Football: Lawton recovers in Bay of hope

Andrew Baker finds an ex-colleague of Ryan Giggs ready for an FA Cup shock today
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The Independent Online
"He shouldn't really be playing for us." Bryn Jones, Colwyn Bay's manager, is talking about his team's left-sided midfielder, Craig Lawton. "Really he shouldn't. I'd love to see a bigger club come in for him." Lawton knows all about big clubs: his team-mates and contemporaries in the Manchester United reserves included Ryan Giggs, Keith Gillespie, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville and David Beckham. Today, he gets another chance to put his undoubted talents in the shop-window when Colwyn Bay take on Notts County in the FA Cup. In a fair world, Lawton would score the winner, if only to even up the scales of fortune.

All that kept Lawton from breaking in to the big-time with the rest of the Ferguson "babes" was injury after injury. United kept faith with him, kept him on the books, but eventually let him go to Port Vale on a free transfer. He played a handful of games there, then broke a leg, which is how the former England Under-21 international came to Colwyn Bay. "He's getting his confidence back," Jones said. "He's got a job in financial services, he's enjoying his football, and he's doing very well for us. He's a sensible lad - there's no chip on his shoulder."

This was clear to see when Lawton trained with his team-mates last Thursday night in a college sports hall in Connah's Quay, a few miles down the road from their home ground. This was a team of mates, an all-for-one and one-for-all group: loyalty is a much-valued virtue at Colwyn Bay FC.

"I've been manager here for 15 years, and I was player- manager for two or three years before that," Jones, a lean, garrulous figure in his mid-forties, said. "The club has shown loyalty to me and I hope I have repaid it. We're not a big club - not even by non-league standards - but we're making some progress now."

But even modest progress in the Unibond League is remarkable given the struggles that Colwyn Bay have endured. After a dispute with the League of Wales they were forced into exile, and for two years played their "home" fixtures at Northwich Victoria and Ellesmere Port. They are back at Llanelian Road now, but crowds have been slow to pick up again. "Before the exile, we would regularly get 700 fans at home games," Jones recalled. "Now 500 is a good turn-out, with a hard core of perhaps 350. But things are looking up, and a lot of that is because of the FA Cup."

For the last three years have established the little Welsh club as FA Cup specialists. Two years ago they played six games to reach the second round, before losing 2-0 to Blackpool, managed then by Sam Allardyce, who is now in charge of today's opponents, Notts County. Last year's second round threw up a lucrative derby with Wrexham, which once again Colwyn Bay lost 2-0. But the revenue from these matches allowed Jones to bring in new players, among them Lawton, Mark Limbert (ex-Chester), Lee Conlon (ex-Crewe) and Frank Mottram (ex- Macclesfield). "The new players are the future of the club now," Jones said. "You could say that the FA Cup has allowed us to become competitive."

Limbert, a forklift truck driver at Connah's Quay, plays on the opposite side of midfield to Lawton. He believes that the club, at present eighth in the 22-team Unibond Premier Division, have the quality to gain promotion. "We have the ability to do very well at Unibond level," he said. "What we need is consistency, to get a run of wins under our belt. Right now, we win one match, then get stuffed in the next."

A stuffing is what Jones is most anxious to avoid today. "The first 20 minutes are going to be crucial," the manager declared. "We have to settle, and get our lads who haven't played in front of a big crowd feeling comfortable. I hope we can get something out of it, even if it is only a nice experience. We're not going there to kick anyone, we just want to make sure that the day doesn't pass us by. If they get an early goal, we might get a good hiding, but if we are still in it after half an hour..." he tailed off, wary of rash predictions.

Whatever the result, Craig Lawton will enjoy playing in front of a big crowd once more. But despite his manager's wish to see him sold to a bigger club, the 24-year-old insists he is contented. "I'm happy enough where I am," he said, balancing a ball perfectly still on the top of his foot. "If a League club got interested, of course I'd be pleased. But I don't brag about where I started out - there's no need for that. I just hope that we can do ourselves justice on Sunday." He popped the ball up in the air and lashed it away.