
"They went to Leicester earlier this season, when Leicester were top of the league, and made five changes, and won. I doubt if Liverpool could do that even now, although the FA Cup final was really encouraging, because they didn't play well and still beat a good team. United have been doing that for years."
Alan Hansen, Barry Venison, Tommy Smith, David Fairclough and Ian St John, too, know how Liverpool can regain their rightful place at the top of the pile. So does every other former Liverpool player turned professional pundit. Houllier is not being paranoid when he observes that the media contains a disproportionate number of Anfield old boys. So perhaps there was a smidgin of irony intended when he sat down next to Lawrenson, at the Football Writers' dinner two years ago, and said: "Right, who do I buy?" "That," says Lawrenson, "was the best conversation I have had with Houllier.
"It was 1.30am. I was certainly drunk and I think he was well on the way. I said he should buy Thuram. He said: `I've tried, I can't get him. I've had him before, and I know he would play for me, but Parma won't sell.' I mentioned Steve Bould. He said: `He's too old, they won't give him a two-year contract.' I mentioned Laurent Blanc. He said: `I can't get him'." Still, Houllier did get Gary McAllister and if he can squeeze another season out of those old legs, and if Steven Gerrard and Owen continue to mature, and Fowler stays, and some decent players arrive, and Manchester United slip up... all of which might very well happen except the last bit, Lawrenson believes.
"Winning the championship every year is like a drug, and United have so many local players, who feel defeat more than anybody, which is why I don't think Chelsea will be successful. Not until they get a few in. No, United will still be the team to beat regardless of whether Fergie goes or stays." You think he might stay? "I think he'll find it hard. I used to see Shanks at Liverpool, wandering around like a lost soul. It was like having his arm cut off." If Sir Alex Ferguson does carry through his intention to retire, however, Lawrenson would give the job to his erstwhile BBC colleague Martin O'Neill.
"I'd give it him tomorrow. He's definitely got what it takes. He's so sharp, such a brain. And I can't believe anyone would not want to manage Man Utd." And I can't believe, as a faithful Evertonian (a foible I keep from my host), that anyone would not want to play for Everton. But Lawrenson's late father, Tommy, offered precisely that opportunity in the late 1950s, turned it down, insisting that the 30 miles from Preston to Liverpool was too far for him to travel to work. Actually setting up home on Merseyside was evidently a no-no.
Tommy Lawrenson played just once for Preston, albeit in the same forward line as the great Tom Finney. His son played 73 times, and was handed a first-team berth at 17 by the player-manager, the great Bobby Charlton (he later played for Jack Charlton's Republic of Ireland's team, making him the answer to an excellent trivia question: who is the only player to play for both Charlton brothers?). Engagingly, he claims that when a chronic Achilles tendon injury forced him into premature retirement at 30, he looked back at his career, which included five championship medals, a European Cup winner's medal and 38 international caps, and thought simply: "Thank God I played for Preston".
He first played for the Republic of Ireland (qualifying through his Waterford- born mother) while at Preston, but in 1977 was transferred to Brighton and, in 1981, to the European champions, Liverpool. "They'd won the European Cup in the May and I joined them in the early August, and, the morning after I arrived in Liverpool, Bob Paisley picked me up at my hotel wearing his slippers and an old cardigan. It was like playing for your grandad. Then, on my first day of training, there was a fight, between Alan Kennedy and Graeme Souness. I thought: `What kind of club is this?' But it was great. We partied together hard, all of us." A far cry from toasting the FA Cup in mineral water, as happened on Saturday, yet Lawrenson endorses Houllier's strict regime of moderate drinking and careful eating.
"Actually, it all started with Craig Johnston. He used to bring in rice and this other stuff in a Tupperware box, and we used to laugh at him for being Australian and daft, but the same guy could run all day and after a while you thought: `Hang on, maybe there's something in this?' We were used to having steaks at 12 before playing at three, and you don't even digest steak properly for 24 hours. But we didn't know any different." Moreover, pasta and pulses could hardly have brought more success.
For Lawrenson the highlight of his Liverpool career was beating Roma to win the 1984 European Cup. The nadir came a year later, at Heysel, an experience made even more uncomfortable for Lawrenson because he was substituted after a minute with a dislocated shoulder, and taken to a hospital surrounded by dead and dying Juventus fans.
"I had an operation, and when I came round there was soldier with a bloody big machine gun at the foot of my bed. I was still in my Liverpool kit. And the next morning Roy Evans had to smuggle me out of the hospital in the service lift." Weird, and there was more weirdness to come. For no sooner had Lawrenson quit as a player, in March 1988, than he joined relegation- bound Oxford United as manager (thus making him the answer to another excellent trivia question: who is the only man to win a championship medal and be relegated in the same season?), delivering him into the command of Captain Bob.
His Maxwell stories are a riot. Kevin Maxwell was nominally Oxford's chairman, but everyone knew who held his strings. And when Captain Bob ordered Lawrenson to sell Dean Saunders to his other club, Derby County, Lawrenson insisted on a showdown. "I was told to go to the Mirror building in London at 11.30am. I sat there in the penthouse, and heard the old whirr of the helicopter so I knew he was coming. He came in, and filled the room, and I'll never, ever forget, because he sat on this Chinese inlaid table, and it actually buckled, and I thought: `The fat bastard's going to break it'. He said: `What's your problem?' And this diatribe came out, to which he said: `It's got eff-all to do with you.' So that was it. I was about to resign, but before I could resign they sacked me. Kevin said: `Nobody resigns on the family'."
Lawrenson chuckles. Why Alistair McGowan decided to parody him as a doom- mongering depressive, heaven knows. "He told me he thought it was a northern thing," explains Lawrenson. All the same, he loves his glum alter ego. And he loves his job. After Oxford he managed Peterborough, and was briefly Newcastle United's defensive coach, but, should the excellent David Moyes move on, not even Preston could tempt him back into management now. "I'd worry about getting it wrong and buggering them up," he says.
So a pundit he will remain, still in partnership with Hansen after all these years. He thinks, incidentally, that Hansen was the better player. "I think he had more skill than me, and was probably more two- footed. The game was easy for him, as all sports have been." And the better pundit? "I think he's the best analyst of the lot. He sees things others don't see. I blame the fact that I used to head the ball more, so I lost more of my brain cells." A likely story.
Copyright 2001 Independent Newspapers UK Limited