Lawrence inspired by poetic champions of the underdog

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The Independent Online

Matt Lawrence, the Millwall captain, has just finished reading a biography of Bill Hicks, the American comedian who died a decade ago from pancreatic cancer. It is not the expected topic of conversation in FA Cup final week but Lawrence is happy to relate that he found it "a bit lighter" than his usual love - Charles Bukowski, the poet and writer who spent his life rebelling against authority.

Matt Lawrence, the Millwall captain, has just finished reading a biography of Bill Hicks, the American comedian who died a decade ago from pancreatic cancer. It is not the expected topic of conversation in FA Cup final week but Lawrence is happy to relate that he found it "a bit lighter" than his usual love - Charles Bukowski, the poet and writer who spent his life rebelling against authority.

Hicks was an iconoclast too, a darkly funny, laconic-sardonic one and Lawrence's other favoured author, Jack Kerouac, of the beat generation and, "On The Road", fits the bill as well. A theme surely starts to emerge and one that Lawrence, with his degree in American literature from Hartford College in New York State, would appreciate. After all he now plays for Millwall, a club, rightly or wrongly, forever associated as being out with the establishment.

"I know it's not your stereotypical footballer thing to do," said Lawrence of his studies, which were earned via a scholarship. "In the 70s for footballers it was pub, women, down the nightclub. Nowadays the game has got a lot more professional but sometimes the image of players is tarnished a little. So I guess it's good for people to look on me as reasonably educated. Footballers are only the same as everyone else. We all go to school except some of us go a bit further and go to university."

Not that he can take much succour from his degree. "I'm not sure that's going to overly worry Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ryan Giggs," he says. "I think I might need a bit more than that."

That Lawrence, 29, will lead out Millwall against Manchester United at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday is a surprise, considering he appeared to have no future at the First Division club at the start of this season. His rise owes much to the mid-term appointment as manager of Dennis Wise ­ someone who knows all about tarnished images ­ which was an iconoclastic choice in itself.

"From the first minute he took over things started going well," Lawrence says of Wise, "and he just brought a very positive outlook to the game and the side. I couldn't put my finger on exactly what he's done but I think it's just having people like Dennis and Ray [Wilkins, his assistant] around. They are proven international footballers and if you can't respect two people like that then it's difficult to respect anyone. Every single one of us listens to what they have to say and takes it on board."

One of Wise's first decisions was to move Lawrence to central defence from right-back. That came on the advice of Wilkins, who had been Lawrence's manager at Fulham. Another man consulted was another former Fulham manager, Micky Adams, now of Leicester City, the club Wise was sacked from for breaking a team-mate's jaw.

That the two are still in contact is yet another surprise. Lawrence has been a revelation in his new role, having first started in midfield, earning a new two-year contract and revitalising a career in danger of drifting back through the leagues.

The captaincy, the first time he has led any side, has come after an injury to Kevin Muscat. "I didn't expect it. He's the captain but was unfortunate in the semi-final," he says. That was a match, against Sunderland, at Old Trafford, in which Lawrence excelled. He will have to do so again against United.

"We all get our 15 minutes [of fame] and maybe this is to be my 15 minutes," Lawrence says. "But I can't get over-awed by the number of people watching. Maybe it [being captain] is something that will matter to me in 20 or 30 years when I reflect that it was me leading the team out."

He knows how much it means to Millwall, however. "It [the club] has been tarnished with a bad image, rightly or wrongly so," he says. "In my opinion wrongly so, Theo [Paphitis, the chairman] has done a great job in stamping out a lot of the bad behaviour. On Saturday Millwall's name will be associated with the FA Cup and that can only be a positive thing."

That positive approach will be taken on to the pitch as well ­ but in a measured way.

"It's all well and good going hell for leather for the first few minutes but they [United] have weathered storms from many better teams than Millwall," Lawrence reasons.

"They are obviously desperate for a win because they've not won anything this year which is a bit of a surprise for them and the rest of the footballing world."

Can Millwall spring another? They have had their own disappointments, of course ­ having lost out on the play-offs with an end-of-season collapse which resulted in just one win in their final eight League matches after the semi-final.

"We were hit by quite a few injuries and suspensions and I don't think that ultimately we had a big enough squad to deal with everything we've been involved in," Lawrence admits. "With the Cup run comes extra games and maybe with a few extra players we maybe could have dealt with it. It was an awful shame right near the end to throw away our League position."

The Premiership is where he ­ and Millwall ­ want to be. He would trade the Cup for the play-offs, "if you could guarantee we went up. I am not sure the fans would agree but as a player you would swap anything for playing in the Premiership."

For now he'll just have to settle for Premiership opposition ­ the first Millwall have faced in this competition. Lawrence would happily have seen another lower division team in the final simply because "it would mean we had a better chance of winning it. Of course that was never going to happen and it's fantastic to play Manchester United. They are just a great football club."

But not one to be over-awed about. "I'd hope that we've got enough character among the players," Lawrence says. "Whatever happens, if we go 1-0 quickly, then I'm sure we'll battle back."

And maybe, just maybe another shot of iconoclasm. "You have to graft," said his hero, Charles Bukowski. Lawrence and his team-mates will do exactly that.

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