Christmas for the Lawrence family in Morvant, the ghetto district of the Trinidad capital, Port of Spain, will not be unlike the one their absent son, Dennis, celebrates in Wrexham tomorrow. "It is no different here to how it is back home," he explains, in a deep Caribbean voice that contains just the slightest trace of a Welsh accent. "In Trinidad we have the tree and the traditional dinner with all the family. We just don't have the snow." Yet even with his wife Gloria, daughter Celine and a moderate British winter for company, the 31-year-old would be forgiven if he yearned for the comforts of home more than ever this year.
Life for the Lawrences has changed beyond recognition since they gained instant celebrity status when Trinidad & Tobago secured their first ever appearance at a World Cup. Their appearances on national television have multiplied since the small island nation of 1.2 million inhabitants discovered its fate in the draw for Germany on 9 December and they are now afforded reverential treatment from their neighbours. For the relative in whose immense glory they now reflect, however, the sense of achievement and the trappings of fame are but alien concepts.
"I've been told I've become a hero since it happened," laughs an almost embarrassed Dennis Lawrence as he refers to the goal against Bahrain that booked Trinidad & Tobago's place alongside England, Sweden and Paraguay in the group stage next summer and, though he is detached from the present reality in his homeland, changed his life in Morvant forever.
The former soldier explains: "I'm getting more attention now than I've had in my life, but I've only been in Trinidad for one day since it happened so it hasn't affected me yet. When I do go back though, my life will have changed completely. I have spoken to my brother and mother a few times since the goal and they have had to deal with it more than I have. It has allowed them to do things they have never done before, such as go on TV chat shows, and they are enjoying every minute of it. In a way it's been good to be in Wales because I've been able to concentrate on my club and that has made it easier to handle everything."
"The Tallman", as the 6ft 7in defender has been ingeniously christened at Wrexham, has been relegated to the sidelines of his nation's euphoria from the moment it began. The first person Lawrence encountered as he walked off the pitch in Manama was a Fifa-registered doctor, who announced he had been selected for a random drugs test, and the match winner spent two hours attempting to pass water in the exhausting heat of Bahrain while his team-mates, led inevitably by captain Dwight Yorke, partied hard in the changing-room. "It did take a bit of the shine off it," he admits, as did the reaction of the home supporters, who denied the Soca Warriors a merited lap of honour by throwing rocks, bottles and seats on to the pitch. Only the understanding of Wrexham manager, Denis Smith, enabled Lawrence to bask in his one moment of World Cup acclaim so far, when he allowed his centre-half to travel back to Port of Spain for the 24-hour national holiday declared by President Maxwell Richards.
"I have lived in Trinidad for most of my life and have never seen anything like that day," recalls Lawrence. "It brought the entire country together in celebration. We are only a small country of 1.2 million people but they say half the population were out in the streets dancing and singing on the day we arrived back. As the plane was coming in to land I looked out of the window and saw thousands and thousands of people at the airport just wanting to catch a glimpse of us. That was a special moment to me."
There have been reports that Richards and the Prime Minister, Patrick Manning, are to award each player £60,000 and a plot of land in Trinidad for their achievement, though confirmation has not reached Lawrence yet. "The sight of all those happy people in Trinidad was its own reward," he insists. "Material things come and go but that will be my abiding memory. Qualifying for the World Cup will bring new sponsorship deals and there's money to be made for individuals and for Trinidad, but that's not really important."
Others may disagree, notably the Trinidad & Tobago Football Federation and Lawrence's Liverpool-born agent Mike Berry, who will reap the harvest of seven years' hard work in Germany next summer. Berry spotted the towering defender in action for the country's army team, Defence Force, during a scouting tour of the Caribbean and then secured the player's first professional contract at Wrexham following trials with Newcastle and Bolton.
He now has 14 Trinidad & Tobago players registered with his Imageview Management company, and a hectic World Cup awaits, but his greatest difficulty may be in convincing one of his earliest signings to embrace his new-found status. "Dennis has taken one of the smallest nations in the world to the greatest show on the planet," says Berry. "He walked down the streets of his home town like a conquering hero, and yet he is exactly the same person today as he was six years ago."
Lawrence has shown something of a scout's flair himself, convincing Chris Birchall to pledge his allegiance after discovering the Port Vale midfielder had the necessary background. "I just called him up, sold the country to him and he jumped at the opportunity," he says. He also believes the squad's English education could prove coach Leo Beenhakker's greatest asset in Germany.
"Personally, I would have liked to have drawn Brazil because I have always been a fan of how they play, but for the people of Trinidad and the players who are based here, England is a very special draw," Lawrence reveals.
"It means so much to the country. This is our one chance on the world stage to show that we are not underdogs and to prove a lot of people wrong. It is not going to be easy, England are one of the best teams in the world, but we are a hard-working team who are very proud to represent our country and there is a real unity about us. We know we lack ability in comparison with the other so-called big teams but we are a strong unit and that will work in our favour, plus we have a coach with great experience."
Lawrence cites Michael Bridges as his toughest opponent of the season so far and on Monday he has a League Two fixture with Rochdale. In six months it will be Rooney, Owen, Larsson, Ibrahimovic and Cruz. "The initial excitement has passed me by, but I'm sure it will all start again if I'm selected," he says with a mastery of understatement.
Soca Warriors' foreign legion
* Trinidad & Tobago players plying their trade in Britain
Stern John Coventry City
Anthony Rougier Bristol City
Clayton Ince Coventry City
Ian Cox Gillingham
Brent Sancho Gillingham
Andre Boucaud Peterborough
Shaka Hislop West Ham Utd
Chris Birchall Port Vale
Kenwyne Jones Southampton
Dennis Lawrence Wrexham
Carlos Edwards Luton Town
Hector Sam Port Vale
Marvin Andrews Rangers
Russell Latapy Falkirk
Kelvin Jack Dundee
Collin Samuel Dundee United
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