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Lennie Lawrence: What Makes Him Tick!
By: Andy Stephenson
ANDY STEPHENSON of "The Grim Exile" met up with Grimsby manager Lennie Lawrence on the pre-season Scandinavian tour and gives us an overview of his conversation with Lennie which helped him to understand the challenges he faces and his management style.
This interview with Lennie Lawrence appeared in the June/July 2001 edition of It's a Grim Exile - a bi-monthly magazine containing news, views and items of interest both from and for exiled GTFC supporters. Details of how to subscribe to the fanzine can be found at the end of the interview.
During our recent trip to Denmark and Sweden - details of which you will see elsewhere - we attended the friendly Vs Ystad FF. After the game I was able to talk to LENNIE LAWRENCE, first as part of a group and, later in the bar, he very kindly gave me a short interview. My intention was to ask him questions that he could give a full and honest answer to, mainly in the areas of planning and strategy, rather than questions that would result in a 'politicians' answer. In that way it will hopefully make for a more interesting article, rather than a series of recycled media quotes.
The first question, which was the key to much of the rest of the conversation, was how much notice did he have of the GTFC job coming up? Obviously this touched on the suspicion held by some Town fans that the sacking of Buckley and the appointment of Lennie was a done deal, one that had been some time in the planning. Lennie said that he was able to answer the question honestly, and that had only had a few days notice of the job.
"...The Grimsby post was almost the perfect fit..."
I asked whether it had been the case of him jumping at the first situation that had come up. As you know, he had been out of work for a few months and as many of us have done, after a period of unemployment you are inclined to take any old job that comes up. He replied that there had been other jobs but he was confident of his own abilities and he had wanted to wait for the right position.
He was quite candid, saying that he knew he was never going to manage Arsenal or Man Utd, but 20 odd years of fairly successful management made him better than just any old 2nd or 3rd Division job. The Grimsby post was almost the perfect fit. It was a situation for which Lennie is almost ideally suited - putting together a team and strategy to keep a small club in a good division, with very little money at his disposal.
Equally he said Grimsby needed someone like him (or Buckley), an experienced manager who knew the best way of making a silk purse out of a sow's ear. It would have been a disaster for the club if they had appointed an inexperienced manager - he did not disagree when we chorused the name 'Brian Laws'!! Lennie went on to say that Grimsby are playing at a level that suits his level of ability given that he has spent most of his career in the 1st Division. In considering the job, the area - geographically - was not important (he now rents a house in Louth but still has a home in London) but the background of the club and the attitude of the Board had to be right before he would accept the post.
It became apparent throughout the interview that Lennie had a real mountain to climb in order to save us from relegation, and I came away even more full of admiration for the man and with a greater understanding of the difficulties he still faces. This is well illustrated by the almost uniquely difficult situation he found himself, and the team, in when he joined just 2 or 3 games into the season.
Firstly, all the players available on Bosman's had gone; they had tied up contracts with new clubs before the start of the season so there was nobody to bring in. Secondly, many of the squad he inherited were either injured, not 100% fit or unavailable, and there were just not enough of them (very interestingly, he said that they now hardly ever trained on artificial pitches, something that Buckley liked to do, even though many supporters thought that this was responsible for a good proportion of the long list of injuries that players suffered in the Buckley era).
Thirdly, he knew very little about the club; he'd had a very short lead time and for the first time in his career he had joined a club where he did not know a single player - he had never managed any of them or even been involved in transfer dealings with any of them. So basically he was coming in blind with no money to bring in new players, notwithstanding the fact that there were no players in the marketplace anyway!
His final problem on the playing side was that he found the whole club very flat, nothing was happening - there was no spark. The team's play was predictable and had been for a number of months (don't we know!), with the result that everyone knew how to play against us and we were very easy to counter. He did however have 2 good things going for him. The first was that Buckley's team was very comfortable on the ball - everyone could pass, move and receive the ball and everyone knew their job.
Since LL has never been known as a proponent of route one football there was not a steep learning curve in getting the player to play in his style. Secondly, he had 3 brilliant senior pros in McDermott, Groves and Livingstone who were settled at the club and in the area. He said that if they hadn't been available, trying to find equally good replacements would have cost the club huge amounts in wages and transfer fees (he said later that we were very lucky to have these 3, not only were they very good players, but as they had been at the club for a long time and their families were settled in the area they did not want to move clubs and so were prepared to accept lower wages than they might get elsewhere).
The first few weeks were spent assessing what he'd got in both playing and coaching terms. Lennie has never really taken a coaching 'team' with him so he had to get used to working with Cockers and the rest. One fascinating fact he revealed was that he had never spoken to Alan Buckley and likewise Joe Kinnear -his eventual successor at Luton - has never spoken to him.
I went on to ask Lennie about 'fire fighting', his medium term strategy and whether - given the precarious nature of a manager's existence - whether he could afford to think of a long-term strategy. On the latter point he said that he always went into a job expecting to be there for some time, so a long-term strategy for him is 4 to 5 years hence. The best illustration of how he is thinking long term is the signing of the 8 young players on free transfers. He said that it was vital for a club the size of Grimsby to have a vibrant youth policy that brought through a player or two every year. This has not been happening in recent seasons, with John Rowan being the only possible recent success. This had to change and that was why the youth team structure had been changed and the young players had been brought in to plug the gap.
On the medium and short-term plans, he explained that even when fire fighting he could still think about his medium term plans (i.e. 1 or 2 years hence). This was illustrated by his first signing, the season long loan of Stuart Campbell. He needed a player like Campbell straight away but it was also done in the knowledge that he might be available for a permanent move at the end of the loan, and so it has transpired.
In the short term, more players were needed to beef up a very small squad and he confirmed that last seasons loans cost the club between Â£600,000 and Â£700,000 - who says the board never puts any money into the club? And before anyone says that it's not that much, remember that we are speaking about a club that only has a turnover of Â£5-Â£6 million per annum. He went on to explain about the complicated rules that deal with loan transfers - it's a real juggling /balancing act but basically you are only allowed a couple of domestic loans, whilst you are allowed to take a far larger number of foreign loans. He also has to consider their wages, how old they are and he had to keep a loan up his sleeve, so to speak, in order to get cover in case Danny Coyne got injured.
Given the rules, it becomes crystal clear as to why so many foreign players were brought in. He agreed that the directors had taken quite a gamble by paying out so much money, whilst the club was sustaining the huge weekly losses that we all know about. However it was a gamble that in Lawrence's opinion had to be taken, because of the enormous amount of TV money that was promised to clubs lucky enough to be in Division One for season 2001/02. As has been pointed out before, 2000/01 was probably their most crucial season ever for maintenance of a Division One place. Whilst he did not comment on the financial consequences (presumably dire) of relegation to Division Two, LL did opine that we would have been unlikely to get promotion straight back to Division One as we did last time. He thought that we had been very fortunate in that never-to-be-forgotten season of 1997/98 to have had 5 or 6 good quality players who were all the peak of their abilities.
So how do all these triallists/loans/transfers come about? Lennie gets players details faxed to him almost daily by agents on 'fishing trips'. All are read but few of them are of real interest; the players may not be good enough, not in the right position or may be too expensive. The few that are of interest are then invited for a weeks training, and most fall by the wayside at this stage (a good example is the recent French triallist BERTRAND KETCHANKE who looked a reasonable prospect on paper, but turned out to be of really only 3rd Division standard), although some stay for a couple of weeks longer before being rejected! If they get through this then the club arranges a loan for a month before deciding on a permanent move.
"...The foreign loans and transfers will continue..."
Incidentally, Lennie will never sign a player without going through this process, unless the player comes from one of four people that Lennie trusts implicitly. He didn't name them (they are mostly abroad), but I imagine that Nielsen and Zhang Enhua (left) came from 2 of those sources. The foreign loans last year were good illustrations of the process. Zhang Enhua was recommended and was always going to be a stopgap loan. Murray got injured early on, so the loan did not work. Nielsen was important - he lifted the club and scored goals, but his attitude was all wrong. Lawrence feels that Nielsen was a bit silly/unrealistic, and that he would have been better off having a year or two with us and really putting himself in the shop window. Fostervold turned out to be no better than what was already at the club, whilst Willems did enough to earn a permanent move, even though he was not properly fit all season.
The foreign loans and transfers will continue - generally the players he gets are good, affordable players who will improve the team. I asked him if he had a little black book with players details; whilst not having a book he does have a system so he knows which players are coming available, when various players contracts are finishing as well as having agents ringing him up with these details and faxing him profiles. Apart from attending the first team and reserve games, he goes to one or two games a week, scouting players and opponents, which is more than he has done for many years - a good indication of how demanding the post is.
Finally we talked about the present situation. He was adamant that the club had to move forward very quickly - it was a backwater and it needed to move more with the times. I got the impression that this foreign tour (which he hopes will be repeated next year) was an example of how he was trying to drag the club into areas that were the norm at most other clubs but were almost revolutionary for Grimsby!
He said that he urgently needed a centre half and was looking at half a dozen possibilities, 3 UK players and 3 Scandinavians and that he was actually going to another match the next day in Norway on a scouting mission. He revealed that it was not Coopers of Middlesborough as rumoured, but his centre half partner STEVE VICKERS (left) that he was particularly interested in, as Vickers was going to find himself well down the pecking order at Boro this year. The Scandinavians would only be available on Bosman's when their season ended in October or November.
I asked if it was a blow for him with Houghton leaving FC Copenhagen. He was quite upbeat and was hopeful that he could still have a positive relationship with Copenhagen even without his friend being there. Obviously, he said, they might turn round and say "get lost, your friend left us in the lurch mid season" and put the phone down on him, but he hoped they could maintain good relations. Of course it also opened the possibility of forging a relationship with Udinese, so don't be surprised if one of two young Ivano Bonettis start turning up!!
With that, we finished up our beers and he headed for the coach and the trip back to Malmo. I came away with a huge amount of respect for the man and admiration for his achievement of keeping us up - he really did it against the odds. It was also obvious about how ill informed us fans are, and how much nonsense is written on the message boards on the net for example. The man knows what he has to do and knows how to do it, and the fact that he took so much time to talk sensibly to a small group of fans without patronising them, or speaking to them as though they were a necessary evil shows what a top man we have as a manager and how lucky we are to have him as boss. LONG LIVE LENNIE LAWRENCE!!
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