This is no tribute. In many ways to break out the violins for Mark Lawrenson would really be to miss the true essence of the man. You may even have missed his retirement last week amid the opera of season-ending farewells. Divock Origi gets a guard of honor at Anfield. Mike Dean gets a 1,500-word valedictory feature in the Athletic. Lawrenson, by contrast, simply slipped away with a droop of the shoulders and very possibly a wry quip about not letting the door hit him on the way out.
Which does feel a little strange, even when you take into account the fact that Lawrenson has now been in gentle recession from our screens for some time now. There was still the odd radio gig, semi-regular appearances on Football Focus, the weekly prediction column for the BBC Sport website. But it has also been a curiously inconspicuous retreat, given that – if you give it a moment’s thought – most football fans in this country will probably have spent hundreds if not thousands of hours watching Lawrenson’s face over the years.
This, of course, has long been the pundit’s privilege: to soundtrack these life-forming experiences for us, to be the voice at the back of the room, the background chatter to our triumphs and miseries, World Cups and FA Cups and those hazy Saturday nights spent on the sofa covered in crisp crumbs.
Lawrenson’s talent – and it really was a talent – was simply to drift unobtrusively into our living rooms, say a few words about marking and drifting out again largely unnoticed.
You did not need to listen to what Lawrenson was saying. He wasn’t really saying much anyway. Were it not for the occasional twitch and quiver of his mustache you would occasionally forget he was talking at all. He did not fume or rant or “destroy” anybody. Indeed in 25 years of watching and listening to Lawrenson I am unable to recall a single distinct opinion he ever expressed, beyond an occasional distaste for diving and the occasional belief – strongly worded and sincerely held – that the striker’s got time to take an extra touch there.
And so the retirement of Lawrenson is really more than a footnote in the broadcasting landscape. It marks the passing of an entire style of punditry, a whole era of men (and of course it was always men) talking about football on television, one in which the sport itself still felt like light rather than heavy entertainment. If Lawrenson was already beginning to feel like an anachronism long before he hung up his microphone for the last time, then it was because the tonal shift in football broadcasting over the last decade was largely a reaction to pundits such as him.
So these days we have the needly, bristling Chris Sutton, the man of a thousand takes, a pundit who appears to have been sent into a broadcasting studio with the express objective of trying to get himself punched for insurance reasons. We have Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, for whom punditry is less a sofa and more of a soapbox, an arena for competitive emoting and strong opinions fully enunciated.
Neville is saddened by the thing we’ve just seen. Carragher is more than saddened; he’s shocked and outraged. Neville sees Carragher’s shocked and outraged, and raises him a flabbergasted. Graeme Souness repeats what they’ve just said, but in a Scottish accent, and while furiously chopping an imaginary carrot. Micah Richards laughs uncontrollably. The entire exchange will later harvest more than a million views on YouTube.
This is, by many measures, better punditry: more entertaining, more strident, certainly more granular and analytical. But what’s also changed here is the sense of performance: the knowing smirk, the theatrical flourish, the self-conscious glint in the eye that lets everyone know that this is really all just for show, and afterwards they’re all going to change into comfortable clothes and go for a curry.
Modern punditry does not so much break the fourth wall as smash through it with a perfumed fist and tap you on the temples. Hey! Are you still watching? Keep watching! Roy Keane’s going to fume in a minute! Micah will laugh! In many ways the current era of punditry has more in common with the early days of color television in the 1970s, when pundits would openly argue and disparage each other for sport.
My own favorite exchange comes from the 1974 World Cup, in which ITV’s Jack Charlton and Derek Dougan start a verbal brawl over the obstruction rule that is only settled when viewers are asked to write in on postcards to decide who was right. “Well, people have been wrong before,” Dougan grumbles after Charlton wins the poll by a 78% -22% margin. “They were wrong to vote for a Tory government instead of a socialist government in 1970.”
Seen in retrospect, it’s the pundits of the 2000s – your Lawrensons, your Alan Hansens, your Andy Townsends – who now feel like the anomaly. After all, it was an age when the product sold itself, when football was growing, Manchester United won everything and the jobs were for life. When you did not need to have an opinion on the Saudi Arabian takeover, or government health regulations, or really anything at all. In many ways Lawrenson was the last of them, these drawling ruminants of the studio jungle. He’s gone now, and it’s probably for the best. But you can not help but feel he also takes a certain innocence with him.