BIG INTERVIEW: Craig Salmon talks to Bamber Bridge star Matt Lawlor
Matt Lawlor took a large gulp of his pint and slumped back in his seat at Bamber Bridge’s clubhouse.
The 26-year-old defender had just experienced his worst moment in football.
Red carded in extra-time for two bookable offences, Lawlor stood helpless on the sidelines and watched as Brig suffered play-off final heartache.
Beaten 3-2 by neighbours Ramsbottom United in last season’s winner-takes-all encounter in the First Division North, Lawlor and his team-mates had fallen agonisingly short of fulfilling their promotion dream.
A mammoth season of hard work had gone up in a puff of smoke, and having been handed his marching orders, Lawlor was feeling slightly culpable.
Fortunately, there was no other member of the Brig party who was holding the no-nonsense centre half responsible in any way shape or form.
And as the drinks continued to flow and the clock ticked around to the early hours of the following morning, Lawlor and his team-mates vowed to use the pain of defeat to spur them on to greater things in the future.
“The best thing at Brig is the team spirit we have,” Lawlor said.
“It’s better than any other club that I have ever been at.
“It’s not a typical footballing environment like you get at other places.
“It’s not a dog-eat-dog environment.
“When we lost in the play-off final, it was gutting.
“It was a massive shock to me because I did not think for a second we would lose.
“I got sent-off in extra-time and I was devastated.
“I have been at other clubs where at the end of games everybody goes their separate ways afterwards.
“But we all stayed in the bar until one in the morning. Everybody did – to a man.
“We wanted to experience that loss together as a team.
“We talked about next season and how we were going to use this experience to go one better.”
At 26, Lawlor is edging towards being one of the most senior members of Neil Crowe’s team having arrived at the Sir Tom Finney Stadium in 2011 from AFC Fylde.
It’s not surprising other players look up to him considering the wealth of experience he has gained over the years and the quality of players he has played alongside and against.
Signed by Blackpool when he was still at primary school, Lawlor was tipped for stardom at an early age.
He went on to spend 13 years at Bloomfield Road, as he rose through the youth ranks.
Handed his debut for the Tangerines reserves side at the age of 14, Lawlor was given a two-year professional contract by the then Blackpool manager Simon Grayson, who is of course the current boss of Preston.
“I was at Blackpool from the age of seven,” revealed Lawlor, who attended Baines School, in Poulton-le-Fylde.
“I was there four years full-time – two years as an apprentice and then two years as a pro.
“Looking back it was the best time of my life – who wouldn’t want to do what I was doing?
“Playing for Blackpool was all I ever knew. From the age of 14, I used to leave school two days per week and go straight to training at Blackpool.
“I played in the reserves at that age – so I was playing men’s football while still at school.
“I wasn’t really too clever at school – I just did not really concentrate because all I ever wanted to do was play football – and that was all I was going to do.
“I did not think about doing anything else.
“My first coach at Blackpool was Colin Greenall and then Steve Thompson .
“The first team manager was Colin Hendry and then when he left Simon Grayson took over – or Larry as we used to call him.
“Blackpool was just ingrained in me. I was awarded a five-year contract when I was aged 11, so all the way through school I was going to be at Blackpool.
“Everything just went from there.”
Some of his contemporaries at the time were Matty Kay and Paul Doughty, who ironically are now fellow members of Brig’s first-team squad.
“I was a bit of an early developer,” said Lawlor, who works as a school football coach for the Manchester United Foundation.
“But I was not like Matty Kay and Phil Doughty, who I play with now at Bamber Bridge.
“I think Matty is three or so years younger than me and Phil is a year older.
“But I was always on the rung below them in terms of ability.
“They were the stand-out players back then.
“There was talk that Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United were after Matty...the same with Phil.
“There was never really that kind of fanfare for me.
“I was a competitive player in every team I was in and I captained every team I played for from Under-11s to Blackpool reserves, which was great.
“I have known those two since I was eight or nine-years-old.
“There’s also Simon Wiles as well who is at Bamber Bridge now – he was at Blackpool.
“There’s four of us so it’s a bit weird that we’ve all come back together.
“I suppose it’s testimony to the fact that we’ve all stayed friends.”
Although Lawlor was handed a pro deal at Blackpool and went on to be named in their match day squad on numerous occasions, he never made it on to the pitch for a first-team game.
It something which still rankles with him to this day, but he has over time learned to deal with the disappointment.
“I got so close, yet so far,” he said. “I suppose there is a little bit of a regret that I never played a first-team game.
“I just did not quite make it.
“I was on the bench in the Carling Cup against Derby away at Pride Park once.
“That was a great night actually – we won on penalties.
“I travelled with the first team a lot of times and was in the 18.
“I never managed to make an appearance – it was just not meant to be.
“I did spend a lot of time while I was at Blackpool out on loan.
“I played for Stalybridge Celtic and Leigh RMI for half as season in the Conference.
“But I have to be proud of what I did – I got further than millions of other players, who would have loved to have done what I did.
“It was great and I look back at it all as the best time of my life.
“I played with and trained with some great players like Wes Hoolahan, Shaun Barker and Ian Evatt, who have all gone on to play in the Premier League.
“Probably the most high profile player I ever played with was Joe Hart.
“He came on loan at Blackpool for four or five games when he was 19.
“You just knew he was going to go and be a great keeper.
“In football style and ability, he was something from a different world compared to me.
“I think he was a year older than me, but he was so much more mentally strong.
“Probably the most mentally strong person I have ever met – just so head strong.
“I remember playing against Daniel Sturridge when he was at Manchester City during a reserve team game.
“We played at the Etihad Stadium and I think they had Joe Hart, Micah Richards, Didi Hamann, Michael Johnson, Ishmael Miller in their team.
“As a centre half, I directly came up against Sturridge obviously when he was really young player.
“I did not really know anything about him before the game.
“I think somebody told me that he was the nephew of Dean Sturridge, who used to play for Derby and Wolves.
“So I just went in to the game thinking I was up against Dean Sturridge’s young nephew.
“But I found out how good he was after about five minutes.
“He was just better than me in every department – it was quite an eye opener.
“He was better in the air, better on the floor, he was faster.
“I think Sturridge is probably the best player I have played against.
“One of the biggest games I played in was a reserve match at Deepdale between Preston at Blackpool.
“I think there was 3,000 people on watching and PNE had a really good side out.
“Dickson Etuhu was in midfield, Claude Davis was at the back and the front three were Brett Ormerod, Patrick Agyemang and Daniel Dichio.
“I think I was only 16 and there I was playing at Deepdale against all these good players.”
Lawlor is more than a little interested to see how his first professional manager Grayson performs at Blackpool’s great rivals Preston.
“Simon gave me my first professional contract at Blackpool,” he said.
“I think I was the only player from my youth team who got offered a deal.
“I remember we all had an appointment in the manager’s office at the end of the season and you were told whether you were being kept on or not.
“It was like judgement day.
“It was an amazing day for me but also a sad one.
“A lot of my friends got released which obviously was a sad day for me.
“To be honest I kind of knew before I went into see Simon that I was going to get a contract because Steve Thompson had pulled me to one side and told me.
“But you never know in football.
“It’s such a dog eat dog environment – a horrible environment really.
“Right up until I was told I had a contract, I was a bit twitchy.
“You never know what goes on behind the scenes – it’s a very unpredictable world.
“But Simon was my reserve team manager before he got the first-team job.
“I played at centre half and he made me captain. I was only 17 so it was nice to know he was quite confident in my ability.
“He was a very good manager. I always found him very approachable but as the manager obviously he had a job to do.
“Sometimes there would be a certain amount of negativity because as younger players, we used to feel like we were not going to get a chance.
“Obviously I had a lot of respect for him because of what he had done in the game.
“He had been at Blackpool a few years and I had trained with him a few times and knew what he was all about.
“To be fair, he did amazing at Blackpool – he started the ball rolling which saw the club rise all the way to the Premier League.
“He got the club into the Championship and then he left to go to Leeds.
“It’s no surprise at all to see what he’s achieved as a manager.
“He’s always been good at making good signings and bringing good players in.
“I remember when Wes Hoolahan came to the club – nobody had heard of him.
“We thought he was on trial or something, but then he played the first game and everybody could see what a good player he was.
“Wes is probably the best player I have ever played with.
“He’s played in the Premier League with Norwich.
“Being able to spot players like Wes is a sign of a good manager.
“Simon also surrounds himself with good coaches and good back room staff.
“I am sure he will get Preston promoted from League One.”
This afternoon Lawlor – who was a member of the AFC Fylde team which lost the First division North play-off final to Chorley in 2011 – will be aiming to help Brig topple big-spending Salford City at the Sir Tom Finney Stadium.
He is still eager to play at the highest level he can and sees no reason why he cannot do that with Brig.
“I’d like to play as high as I can and I would like to do that with Brig.
“I love it here – I’m enjoying my football. I don’t see why I can’t go up the leagues with Brig.”