Ian Lawther: Northern Ireland footballer who cut his teeth at Old Trafford

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The Independent Online

For a few short weeks in the early 1950s Ian Lawther joined the select company of the fabled Busby Babes. The slight Belfast teenager had been recruited to join Manchester United's celebrated talent factory – but not every youngster who entered the academy was destined for greatness. Racked by homesickness, Lawther insisted on returning to Northern Ireland, and never played for United. Lawther went on to play four times for his country and scored heavily for Sunderland and a string of other clubs in the English League, but his career never quite lived up to the promise of those early years.

After his false start at Old Trafford, the 18-year-old Lawther signed for Second Division Sunderland in 1959 and was an instant hit at Roker Park. In two seasons he scored 41 goals for the Wearside club, but lost his place in the side to another rising young star – Brian Clough. Lawther was sold to Blackburn Rovers, where he enjoyed moderate success, but goals never flowed in quite the same profusion. After two years at Rovers he began a tour of lower-League clubs including Scunthorpe, Brentford, Halifax, Stockport County and Bangor City. Along the way he earned a small claim to fame as perhaps the only professional footballer to sign for his new club at the House of Commons. He was persuaded to join Brentford by the club's chairman, Jack Dunnett, the Labour MP for Nottingham Central, and the necessary business was conducted at the Palace of Westminster.

Lawther made his Northern Ireland debut in a 3-2 defeat against Wales in Wrexham in 1960 but failed to score in any of his four appearances. The former Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham, a club-mate of Lawther at Sunderland and an international team-mate, said: "Ian was a dogged footballer and very good in the air, though he was not a tall man. He showed a lot of promise when he joined Sunderland. He had plenty of talent. More importantly, he was a lovely guy. He was always cheerful, easy-going, and I enjoyed his company immensely."

Alex Murphy

William Ian Lawther, footballer: born Belfast, 20 October 1939; died 25 April 2010.