Whitley raised sporting legend Lawrie Sanchez has had the most amazingly varied life and career, including some great highs. He has appeared on University Challenge, scored a winning goal in a cup final, run a successful Reading bar and nightspot, been the first to be sent off for committing a professional foul, got a university degree, cycled to Amsterdam, walked the Namibian Desert, steered Northern Ireland football to their most successful period (until recent success), raised Wycombe from the doldrums to football league success and a cup semi-final, managed a team in the Greek Premier league and even helped relegate Swindon!
At six foot two, Lawrie is a big unit, but he’s friendly and chatty and agreed to give the Whitley Pump an interview over an ale in that attractive red brick boozer, the Queens Head on Christchurch Road, known locally as the Nob.
[Matthew] When did you move to Reading and where did you go to school?
[Lawrie] I moved to Reading when I was ten years old. I was born in Clapham and moved to Bracknell as a baby because my dad worked for Racal. When Racal moved to Bennet Road, my dad bought his first house in Rushden Drive at the top of Whitley. I went to school at Christ the King for one year. I was taught there by a bloke called Val Doonican who was the real Val Doonican‘s nephew. He was a massive Reading fan who moved to Australia a few years later and when he wrote to me asking for a signed shirt and I obliged. I passed my 11 plus, but we didn’t know we were taking it at the time; there didn’t seem to be that pressure on kids. Reading was well served by schools then, so I went to Presentation College which was a grammar school at the time. Now I hear it’s a building site.
What about your Reading debut?
While I was at Presentation studying for my ‘A’ levels I made my debut for Reading. Maurice Evans used to come along and watch games standing in the rain and I remember asking the coach Mike Sutton, the PE master, “what is the Reading manager doing here?” It didn’t occur to me he was coming along to watch me. I joined Reading FC as a schoolboy, played a few reserves games and I was called up on 1 October 1977. I turned up with muddy boots and an old sports satchel. I was introduced to the team by Gary Peters, whom I didn’t really know, along with the rest of the first team, as I had only been at Reading that season in the youth and reserves set-up. The first game was against Wimbledon and I played against Dave Bassett in midfield. Oddly, my last full league game when I played for Swindon was also against Wimbledon in the Premier League.
Do you remember scoring one of our four goals in a great game against our old rival Aldershot? John Alexander scored a great volley. The headline ran ‘shot to pieces’.
John is an executive at Man United now. I don’t remember mine much, but he once scored four goals against Grimsby; he was a graduate too, who sadly suffered a horrible career-ending injury against Brentford.
Were you the only young player in that team?
There was Mark ‘Chalky’ White. He had one of the sweetest left foots I have ever seen but he did lack a bit of pace. He is a physio at the Royal Berks now, five minutes walk from this pub.
What do you think of the stress of modern football?
To get to the top in my day, I was only competing against the best players in the UK; now they are playing against the best in the world. You can get depressed no matter how much money you have. I know that people with nothing don’t believe you, but it’s true. You are not immune from tragedy or triumph, highs and lows as a footballer.
Do you remember all your goals?
No, I just remember some of them. I bet you there are only about ten of mine on video somewhere. The best goal I scored was against Gothenburg in a warm-up game; I hit this ball that floated in the top corner from about 40 yards. There were only about 500 supporters that saw it.
What do you remember about Steve Death?
Brilliant goalkeeper and only five foot seven inches tall. In training he refused to dive; you used to shoot at him and he used his elbow or leg. He liked a drink, a smoke and gamble, but come every Saturday he was brilliant. His amazing record of clean sheets was ironically broken by Stewart Henderson‘s own goal; I played in that game.
How about Maurice Evans?
He was as lovely a man as he appeared and he was treated badly by Reading. I do wonder if his soft, calm, country accent stood against him in a way. How can you sack a talented and respected manager when you are third in the league?
And Ollie Kearns?
Ollie is now a millionaire property developer who owns a chunk of Oxfordshire. He did score a load of goals, but the fans just remembered the misses. We once lost 7-1 to Chesterfield and I had some friends along to watch me in which I scored an own goal for their equaliser. I went to the dressing room afterwards with my head bowed, and he was sitting there smiling as he had scored the only goal. That was Ollie!
Who was the best player you ever played against?
Paul Gascoigne before he did his knee in; he had everything when he was at Tottenham.
And the best team you ever played in?
The Wimbledon team of ’88. We were on top of our game and firing on all cylinders.
How nerve wrecking was University Challenge?
It was a cock-up. There was a tie and a question about the waxing and waning of the moon which was wrongly answered. They asked at the end if I was happy about it and I said “not really” and Paxman just kept a rueful distance from it. I didn’t want to make too much of it because of the charity part.
Are you still involved in charity work?
I try to do at least one event a year, so I keep my hand in with golf days and other stuff but I have cycled to Amsterdam plus walked the Grand Canyon and Namibian Desert for cancer charities. I was the patron of Action Cancer when in Northern Ireland.
Would you ever appear on reality TV?
I was asked about the first Strictly Come Dancing but I just couldn’t commit to the time needed. It’s three months now I think, but even a month or so back then seemed a long time. I wouldn’t rule anything out, you never know, depends on the offer.
Who inspired you in your career?
Dave Bassett said I had low horizons. I was happy to stay at Reading for my playing days and he told me I could do better and achieve much more. Maurice Evans had just been sacked and I joined Wimbledon because of that conversation.
What do you think of Jaap Stam?
My old mate Dave Beasant says he is a really good manager and great guy. When I heard that they were trying for total football, I did think “good luck with that in the championship”. I do go and watch them and it’s not my style, but he was a kick or two away from the Premier League this year and with not a lot to spend either, so he must be doing something right.
What was your lowest point?
Getting the bullet from Fulham. I didn’t stick to my guns; I should have stuck with the Northern Ireland job until the end, and I regret that.
Did you get time to enjoy football management?
You enjoy the Saturdays, but the lows of losing aren’t fully compensated by the highs of winning; I mean, the winning could just be a relief. Beating England as Northern Ireland manager was just amazing and then the highlight of my international management career was beating Spain just before they became the best team in the world and didn’t lose for six years or so. Our ranking went from 124th to 27th in my tenure. My time at Wycombe was very satisfying; picking up a team and a great bunch of lads, guiding them through to success. I can’t say I always enjoyed trying to keep 25 young blokes happy every week – some of them are millionaires!
Did you ever want to be Reading FC manager?
I got interviewed for the Reading job by Nigel Howe and John Madejski. I went to Sir John’s house and they seemed a bit surprised when I said how much I was on as reserve team manager at Wimbledon. Then I heard they had given the job to Terry Bullivant – I thought really? The running gag was they were giving the job to Tommy Burns and he turned it down, so they picked someone who had the same initials on the track suit.
Did or does Reading FC treat local and former players fairly?
Phil Parkinson would have been a great candidate for the Reading job. Reading is one of those clubs that appears to dislike its history. When we went to Madejski, it was as if there was nothing there before, but a club is all about history and when you lose that you lose everything. You do look at money coming from other countries and think why are they putting money in when they have no connection to the town or club. Sir John was the last person to put money in for all the right reasons. I preferred the days when local business people who were fans ran clubs, along with at least some local players who grew up with the club as supporters.
Did you have to change your game when you went to Wimbledon?
I think I was considered a cultured sort of player at Reading but my levels of performance were not as consistent. When I went to Wimbledon it was all KPIs and analysis and how many crosses we got in and other things. I may have changed as a player, getting more direct, but my performances were very consistent and you did know what your role was with such intense analysis and hard work.
Was the crazy gang that crazy? And did you consider yourself part of the crazy gang?
In a lot of ways both on and off the field they were pushing the limits and wouldn’t get away with it today. I was on the periphery of it all, perhaps apart from some stuff on the pitch; some of the off-the-field antics I steered well clear of.
Did you tackle Vinnie Jones in training?
We tended to be on the same side and we kept away from each other. He started with Wimbledon as a green youngster and I remember one day Bassett throwing him a bib in training and we thought “who’s this?” Soon after he made a name for himself jumping on the fence after scoring against Liverpool. He only got into the team because I was suspended. At the end of my career he came back and pretty much took my place on the team.
How did you celebrate winning the 1988 cup final?
I was so knackered I left for the hotel at 11pm. There was this marquee on the Wembley turf with champagne all the way, and my brother asked me to carry on but I just couldn’t; I was absolutely drained. He did the celebrating for me and he was the last to leave the marquee. Me and Dave Beasant did the Match of the Day interview with Jimmy Hill and Des Lynam. It was the pinnacle of my playing career without a doubt, and the sum of a lot of hard work going through the leagues.
My brother Steve had a bet you would score first at 28-1.
Someone I know got 30-1!
Did you own Cartoons and Bukowski’s bars in Reading?
I owned Cartoons with my wife. It started as a restaurant, with a partner, but he pulled out and for a while my brother managed it for us. There were no bars at all in Reading then; it was the Purple Turtle of its day. We were the first late license bar in Reading, then I bought the one on the corner called Bukowski’s and had a great ten years or so. Danny and Gregg took the idea up a notch at the Turtle and had a success with it by perseverance and knowing their customer base, but we were the first, I think, and tried to be a bit more upmarket. There are a hundred bars within a mile now, I suppose, but then there was nothing; not everyone wanted to go to a night club and we had live music and everything.
Matthew Farrall, the author of this article, died on 20 April 2018.
We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.