Football: Lawrence leaves Middlesbrough

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LENNIE LAWRENCE and Middlesbrough, whose partnership had always seemed somewhat implausible, went their separate ways yesterday, paving the way for the possible return of Graeme Souness to Ayresome Park as manager.

On Sunday evening, when a section of the Middlesbrough crowd called for his departure following the home defeat by Crystal Palace, Lawrence claimed he had no intention of acceding to their demands. In the cold light of day, with Boro out of contention for the First Division play-offs, a statement from the boardroom announced a parting 'by mutual agreement'.

As a southerner who never played League football and whose managerial reputation was largely founded on a series of last-ditch escapes from relegation with Charlton, Lawrence was a surprising choice to take one of the North- east's major posts in July 1991. However, at the end of his first season he had emulated his finest achievement with Charlton by guiding Middlesbrough into what is now the Premiership.

They also reached the League Cup semi-finals, but were unable to carry over their success into the top flight, being relegated last May. This season, despite winning their opening four matches, they stand only 10th. Lawrence considered it an honourable performance in trying circumstances; clearly, the board felt differently.

Lawrence said: 'People will laugh when I say this but if we'd got into the play-offs with this squad, which is the smallest I've ever worked with, it would have been the biggest achievement of my career.' He believes his team did well to avoid another relegation struggle.

In their statement, the club announced that their aim was to 'develop a team that will consistently excite and entertain, and persuade those who have perhaps missed a few games in the past few seasons to return'. Souness, who resigned as Liverpool manager in January, might well be attracted by the prospect of reviving the club where he spent six successful years as a player after signing from Tottenham in 1972.

Others likely to come under consideration include Terry Yorath, the former Wales manager; Brian Little, the Leicester manager who was formerly Middlesbrough's youth coach; Bruce Rioch, who led Boro to successive promotions in the Eighties and now works without a contract at Bolton; Gordon Strachan, Bryan Robson, Steve Coppell and Arthur Cox.

Some of the same names, plus Lawrence, will probably figure on Bradford City's wanted list after the dismissal of Frank Stapleton and his assistant, Stuart Pearson, yesterday. For the second season running, City have failed to reach the Second Division play-offs.

Arsenal's injury problems worsened yesterday when David Hillier limped out of a reserve team match with an undiagnosed knee injury just 24 hours before the club fly to Copenhagen for tomorrow's European Cup-Winners Cup final against Parma. The Arsenal manager, George Graham, is already without Ian Wright and seems close to ruling out defender Martin Keown (hamstring) and midfielder Eddie McGoldrick (knee).