Pundit partnership forged on the pitch

Match of the Day's Mark Lawrenson and Alan Hansen recall the halcyon days of Liverpool's dominance and 'the boy' Lineker
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This is a story of an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman, except that the Englishman plays hardly any part at all. It is, in truth, an exercise less in interviewing than in eavesdropping.

I have made the long journey north to the Southport home of Mark Lawrenson, who has been joined in his handsome conservatory by Alan Hansen. For Hansen the journey has been somewhat shorter. He lives directly across the road from his Match of the Day colleague and former Liverpool team-mate. If only Gary Lineker would move in next door, it would be like a football version of The Truman Show.

There are some young enthusiasts, of course, who watch Match of the Day – which resumes on Saturday evening with FA Cup third-round highlights – not knowing that the greying fogeys nattering away were among the finest players of their generation.

Indeed, was there ever a more successful centre-back pairing than Lawrenson and Hansen? Together they won five League championships, four League Cups, one European Cup, and one FA Cup. From 1981 to 1988 they were football's rum and raisin, its Rolls and Royce, its Marshall and Snelgrove, but rarely its Laurel and Hardy. Frustratingly for those of us who followed the team on the other side of Stanley Park, they hardly ever slipped up.

In the first half of the 1986 Liverpool v Everton FA Cup final, however, they seemed curiously vulnerable.

Lawrenson: "That was the only one we played in together. Against the boy Lineker. We were hopeless for an hour, and Ronnie Moran gave us a real blast at half-time, but we were no better for the first 15 minutes of the second-half. Brucie [Grobbelaar] and Jim Beglin had a contretemps. Then Everton's legs went."

Hansen: "I cringe every time I look at Lineker's goal. There's a picture of me with my mouth wide open as the ball came through. I wasn't having a good day. Funnily enough, I'd played in three European Cup finals before I played in the FA Cup final. But as a one-off occasion the FA Cup final was the ultimate. I remember going on the pitch to warm up, and thinking, 'I'm gone here'."

Lawrenson: "The thing about the FA Cup final, people always say it and it's so, so true, is that it's over before you know it."

Hansen: "Liverpool and Everton were both going for the championship that year as well, and about three weeks before the final someone decided in their infinite wisdom that win, lose or draw, we'd both go round the city together on the Sunday. Well, Christ almighty, they ended up being beaten in both, and they're following us in the bus."

Lawrenson: "And there was a bus in the middle, a press bus. So they weren't even bus number two, they were bus number three."

Ohhh, to be on that bus must have been purgatory. Swiftly changing the subject, it seems to me immensely regrettable that we are denied Hansen's and Lawrenson's Saturday night analysis of Premiership matches, because while ITV's Terry Venables is undoubtedly a fine coach, as a television analyst he's right off the pace. So I ask them to explain Liverpool's improved League form this season, form which made them pre-Christmas favourites to win the championship.

Hansen: "Liverpool have learnt the art of playing badly and winning, it's as simple as that. And it can't be coached, you learn it."

Lawrenson: "I thought it would take them another season."

Hansen: "They're solid at the back. You've got to be. That's why Man United have wobbled. They say that Stam had lost a yard of pace, but he bought someone who's four yards slower. Blanc at 24 wasn't quick, and he's 36 now."

Lawrenson: "Even at 26, foreigners come into the Premiership and find the pace difficult..."

Hansen: "And if you're 36 in Italian football, and can read it, then it doesn't matter. Because the centre-forward doesn't come near you."

Lawrenson: "United should have bought Blanc and kept Stam, because Ronny Johnsen's always injured."

Hansen: "But then £17m is a lot of money for a centre-back who's had an Achilles problem. Alex probably looked at him in training and thought: 'He ain't the player he was, I'll take the money and run'."

Lawrenson: "Before Christmas only West Ham had a worst defensive record than Man United. Incredible."

Hansen: "If you look at the highest level, the French won the World Cup in 1998 without a centre-forward, but you can't win the World Cup without a defence, as the Brazilians proved in 1982. You take the back four from the French team which won the World Cup, and put six mugs in with them, and you've still got a chance. But put the four worst defensive players behind the six best outfield players, and you'll get beaten every time... obviously I would say that, though."

Obviously. What was it, I wonder, that made Hansen and Lawrenson such a formidable defensive partnership?"

Lawrenson: "We didn't have great communication on the pitch, we just seemed to know what the other was doing."

Hansen: "We were just two good players. Two really good players in a team that played a simple formula. And we both had good recovery pace. He was quicker over the first 10 yards, I was good over 50. And we could both read the game."

Lawrenson: "But we also both knew how bad we could be."

Hansen: "Yeah, they used to say we were the greatest partnership ever. One season we went 16 matches undefeated, then went to Coventry and Terry Gibson scored a hat-trick against us in the first 17 minutes."

Lawrenson: "Joe Fagan looked at us afterwards. He just said: 'You won't do that again, will you?' And we all went 'no, Joe' in unison."

Hansen: "He was a great manager. People talk about Bob [Paisley], but Joe was such a large part of it. If you were having a bad time, he was the one who'd talk to you. If you were having a good time, the same. He was a fantastic man."

Lawrenson: "In my first season at Liverpool we got beat 3-1 at home by Man City, on Boxing Day, and Joe went off on one. He went absolutely mad. I only saw that happen two or three times. And the whole dressing-room sat up. Souness, Dalglish, everyone. After that Bob changed the team. The old guard, Ray Kennedy, Tommo [Phil Thompson], were out, and people like Rushy [Ian Rush] and Craig Johnston came in. We were 14th at the time, then we went the next 22 games unbeaten and won the League."

Hansen: "Bob was different. He was difficult to understand, but he could be ruthless. It didn't matter who was playing well, he'd always rely on his best 11 players."

Lawrenson: "That was his thing. Other managers would ask: 'What's the secret?' And he'd say: 'Play your best 11'."

Hansen: "It wouldn't work nowadays."

Lawrenson: "No."

Hansen: "They always encouraged humour in the dressing-room, too. Between a quarter past two and a quarter to three, we'd be taking the mickey, slaughtering people, and then someone would say: 'Right, that's it. Let's concentrate on the match.' "

When they did start concentrating on the match, who were the opposing attackers they least relished playing against, even when Liverpool were in their pomp?"

Lawrenson: "Micky Harford."

Hansen: "Oh God."

Lawrenson: "I would never worry about really good players. I'd worry about getting battered. I got knocked out at Leeds one day, by Kenny Burns, after two minutes."

Hansen: "Two minutes. And the ball was 100 yards away."

Lawrenson: "They played him up front, obviously with instructions to get into the two of us. I'll never forget. The ball was out for a throw-in, and he looked round to make sure no one was looking, and just punched me. Someone had obviously said: 'If you get a chance, whack one of those two'. But they probably meant him to do it when the ball was around."

Hansen: "You know the only good thing about that? It wasn't me."

Lawrenson: "I'm just glad I wasn't playing when Andy Lockhead was playing? Remember Andy Lockhead? Played for Oldham. Apparently he used to head your head. As the centre-half you'd be the favourite to win the ball, then he'd come in and nut you. Then there was Billy Whitehurst. Played for Oxford and Newcastle. Another assassin. You could have a centre-halves' convention and we'd talk about him for two hours."

Hansen: "I used to love the European games. They'd never come and tackle you. The ball would come through and their centre-forwards always thought you would miss it, so they always got goalside. If you did miss it they were through, but if you were half-decent in possession and control it was easy."

Lawrenson: "The best player I ever played against was Kenny [Dalglish]. Alan never played against him, only with him. But he had genius in him. He could embarrass you."

Hansen: "Maradona wasn't bad either. I played against him at Hampden when he was 18. Normally, they say that at 18 you can't tell. Believe me, you could tell. He was absolutely fantastic."

And which other central defensive partnerships did they admire?

Lawrenson: "For me there was only one. Todd and McFarland. Because they were both such good footballers. Normally you might have one good footballer and one stopper."

Hansen: "Tommo was fantastic, too. And Emlyn [Hughes] was a great player."

And of the current crop? Who, for example, do they think should play in the middle of Sven Goran Eriksson's favoured back four? Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand?

Hansen: "Well, Rio Ferdinand certainly looks the part. It's such a difficult position, because who's a fantastic player in that position at 21, like Michael Owen up front? You've basically got to play and play and play, and you're learning all the time, not just as an individual but collectively. You've got to get used to the full-backs, to the guys in front of you..."

Lawrenson: "It can only help Ferdinand to have David O'Leary as his manager."

Hansen: "Yeah, but that's not why he's got better. He's got better because he's got older. O'Leary will have his own ideas, but so will Ferdinand. At Liverpool, when other teams were attacking, the first you'd hear from the bench was: 'Inside, inside'. The idea of bringing them inside was that you'd bring them to where you're strong. But I would always try to take them down the line, because that's where I felt stronger. Our guys would be screaming 'inside, inside', and I'd take them down the line, and afterwards they'd say: 'Did you not hear us'?"

Lawrenson: "And you'd say: 'No'. "

Hansen: "The difference in the Premiership is that 95 per cent of defenders think that they can bring players inside, then stand five yards off them. That's not the way to do it, although, saying that, it's a harder game now. You can't defend up the pitch. We defended as far up the pitch as any team has ever done. But if one was offside they were all offside. Now there's active offside, passive offside, the back pass law..."

Lawrenson: "Getting back to the England defence, Eriksson's obviously hoping that Sol Campbell will come through a sticky start to the season, and I think I'd persevere with Ashley Cole at left-back. I can't see anyone else. I know he has a problem defensively, but maybe it's a question of who to play in front of him to give him a bit more protection."

And what of England's prospects in the World Cup. Can they at least get through the group stages?

Hansen: "People keep going on about the 'Group of Death'. It's certainly a harder group than most. But Sweden? Nigeria? Come on!"

The Scotsman sounds contemptuous. The Irishman smiles. It is time for the Englishman to get his coat.

'Match of the Day' is on Saturday on BBC1 at 10.30pm