Club Focus – Stoke City – Are Potters being too hasty in writing off Liam Lawrence?

With the transfer window about to slam shut, the new 25-man squad directive threatens to spark a flurry of last minute deals. Few clubs were expecting to be busier than Stoke City, with the Britannia Stadium set to be a hive of activity as Tony Pulis seeks as many as five new faces ahead of Tuesday’s 6pm deadline. Amid all the wheeling and dealing, one player who looks likely to leave the Potteries is Liam Lawrence, offered to Portsmouth along with Dave Kitson and a rumoured £3m in exchange for the South Coast club’s highly-rated young captain Marc Wilson.

While the departure of Kitson will come as no surprise, given his troubled tenure at the club, Lawrence’s possible exit is an altogether thornier issue. It was widely anticipated the Republic of Ireland international would seek a move having been reduced to the role of bit part player in Pulis’ set up. However, after transfers to Wolverhampton Wanderers and Celtic failed to materialise, the player declared that he would be happy to stay and fight for his place. This seemed to be good news for the Potters, given that the right flank has long been a problem position that a fit and motivated Liam Lawrence could potentially solve. However, it seems that the club’s former player of the season will not force himself back into the manager’s plans. Lawrence is clearly seen as expendable, for reasons that have never been made entirely clear.

The Liam Lawrence/Stoke City love affair has gone bizarrely sour. When Stoke were promoted to the Premier League in 2008, the Retford-born midfielder was the main man, delivering 15 goals and topping the Championship assists table. Although lacking the pace of a conventional winger, his vision and consistently excellent delivery (particularly from set pieces), combined with his tireless energy and ability to muck in defensively, was pivotal to the Potters’ ascent.

Hopes were high as Stoke prepared for their maiden Premier League campaign, but the jury is still out among Potters’ fans, as it was among their Sunderland counterparts, about Lawrence’s quality at the top level. He missed the early part of 2008/09 after infamously injuring himself when allegedly tripping over his dog, but his return to the team in early 2009 coincided with an upturn in the Midlanders’ fortunes. His attacking instincts on the right brought balance to the team, increasing Stoke’s goal threat, while he added a couple of crucial strikes himself.

Having established himself as part of Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland side however, Lawrence found himself out of favour with his club boss early last season, and has not truly been in the frame since. For mysterious reasons, Pulis preferred to utilise either Rory Delap or Dean Whitehead on the right side of midfield. Ostensibly, this was for their defensive qualities, but this still seemed a strange decision given Lawrence’s willingness to track back. It became increasingly apparent that neither Delap nor Whitehead were comfortable out wide, and both lacked the invention and attacking threat of the former Mansfield man, leaving Stoke looking lop-sided and bereft of ideas going forward. Lawrence’s prolonged absence almost certainly contributed to Stoke’s lack of goals last season, but truth be told, he failed to make the most of the limited opportunities he received when injuries and suspensions afforded him a starting place, looking a shadow of the player of previous campaigns.

Nevertheless, to write him off after one poor season seems short-sighted if the player is serious about staying. At 28, Lawrence should now be entering his prime. While the acquisition of Jon Walters from Ipswich Town seems designed to solve Stoke’s problem on the right, should anything happen to him, the Potters are stuck with the Delap/Whitehead conundrum again, an experiment that has clearly failed. Assuming that another right winger does not arrive before 6pm this evening, it would surely be a better option to have Lawrence competing with Walters, his fellow adopted Irishman, to have two attacking options vying for a place in the Midlanders’ goal-starved side.

Wilson could well prove to be the kind of central midfielder that Stoke have been crying out for in recent seasons, but it is sad that Lawrence’s Stoke career seems set to end with so little fanfare, essentially giving him away as a freebie in part exchange. That the hero of the Potters’ promotion is now apparently valued so lowly by the manager who signed him must be a bitter pill for the midfielder to swallow. Portsmouth fans might not be overly impressed with the players borrowed from the Potteries thus far this season in the form of Ibrahima Sonko and Carl Dickinson, but if a fit, motivated Liam Lawrence is heading to Fratton Park, they are getting themselves a gem.

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