Brian Viner: Cap'n Bob's table manners paved way for billionaires

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The Independent Online

As more and more Slavic billionaires look to add Premier League football clubs to their business portfolios, it seems worth remembering that the first man to exercise Eastern European muscle over English football was not Roman Abramovich, but Jan Ludvik Hoch from Slatinske Doly in the Carpathian mountains. Admittedly, Hoch called himself Robert Maxwell by then, and had a Military Cross for wartime bravery in the British Army as well as a parliamentary career behind him, but it was the survival instincts he learnt in Slatinske Doly that informed his swaggering approach to business, which in turn informed the decidedly feudal way he ran Oxford United and Derby County. Corporate tyranny in football didn't just start with the Premier League.

Anyway, the reason Maxwell is on my mind is that 20 years ago today he abruptly sacked Mark Lawrenson, appointed manager of Oxford only seven months earlier. This I know thanks to an excellent little book by Scott Murray and Rowan Walker, to be published next week.

It is called Day of the Match: A History of Football in 365 Days, and has a page for every day of the year recalling a significant event on that date. My first instinct on receiving it was to look up my birthday, which happens to be today (cards and presents c/o The Independent). That's how I know that this is the anniversary of Lawrenson's sacking.

Coincidentally, I hosted a Q&A session with Lawrenson at a social club in Herefordshire just a few weeks ago and he talked then about the bizarre experience of working for Maxwell. This week I phoned him to tell him that it is 20 years since he got the old heave-ho – no tasteless pun about the manner of Cap'*Bob's death intended – and after first registering amazement that two whole decades have passed, he explained the circumstances that led to his dismissal.

On the morning of Saturday 22 October 1988, with Oxford due to play Blackburn Rovers that afternoon in a Second Division match, Lawrenson got a call from the club secretary Jim Hunt, relaying a message from the chairman Kevin Maxwell that he was not to field his star striker Dean Saunders against Blackburn, because Saunders (entirely against Lawrenson's wishes) was about to join Derby. Kevin had succeeded his father as chairman of Oxford only because the old man had subsequently bought Derby, and could not serve as chairman of two clubs. There was no doubt where the edict had come from. Yet Lawrenson refused, and played Saunders, who duly scored in a 1-1 draw.

All hell then broke loose in Maxwell's palatial office at the top of the Mirror Group Newspapers building at Holborn Circus, and Lawrenson was summoned for a dressing-down. This was administered by Maxwell from an antique Chinese inlaid table, on which he sat, and which soon began to buckle under his enormous weight. "All I could think while he was bollocking me was 'Break ... please, please break'," Lawrenson told me.

He was sacked the following day – "Nobody threatens to resign on the Maxwells," was the reason given, even though he hadn't, exactly – and the contentious transfer was completed in time for Saunders to play for First Division Derby against Wimbledon the following Saturday. He scored twice.

Fingering his P45, meanwhile, Lawrenson could at least reflect that he had stood up to the might of Robert Maxwell. He wishes to this day that the Chinese table hadn't.

Beware wrath of Rooney with century in sight at Goodison

It wasn't just the green-hooped hordes at Old Trafford who watched through their fingers as Manchester United dismembered Celtic in the Champions League on Tuesday, it was my fellow Evertonians as well. In particular we recoiled at the sight of Wayne Rooney back at his irrepressible best, and cursed the football gods for giving him 99 league goals before he boards today's coach to Goodison Park. I don't know whether Rooney retains any vestigial affection for his boyhood club despite the monstering he gets when he returns, but he would undoubtedly be thrilled to notch up his 100th at the ground where he bagged his first, that show-stopping thump against Arsenal six years and six days ago. Mr Ladbroke offers Rooney at evens to hit the hundred mark against his old club, but the way this season has been going for Everton, I recommend a look at the odds on him reaching the 102-mark by the final whistle.

Junior game is a nasty racket

With her well publicised plunge into the cat-eat-cat world of women's tennis, young Laura Robson becomes a would-be Amélie Mauresmo, the last girl to fulfil her promise after winning junior Wimbledon (in 1996, although it took her another 10 years to win her first Grand Slam). Yet it is the would-be Laura Robsons who concern Annabel Croft and Jo Durie, two women all too familiar with the burden of histrionic British expectation. They railed this week at the "really nasty world" of junior tennis, in which the truly appalling breaches of decorum and integrity are committed by parents rather than children. But do we care if this horror show yields more genuine prospects? On balance, I think we do.