Dennis Lawrence: Back to earth from the top of the world

As he prepares for the new season with Wrexham, Soca Warrior Dennis Lawrence tells Ian Herbert about the differences between battling England in Germany and a first-day trip to Wycombe
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The Independent Football

For David Trezeguet, the dubious pleasures of Rimini, Bari and other Serie B obscurities lie ahead at Juventus, while for Craig Moore, erstwhile hero of Australia's defence, life after the World Cup has brought a place on the bench at Lillestrom, in the depths of Newcastle's Intertoto Cup campaign. But none of the players who graced football's greatest stage this summer has fallen quite so far to earth as the defender who finds himself on the long road to Wycombe today

Just seven weeks ago, Trinidad & Tobago's Dennis Lawrence was an immovable object resisting England at the Frankenstadion in Nuremberg. He succeeded for 83 minutes, in a performance which prompted a flurry of inquiries, from Rapid Vienna to VfL Bochum and Hannover 96 in the Bundesliga. But after a sometimes bewildering summer, which propelled him from Germany to an audience with the Trinidadian Prime Minister, then back to an honorary role at the Llangollen musical eisteddfod in north Wales, Lawrence is sizing up autumn nights in Macclesfield and Accrington.

Lawrence's manager, Denis Smith, knows a motivated centre-back when he sees one, after years of throwing himself around for Stoke City, and says his Trinidadian charge was "six feet taller" last month when he returned to training - which, as Lawrence's, agent Mike Berry, points out, makes him 12ft 7in and quite a proposition by League Two standards. But returning to the old routines after June's giddying experiences will not be as easy as it sounds. "What you learn from a World Cup is not that easy to apply to this league," Lawrence warns, after a morning amid the showers at Wrexham's Collier's Park training ground during which the lessons of a 5-0 pre-season panning at Port Vale were on the agenda. "The World Cup is about keeping possession. The more you've got the ball, the more chance you've got of winning the match. Here, it's more direct, more physical. And it is more about consistency. It's not three games, but a long season."

Lawrence's appearance in Germany has made his toothy grin one of the most recognised in north Wales. But fame does not settle easily on the player, who speaks with the modesty of a man who was still a soldier until Smith's predecessor, Brian Flynn, spotted him with Army club Defence Force just five years ago, and spent £75,000 on a hunch that he could iron out his rough spots and make something of his height.

"After the World Cup finished, I spent a fair bit of time trying to avoid the crowds," Lawrence says. "We felt we deserved more from the tournament and what we needed most was some time to reflect."

In Germany, Lawrence needed a police escort after he and others were swamped by fans when inadvisably venturing into Rotenburg, near T&T's World Cup base. Facing more of the same once the squad had touched down back in Port of Spain on 20 June, he decided against a return to Morvant, the impoverished district of the city where "Lawrence of Morvant" (to coin one popular T&T fans' chant about him) grew up. Instead, the Lawrence clan made the trip up to the Crown Plaza hotel in the city, where the players were given their first day free before an open-top bus tour which ended at the national Hasely Crawford Stadium.

"There were thousands there and we met the Prime Minister [Patrick Manning]," Lawrence says. "You'd have thought we'd won the tournament. We were disappointed to be home, but for the people it was sheer jubilation."

With his wife, Gloria, and daughter, Celine, back in Wrexham's Hightown district for the rest of the school term, Lawrence then left Trinidad for Miami with his great friend Marvin Andrews, almost as much of a cult figure at Rangers as "Big Dennis" is in north Wales. "It was an escape," Lawrence says.

As he reflects on the 2-0 defeat to England, it becomes evidentt the Soca Warriors felt Aaron Lennon - a 58th-minute substitute - was the player who hurt them most. "Before he arrived there were a few chances, but Lennon forced us to change our plan," Lawrence says. "We thought at one stage they had just run out of ideas and the longer the game went on, the better our chances. Lennon made some problems for us and got down the byline."

Lawrence does seem to have been changed - hardened - by the summer. Ask for an abiding World Cup memory and there is no talk of Shaka Hislop's heroics against Sweden or that 10,000 crowd in Port of Spain on 22 June. Instead Lawrence tells of the moment he looked up at the Frankenstadion scoreboard, saw the words "1-0, 83 minutes" and felt the devastation of going so close and failing. "That affects you," he says. "We didn't deserve the result we got. We had a thing going that night."

Lawrence is not the only Soca Warrior returning to relative obscurity. Carlos Edwards remains at Luton Town, despite approaches from Watford and Birmingham, Chris Birchall has stayed at Port Vale after Norwich ruled out a purchase and Hislop has left West Ham for FC Dallas in the US.

But Wrexham, who brought Carlos Edwards and Walsall's new Trinidadian striker Hector Sam to Britain, clearly believe their adoptive Caribbean nation has more to offer. One of their most exciting signings is Josh Johnson, a winger picked up from San Juan Jabloteh who, to judge by the way he gave Manchester City's Ben Thatcher the run-around in a recent friendly, has more pace than Carlos Edwards and delivers a better cross. "I've heard about him and his pace," Lawrence says. "I hope after this summer I have a few things to pass on."