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'You give everything you have, running around like a lunatic, and I’m still doing that at nearly 70'

National team kit man and former League of Ireland star Mick Lawlor reflects on his football career.

 Martin O'Neill with Ireland kit-man Mick Lawlor.
Martin O'Neill with Ireland kit-man Mick Lawlor.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

1. Starting out

MICK LAWLOR COMES from a family steeped in football.

Before being part of the tail-end of the Shamrock Rovers six-in-a-row team, before doing the double with Dundalk and before travelling with the Ireland team as part of the backroom staff to two European Championships, a shared passion with those around him ensured simple pleasures were provided by a ball and a playground.

“We played in the East Wall area of Dublin — that brought great joy,” he tells The42. “It was a form of exorcism from what was going on around us at the time.

“We then got involved with playground versus playground from different parts of Dublin — one of them being down in the heart of Sheriff Street. I walked maybe a mile to play.

“One of the social workers there was a guy called Eddie Gallagher – what a great football person. We all called him ‘Gal’. He was my inspiration at that age.

“My first competitive game for Sheriff — I left my home in Ravensdale Road. I headed to Sheriff Street, to walk up to Clerys, where we got a bus out to Sallynoggin, which was actually the countryside at the time.

“We played the game, got the bus back in, which dropped us at the old Carlton Cinema. We walked home to East Wall from there. I was 10 years old.”

2. A family affair

One of Lawlor’s main inspirations was his father, who enjoyed a football career that spanned three decades, from the mid 1940s to the early ’60s. Kit, who passed away in 2004 at the age of 81, was also a distinguished player. He was capped by Ireland three times, and had stints with clubs including Shamrock Rovers, Dundalk and Drumcondra, as well as a couple of years in England’s second tier with Doncaster Rovers.

“He used to go and watch me playing the home games in Fairview Park,” Mick explains. “He would probably be about 50 yards away behind a tree somewhere, unlike modern times where parents are on sidelines all the time. My dad would be waiting for the Wharf Tavern to open.

“The good thing about it was when I got home, there was no inquisition. No ‘you should have done this or that’. 

On the other side of the coin — my mother never saw me playing a game of organised football [for a long time]. I played my first cup final for Shamrock Rovers in 1968 against a great Waterford team in Dalymount Park – the official attendance was 39,500 people. Two gates went down on the far side of the pitch, so nobody really knows how many people were in the ground.

“But I had to get two of my brothers go to East Wall, take my mother out of the house to watch me playing for the first time ever in Dalymount Park. We got lucky that day and won 3-0. It was a great occasion.”

On watching his father play, he continues: “One of the great joys was running from Ravensdale Road to Richmond Road, which would have throngs of people. You would be imitating doing what you’d be doing on the football pitch, zooming in between all these people who were walking.

“I was too young to really be able to assess [Kit], but I only had to listen to people around me talk about him to know just how great he was.”

Martin Lawlor 28/12/2001 DIGITAL Mick's brother Martin also played and managed in the League of Ireland. Source: INPHO

Shortly after Mick was born, Kit made the move across the water to Doncaster, while the family stayed in Ireland.

“While my dad was away for those years, she reared eight children, between the ages of 0 and 12. A great woman. My dad went away [shortly after I was born]. So in those really formative years, I didn’t see a lot of him. He got home for the summer holidays, but he was always back in Doncaster on time.

Growing up in East Wall, because you were one of Kit Lawlor’s children, you got a great lift, because people knew my dad played football. It was really a working-class game in those days, and my dad was part of the folklore. So many people confronted me and said you’re a very good player, but you’ll never be as good as your old fella, because he was held in such high esteem.

“But you reacted in one of two ways. You either said ‘well I’m going to show these people’. Or you just disappeared up your backside. I can’t say why I made a decision to fight everybody on that issue, but I still believe my dad was one of the greats.

“I know [former Ireland manager] Liam Tuohy and Paddy Ambrose would always say it was between Paddy Coad and Kit Lawlor. Paddy never went away [to England] and my dad did, but if I’m to listen to Liam about Paddy, he was an absolutely wonderful player. As Liam would say, ‘your dad wasn’t too far behind’. Liam gave Paddy the edge, because he had played with him for several years and Liam benefited from that greatly.”

Liam Tuohy Liam Tuohy, pictured above in 2003, was one of Lawlor's early mentors. Source: INPHO

3. ‘Mother’s Pride’

Mick and Kit are not the only family members who made an impact in football. Lawlor’s uncle Jimmy played for Drumcondra, Shamrock Rovers and Bradford City among others.

In addition, seven of his brothers participated the sport. A number enjoyed substantial careers in junior football, while both Martin and Robbie played in the League of Ireland.

“All my brothers, except for the eldest with special needs and the one girl, played football. We actually got to a stage where we entered seven-a-side competitions in and around the Dublin area during the summertime.

We named the team ‘Mother’s Pride,’ because my dad worked in the bakery for Mother’s Pride bread and obviously it suited my mother as well.

“Martin played 13 years consecutively with Dundalk. He had a great career — leagues, cups, doubles.”

Along with the Fitzgeralds, six of whom played for Waterford at one point or another, and the Brennans, with Gavin, Seán and Killian lining out for Drogheda, the Lawlors are a rare example of a group of brothers who have played for the one League of Ireland club at the same time.

“There was a Leinster Senior Cup match for Dundalk where we played together, Robert, Martin and myself. I think it was Paul McGrath’s last game before he went away. That was a special thing — three brothers playing in one team. That hasn’t happened a lot.

“[One of my other brothers] Willie played 24 consecutive years for East Wall United, which is a huge career to have for anybody.

“All the family loved the game and gave it socks.”

Paul McGrath 9/9/1987 Lawlor came up against a young Paul McGrath in the League of Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

4. Learning his trade

While there were plenty of good memories, growing up in 1950s Ireland was not without its difficulties either. Football, at times, was a form of escape from other challenges.

“There weren’t major problems — we were never hungry or cold. But growing up in a 10-child family, things were tight enough and difficult enough at the time. It was only in the latter years, I reflected back that I could run for Ireland. One of the reasons was I was exorcising whatever frustrations or difficulties in life I had. That’s what gave me the ability to run around and leave the pitch exhausted, which I did so many times.

“You give everything you have, running around like a lunatic, and I’m still doing that at nearly 70 years of age. My [70th] birthday is 12 April.

“I’m obviously not in my 20s anymore, but nothing can beat just getting out and running around. Now it’s not stupid football I’m playing. I do love it. I don’t want to stop, but there’ll come a time when I just can’t do it. I’ll end up playing walking football.”

While he wasn’t exactly in the lap of luxury by today’s standards, nothing could beat home, as Lawlor soon discovered.

I had a trial at Leeds United when I was 15. It lasted four days. I begged them to get me a flight home, I was so homesick,” he recalls.

“That’s common, particularly when you come from a big family and then suddenly, they’re not around you. It was very difficult for me. It was probably the only time that my dad showed emotionally that he wasn’t happy with my decision. But I was 15 and I just couldn’t wait to get home.

“[I also had] a trial with Man United. Myself and Don Givens went away together. I came back a few weeks later.”

It is a testament to Lawlor’s talent that Leeds came back a second time and contemplated signing the player, who was by then “around 25″ and playing for Shamrock Rovers. The approach came during the Don Revie era — the high point in the club’s history, when stars such as John Giles, Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter and Jack Charlton were helping the English club achieve unprecedented success, claiming leagues and FA Cups, among other honours.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Leeds United Photocall Lawlor came close to joining Leeds during the Don Revie era. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“It happened in the time when there was a big freeze in England. I only got to play two games, against Huddersfield and Man City, both at Elland Road. Don was a great man — looked after us really well. I went there at the time with my wife. We stayed 10 weeks, but it coincided with a big freeze, so that’s where you need the breaks really. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t.

“I remember my first game back with Shamrock Rovers, Rovers asked Leeds to let me come back because the FAI Cup was starting.

“Don had intended to come down and watch my first game in Waterford, apparently Leeds airport was closed and he went to Bristol, and that closed just as he got there to make the trip over. Unfortunately, I scored two of the best goals I’ve ever scored for Shamrock Rovers that day. So you need a bit of good fortune no matter what business or enterprise you’re in.

I know the people in charge [at Leeds] in the two games I played in were really pleased and I was really pleased and I would have been my biggest critic, but Don Revie was famous for being cautious. He wanted to see me himself to make a decision.

“But they had a wonderful team — it would have been really difficult to get into that side. There were a couple of clubs in the lower division who wanted me to sign too, but at that stage, I was just happy to get back to Dublin and Shamrock Rovers, because Liam Tuohy and Paddy Andrews just created a wonderful workplace for people there.”

“I would have been around 25 [at the time of the second Leeds trial]. It was most unusual for anybody to be going away at that age. It was in the middle of my career.”

5. Hoop dreams

Lawlor spent nine years in total at Shamrock Rovers between 1965 and 1974, playing initially for the B team, before establishing himself in the senior side.

“I think everybody thought I was going to end up playing with Drumcondra because of my dad’s association with them,” he says. “I had trained and played a couple of League of Ireland B games with them when I was only 15. [But signing with Shamrock Rovers] was the best thing I ever did.”

Members of the Shamrock Rovers teams of the 1960's Members of the Shamrock Rovers teams of the 1960s that won an unprecedented six FAI Cups in a row at a commemoration lunch at the Radisson Hotel in 2007. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Lawlor was part of the Rovers squad that won an incredible six consecutive FAI Cups, coming into the team in the latter part of the run and triumphing in 1968 and 1969. Despite Dundalk’s recent domestic dominance, it seems inconceivable that anyone will ever emulate that Hoops side’s feat, with a squad that included Frank O’Neill (who Lawlor describes as the best footballer he ever played with), Paddy Mulligan, Johnny Fullam and Mick Leech going unbeaten in 32 knockout matches in a row.

Surprisingly though, Lawlor never won the league during his time with Rovers, with the club finishing second on four occasions during his spell there. His time in the team coincided with the emergence of a great Waterford side, who won an astonishing six titles in eight seasons between 1965 and 1973. But while Rovers missed out on league glory, the cup remained elusive for their rivals during that period.

“They were a great team, but they would have given any of their league titles to win a cup,” Lawlor says.

“There was a romance about it, particularly in its association with Shamrock Rovers. They’re still the greatest cup-winning club in League of Ireland history — more than any other club by a huge margin [24 titles, with Dundalk’s 11 the next best]. Rovers just seemed to have what it took to get it across the line.

My first final was against that great Waterford team [in 1968]. I think it was the first time ever Shamrock Rovers were not favourites to win a cup final. It told in the amount of people turning up for it.

“The FAI Cup had an aura about it and I still think it has — maybe not as much perhaps, if the same teams keep winning it all the time.”

While Lawlor was playing for Rovers, he was also following in the footsteps of his father and lining out for Ireland. Between 1970 and 1973, he earned five international caps. He now admits there was an element of good fortune in this regard, as players who would have been ahead of him in the pecking order, such as Giles, Eamon Dunphy and Jimmy Conway, were unavailable for one reason or another.

“The standout regret was I never scored for Ireland. I would have loved to have had that on my CV. We didn’t achieve an awful lot in those games, that was the trend at the time, we weren’t going out and beating other teams. But it’s still great to have pulled on the green jersey.” 

After leaving Rovers in 1974, Lawlor had a brief spell at Shelbourne. He never felt totally comfortable there, having spent so many years playing for their Dublin rivals, and so, moved on to Dundalk, where he had a lengthy and successful stint.

lawlormick Lawlor pictured during his Dundalk days.

Legendary League of Ireland boss Jim McLoughlin managed the Lilywhites at the time, with Lawlor becoming the player-assistant manager towards the latter part of his spell there.

In 1979, Lawlor was part of the side that completed a famous league and cup double. They were a formidable outfit, with a defence that featured Dermot Keely, Paddy Dunning, Tommy McConville and his brother Martin. Himself and Leo ‘Pop’ Flanagan were mainstays of the midfield, with ex-West Brom and Walsall player Jimmy Dainty as well as Belfast native Tony Kavanagh on the wings. Hilary Carlyle and Cathal Muckian were up front that famous season, scoring 27 goals between them in the league alone.

Their exciting attack, coupled with a mean defence that conceded just 25 goals in 30 matches, ensured Dundalk pipped Bohs to the title by a margin of two points.

6. The Troubles

Source: sitricjunior/YouTube

Lawlor was also involved in a couple of memorable European games with the Lilywhites, the most notorious of which took place against Linfield in 1979. Trouble was anticipated amid a tense time in Irish history. In the days leading up to the game, Earl Mountbatten was assassinated while lobster-potting in Mullaghmore, a seaside village in Sligo. A bomb had been attached to the 79-year-old’s boat by IRA member Thomas McMahon.

In addition, only hours before, 18 British soldiers had been killed near Warrenpoint close to the Irish border.

Unsurprisingly given this context, the European tie was fraught with problems.

After 60 Linfield buses arrived in Dundalk, the trouble started. One pub was forced to close, after its windows were smashed, while 12 fans were arrested for fighting.

Unruly supporters threw stones onto the pitch, while a barbed wire fence separating rival fans was dismantled.

According to Dundalk’s official website, over 100 people, included 56 Gardaí, were injured at the game that day.

The problems caused a delay to the beginning of the second half, while there were pitch invasions after Linfield’s Warren Feeney opened the scoring.

By the time Dundalk equalised with 10 minutes remaining through Liam Devine, the Gardaí had ejected Linfield supporters outside the ground, where they continued rioting, prompting some locals to retaliate.

“It turned out to be shameful in lots of ways,” Lawlor says.

“Playing Linfield anytime was an arduous task.

“I remember going up there with Shamrock Rovers and to get out onto this pitch, they had this cage to protect you.  It was a horrible place to go to play football.

They were a good side, but that night in Oriel Park, there was a fella called Pat Partridge, who was a First Division referee in England. I said to him: ‘Pat, you can’t start this game.’ The stones were coming in on top of us [from the crowd]. He said: ‘There’s a Uefa observer in the stand. We know who’s causing all the problems. If I have to abandon this game after 15 seconds, that’s what I’ll do.’”

After the first leg ended 1-1, Uefa fined both teams owing to the trouble and decreed that the return fixture would not be played at Windsor Park, as had been originally planned. Instead, the neutral venue of Haarlem in Holland was chosen, with Dundalk emerging 2-0 winners thanks to a Muckian brace.

Despite bomb scares in the hours leading up to kick-off, the second leg took place without any major incidents.

“This is probably the proudest moment of my life,” Dundalk boss McLaughlin was quoted as saying afterwards. “Everyone was a hero in what must be the greatest day for the club.”

Source: WILLIE COLLOW/YouTube

They beat Maltese outfit Hibernians in the next round 2-1 on aggregate to set up a glamour tie with Scottish club Celtic, who had become the first British team to win the competition just over a decade previously.

When the Irish side arrived in the hotel for the away leg, they came across a piper playing a lament. McLoughlin saw it as a bad omen.

That was the worst thing that could have happened,” he said. “They will be out to make us suffer.”

In the game itself, Dundalk got off to a poor start, with Roddie McDonald and Pat McCluskey giving the hosts an early 2-0 lead. The League of Ireland team responded with a goal from Cathal Muckian, before they conceded again before half-time, as Tommy Burns added Celtic’s third.

Lawlor, who had been an injury doubt before the match, was introduced off the bench just after the hour mark, and made an near-instant impact with a wonderful lob from roughly 40 yards out to make it 3-2 — the scoreline it finished.

The highly anticipated second leg saw an estimated attendance of 17,000 somehow fit into Oriel Park. Dundalk played well, with Lawlor, Muckian and McConville all missing good chances. Celtic held on, however, advancing 3-2 on aggregate, before losing by the same score to Real Madrid in the quarter-finals. Having put in an exceptional performance, it was Dundalk who were ruing not being able to play the Spanish side. 

“We absolutely battered them, but couldn’t score that day,” Lawlor remembers. “Tommy McConville, lord rest him, had a great chance with about eight minutes to go, but he missed it and we drew 0-0.”

7. The beginning of the end

Brian Kerr with Noel O'Reilly Future Ireland manager Brian Kerr (left) and Noel O'Reilly (right) were both approached to be Lawlor Source: ©INPHO

After leaving Dundalk in 1981, Lawlor could sense his career was coming to a close. A three-month spell at Bohemians was cut short due to business commitments — he was running a contract cleaning company with his partner at the time. However, he returned to football not long after, spending two years as player-manager of Home Farm, starting in 1984.

His old mentor Tuohy originally recommended Noel O’Reilly as his assistant. 

“Noel had a great social conscience. He was very conscious of the community work he was doing with Belvedere FC and he worked for the School of the Blind in Drumcondra. Then to give the time to Home Farm [was difficult]. At the time, he did say that for years, he wanted to try League of Ireland football, but he never had the opportunity. Now when the opportunity came to him, he couldn’t do it.”

Instead, a young Brian Kerr, who would later manage St Pat’s and Ireland, became Lawlor’s number two.

I would have known that I wouldn’t have had great ability in terms of setting up training sessions. The coaching trend was changing at the time. I wasn’t doing coaching badges. Brian was into that — he was fantastic. It was a great two years and it was the only two years I think Home Farm haven’t applied for re-election or had to apply for re-election.

“As to whether I saw him managing the Irish team in the future, I wouldn’t have even thought about that at the time, but I just knew I had a good one as my assistant at Home Farm.

“Even now, in the FAI’s backroom team, some of the lads would have worked with Brian and had total regard and respect for him, and the work that he did, and how he did it.”

8. Indian summer

Roy Keane with Dick Redmond and Mick Lawlor Roy Keane with Dick Redmond and Mick Lawlor (right). Source: Steve Langan/Inpho

After leaving Home Farm, Lawlor had a brief spell in charge of Drogheda. He then exited the world of management, but stayed in football, working in various roles, including overseeing the international players’ trust fund alongside fellow former Irish footballer Terry Conroy, as well as David Andrews and Arnold O’Byrne. 

“We did some great work with regard to former international players,” he says. “They were players who would have played a long time ago when there wasn’t much money in the game and they would have fallen on hard times.

“John Delaney was instrumental in building that trust fund into something meaningful, whether it was organising a testimonial dinner, or there were a couple of people who needed mobility chairs, because their careers had [left them badly injured]. It got them out of their homes to go into a coffee shop and read a newspaper — something that most normal people can do. But these people were housebound. We found accommodation for people who didn’t have it. We did lots of great work.

“That trust fund was then merged into the Johnny Giles Foundation. It was just mainlined, so that foundation is still doing very good work now.”

At a reunion dinner for former Ireland international players one night, Lawlor got talking to Arsenal legend Liam Brady, whose brother Frank had played at Rovers with him. The pair became friendly, and once Brady was made assistant Ireland manager when Giovanni Trapattoni was appointed boss in 2008, Lawlor was offered the chance to become part of the set-up. 11 years on and he is still in the role as kit man, working alongside “my sidekick” Dick Redmond.

It’s really a position of trust in lots of ways. The first time we ever let somebody down with regard to being trustful, that’s the time we will be gone out of that job. 

“The elements of the job I like the most — I love out on the ground with the players. I love eating the games on the sideline. It’s a very privileged position to be in, to work with all these players and the different management teams. 

“There have been great nights as well, qualifying for two European Championships. They’re always great occasions and great cause for celebrations.”

Lawlor adds that he is “really looking forward” to the new era under Mick McCarthy.

“I’ve never worked with Mick, but I’ve met him at so many different functions.

“He got the backroom team out for dinner before Christmas and it was a wonderful night, and Mick is a very affable person. He wasn’t always like that on the pitch, but he went around that night to the different tables and it was just a great night and everybody enjoyed it.

“I think the players will definitely gravitate to Mick. He has a good way about him and he’ll do well.

“We need a goalscorer like we need blood and if we can manage to unearth somebody, that would resolve a lot of our issues.”

Reflecting on a life dominated by football, Lawlor is grateful for all the game has given him.

The highlight for me is how long I’ve played, and how I still look forward to just getting a ball and passing it,” he concludes.

“For players to enhance themselves and have a career in the game, they have to have desire. It’s the single most important thing in any sphere of life. You can be technically good, a great headerer of the ball, a great tackler or passer, but the glue that sticks it together is desire. You can’t touch somebody on the shoulder and say ‘there, you have that’. You can’t coach it into them, it comes from deep within, and if you have that desire, you’ve a great chance.”

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