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Afooty pundit is open to attack from the most surprising quarters - as Mark Lawrenson discovered when he was commentating on an Arsenal match for Radio Five Live. "Arsenal had given away a penalty just before half-time, and I said: `How unprofessional of Martin Keown to do that'. The next thing I knew Martin Keown's mother was on the line to the producer complaining. The next week I was watching different teams and said `At least it's not Arsenal so Martin Keown's mother can't phone up and complain'."

Over several seasons now, Lawrenson has displayed the same composure under pressure in the commentary-box that he used to exhibit as a defender during eight of Liverpool's golden years in the 1980s. That skill is now being rewarded with promotion to the Premiership of punditry - a seat on the Match of the Day panel.

What is impressive about Lawrenson is that he does not suffer from the problem that seems to afflict many ex-pros turned pundits - a crippling inability to criticise players. The closest many come to pointing out an error is mumbling that "so and so will be disappointed with that." But like those other top-class commentators, Alan Hansen and Andy Gray, Lawrenson is not afraid to tell it how it is.

"If a game's poor, you say it's poor," he reasons. "If the manager takes umbrage at that, that's part and parcel of it. Managers and players know when they don't play well. It's very easy to sit on the fence, but you've got to retain forthright opinions. You call it as you see it."

That includes being critical of his beloved Liverpool. There is no danger of Lawrenson being accused of bias towards his old muckers at Anfield - in fact, quite the reverse. "I get letters from Liverpool supporters asking why I was anti-Liverpool," he laughs. "I'd count Roy Evans [the Liverpool manager] as a good friend, but if Liverpool haven't played well, I say so. People in the game understand that. They have more trouble with the written press than the spoken."

A sense of humour is key to success as a pundit, Lawrenson contends. "It's very important to have an ability to laugh at yourself," he maintains. "like when Alan Hansen said at the beginning of one season that Manchester United would never win anything with kids and they went on to win the championship." In the joshing atmosphere of the television studio, Hansen has rarely been allowed to forget the uncharacteristic slip.

A former manager of Oxford United and defensive coach at Newcastle United, Lawrenson is able to speak with such authority about the game because not only has he been there and done that, he also has the campaign medals to prove it. "When players listen to people like Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker who have won titles and international caps, they can't say, `How would he know? He hasn't played at that level'. You can be comfortable talking about it because it's something you live with every minute of the day."

That is not to say that pontificating about the game on live television is as easy as it looks to the man in the saloon bar. "People think it's easy," Lawrenson observes, "but it's not. You're on live and someone is talking through your ear-piece. That's why the respect for someone like Desmond Lynam is enormous. When the results are flying in, he has to be able to listen to the conversations of the producer and the editor, talk to guests and ask questions - all at the same time. That takes some doing - especially as he looks like it's Sunday morning and he's just about to have a gin and tonic and read the Telegraph."

So is Lawrenson nervous about making his panel debut tonight alongside Cool Hand Des? He claims not to be; according to Lawrenson, commentating is not as nerve-wracking as actually playing in the Match of the Day. "If you make a mistake in a big game," he declares, "you have 40,000 people shouting at you and doubting your parentage. If you make a mistake on Match of the Day, they only shout at the telly, and you can't hear them."

Mark Lawrenson appears on Match of the Day on BBC1 this evening 10.50pm




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