Groan Pain: Good riddance Mark Lawrenson, a dinosaur pundit who refused to keep up

The sacked Mark Lawrenson; Gary Lineker chats with the last of the old school, Alan Shearer, and one of the new breed, Micah Richards; Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville share a joke. Getty Images, Alamy (2)

The ousting of TV’s most miserable football “personalities” marks the end for a bland generation whose insistence on complacency and jingoism made them ripe for replacement

By Taylor Parkes

24 October, 2022

It was a mercy killing, of course. The BBC have finally put Mark Lawrenson out of his misery. And to nobody’s astonishment, his response is sour and graceless: Lawrenson is claiming he was sacked for being an “old white man”, yet another noble and blameless victim of the tyranny of “woke”.

Rarely does the outraged individual, hurling themselves into the chaos of the culture wars, emerge with dignity. Wherever you start from, the end’s the same. I am offering a justified critique; you are a bully. I am the victim of appalling mistreatment; you are a whining snowflake. But honestly… sacked for being an old white man? Since he’s not a lunatic – if anything, he’s always been a bit too sane – Mark Lawrenson knows full well, deep down, that his not-very-sudden disappearance from our airwaves has nothing to do with his dogged insistence on not being a 19-year-old woman from Laos.

As is so often the case, this outrage has at least some of its roots in confusion and plain stupidity. Pondering where the rot set in, Lawrenson recalled a “very early woke moment” from back in the 1990s: commentating on a match played shortly after the death of Princess Diana, he was told that at free-kicks he should “not mention the wall”, lest this upset somebody somewhere, somehow. Hmm. Could Mark sincerely believe that over-cautious grovelling to the British establishment, in fear of right-wing tabloid hysteria, is “woke”? Why, yes. Of course he could. Like “socialism”, this is a word that now means anything you want it to mean. Whether you like it or not.

The only unfair thing that’s happened here is the passing of time. Dinosaurs like Lawrenson (a slow-moving plant-eater) might still roam TalkSport’s Jurassic Park, but television has been phasing them out for years. It’s hard to imagine a fairer deal, though: you get a couple of well-paid decades, then either you move with the times or you don’t. Smarter men like Alan Hansen collected their nest-eggs and flew. Even dedicated mirror-kissers grow tired of closing their eyes to be dabbed with powder while somebody threads a mic lead down the back of their shirt, especially when they could be strolling in a blissful bombardment of UV rays on a golf course built with indentured labour, with nothing left to prove and several million left to spend. Lawrenson never even seemed that fond of the spotlight (or indeed, football) and is hardly a man who was born to perform. Why so ratty at the prospect of retirement, then? My guess is that he’s dimly aware of something more unsettling still: the impending extinction of his species.

Early television pundits were spiky and bullish. That was the point. But over time, as culture congealed, the Cloughs and Allisons faded into a manageable mist of complacency and jingoism, Saint and Greavsie, Geoff Hurst busting out racist colloquialisms while Garth Crooks stayed respectfully mute. Jimmy Hill, as the cameras cut away from Heysel, launching into a heartfelt plea for the reintroduction of national service; Alan Shearer, fast-tracked into punditry in spite of his dearth of wit or insight, or plausibly because of it. The roast beef of old England! And Shearer, the last of what you might call Lawrenson’s generation, now seems anachronistic himself, one foot in the present and another in the past (though it’s his elbows that you have to watch).

Saint and Greavsie get ready for the 1990 World Cup; Brian Clough working on an episode of The Big Match; Geoff Hurst alongside the diplomatic Garth Crooks. Alamy (3)

But those shiny £700 shirts, stretched so tightly over shoulders like watermelons – this is not Mark Lawrenson’s world. His generation stopped training as soon as they could, then ate so much bacon that they started to look like it. These were shattered old men at 40. The new breed build gymnasiums in their coldly furnished mansions, sport tattoo sleeves as intricate as the back of a fiver, and are handsomely beastlike at 50-plus. The old guard, halting and inarticulate, sometimes seemed annoyed to be on television at all. The new breed have personalities, or at least personality traits, as carefully tended as their Instagram accounts. Rio Ferdinand cares passionately about everything. Micah Richards has a laugh like an abattoir. Paul Scholes tumbled through a timewarp from a 1980s episode of Coronation Street. Everybody knows what they’re doing.

Much of it is preposterous and phoney, but all of it’s better than it used to be. Once, the hair on Richard Keys’ hands was insufficient proof of his masculinity, so he ended up on camera talking about sex the way an eight-year-old talks about hi-tech weaponry; the modern football pundit would only ever say those things in private. The old guard were rabidly right-wing even when they weren’t talking politics, even more so when they were; this lot care – or try to care – about human beings and shit like that. The old guard would observe English football’s omerta; Gary Neville will demand that the owners of a Premier League superclub pack up their ponytails and fuck off back to Florida. He and Jamie Carragher’s rage at the European Super League played a not-insignificant part in its failure, which shouldn’t be true, but is. Gary Lineker didn’t even vote for Brexit. Alex Scott isn’t even a man. These are strange, unsettling times.

At least for Lawrenson, too baffled to move with them. That’s what really finished him off. Sure, he’s not funny or charismatic, but compared to Michael Owen he’s the reincarnation of Rodney Dangerfield. That collapsing face is hardly telegenic, but nobody walks into the barber’s with a picture of Jeff Stelling either. Yes, he’s a white bloke, but I watch football on television and I could swear I’ve spotted others. No, his crime was to fall out of time, and his witless response is the proof of that – one last elongated groan, heard faintly through a door that’s locked and bolted on the previous century. We’ve lost a lot that was well worth keeping, and we’ve also lost Mark Lawrenson. He can never be replaced.

This article first appeared in WSC 426, November/December 2022. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive

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