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Who is James Lawrence? His heart scare at Ajax and life in Slovakia
Anderlecht defender called up for Wales by Ryan Giggs
Last Updated: 05/11/18 5:14pm
Anderlecht's Jamie Lawrence was a surprise call-up to Ryan Giggs' Wales squad but who is he? Earlier this year, Adam Bate caught up with the defender to find out how a holiday in Holland as a teenager turned into a contract with Ajax. Since then there has been a major operation on his heart and doubles in Slovakia with AS Trencin. Here's his amazing story...
It all started when Jamie Lawrence's mother was offered a job in Amsterdam. Lawrence had just done his GCSEs and the family went over in the summer of 2008 to test the water. Would she fit in? Could they make a go of it abroad? Football was not a priority at that time even if Lawrence had pedigree having been in the same Arsenal youth team as Harry Kane.
Wales call up uncapped duo
Anderlecht defender James Lawrence and Swansea winger Daniel James could make their international debuts after being included in Wales' squad to face Denmark and Albania.
His father Steve emailed clubs more in hope than expectation. Lawrence had no grand plan either. "I just wanted to keep fit and keep playing football," he tells Sky Sports. "One of the emails was to HFC Haarlem. They have since gone bankrupt but at the time they were playing in the second division in Holland. I think they were the only ones to even reply."
It was the beginning of a journey that took Lawrence to the famed Ajax academy, the boyhood Arsenal fan being coached by Dennis Bergkamp of all people. It is an adventure that has had the lows of a major heart scare that threatened to end his career before it had begun and the highs of winning the double in Slovakia with AS Trencin. Twice.
Now 26, Lawrence almost surprises himself at the memory of how happenstance set him on this path. "I wasn't really that keen to meet up with Haarlem," he admits. "I suppose I was a bit shy. I think I said no to the first couple of training sessions. Looking back, it was just fear. Eventually, I went and saw that these guys were pretty good."
Lawrence stumbled upon a second division youth team that included future Netherlands international Quincy Promes and current Serie A star Timo Leschert. "Three others went on to play in the top flight too," he recalls. "I went to Haarlem with no expectations. I was just going to play for the youth team of this small club but looking back it was a really good side.
"We were underrated. We went to Ajax and beat them 3-0 at their own training complex. For me, it wasn't a massive thing. I just figured that we had played a game and we had won. But to all of my team-mates, it was this huge thing that we had gone to Ajax and beaten them. It was from that game that a scout at Ajax took me there the summer afterwards."
Lawrence insists he was not daunted by the experience of going to Ajax. His time at Arsenal had prepared him for the size of the club. But he soon realised this would be different. "The thinking in Holland is so different to the thinking in England," he explains. "There was a huge emphasis on the technical and tactical side. I had to learn all of it pretty much from scratch.
"I noticed it in Slovakia because, tactically, the Dutch guys in the squad were so far ahead of the Slovakians, the Nigerians and the Brazilians that I have played with. Just in terms of organising a team and knowing their role in the side, where they should be and why. It is the coaching, I suppose, because the Dutch players think like coaches themselves.
"They don't just think about which pass to play as an individual but they think about how the team is going to break down the opposition and how they are going to press the opponent effectively. Will it be full press one-on-one or a zonal press? They are constantly thinking about these things during the game. That comes from the Dutch upbringing."
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Lawrence's own Dutch experience had a dramatic start. "I walked into the changing room for my first friendly game and sat down to get ready," he says. "Then Dennis Bergkamp walked in. All of my team-mates got up but I just sat there. My jaw dropped. I couldn't say a word. I couldn't move. As an Arsenal fan, having him there for my first game was amazing."
There are many other fond memories too, not least the "outstanding" Christian Eriksen, whom Lawrence was able to count among his colleagues. Unfortunately, his own two years at Ajax were far from straightforward. There was the groin injury that disrupted his second season at the club. More worryingly, there was the heart problem that struck in his first.
"I had the heart scare about four or five months in," he recalls. "It was because of the intensity of the training. It was a huge step up for me in terms of the work that I was doing. At Haarlem, we would train two nights a week and then play a game. At Ajax, suddenly I was training five times a week and twice on Sundays. It was a really big step up.
I felt my heart explode into this fast-paced beat. It was like it was beating out of my chest.
"I felt my heart flutter in a few training sessions and didn't think much of it. Then came this away game. I remember it was winter time. We were towards the end of the warm-up and started doing some sprints. I went straight past the trainer and felt my heart explode into this fast-paced beat. It was like it was beating out of my chest. I stopped and sat down.
"I was right next to the coach so he asked me what was going on. I took his hand and put it on my chest. He felt this incredibly fast beat so he told me that I wouldn't be playing in the game and I needed to get checked. They found that my heart wall was overgrown and that was affecting my heart rate. Because of the training I had been doing, my heart had decided it needed to grow and that then created the problem.
"I had to have a heart operation. It was slightly strange because I didn't realise at the time what a serious thing it was. All I wanted to do was train so all I could think was that it didn't affect me every time just some of the time. But by complete coincidence there was another player who had the same thing and they decided that he could not be operated on. He had to stop playing. That is when it hit home that I was actually quite lucky. It could have gone the other way."
Lawrence spent a year with Sparta Rotterdam and two with Eredivisie strugglers RKC Waalwijk but the first-team breakthrough never came. "I felt I was good enough to play for them but I didn't get the chance and I was frustrated by that," he explains. Then came the interest from Dutch-owned AS Trencin in Slovakia. Lawrence was not sure what to expect.
"At first I was quite sceptical about all of it," he adds. "I didn't know much about Slovakia. I didn't know much about the competition or the country. But I thought I would go over for a couple of weeks just to see what it was like. If you had told me that in my first two seasons I would do the double twice then I would have been completely shocked."
Those doubles came in 2015 and 2016, Lawrence's first two seasons of senior football. Some introduction. There were the Champions League campaigns too. "That was always a dream as a kid," he says. "Even if it was just the qualifiers, it was an amazing experience. We didn't get far enough to hear the anthem but we did get to play against some great teams."
A couple of middling seasons for the club followed and while Lawrence was open to a move back to Britain, he eventually moved to Belgian giants Anderlecht in the summer. "I have always hoped that one day I would return because it is still home," he says, "but I have settled in two new countries so I am confident I can do it again."
The time abroad has changed him too. "I am a different player now," he adds. "The Slovakian school added something because it was very harsh. Off the field there was a relaxed atmosphere but on the field it was flat out all of the time. Those two years when we were going for the title, there was immense pressure. I think the Dutch school has shaped my thinking on the game too."
Indeed, so steeped is Lawrence in that culture that he studied his master's degree in sports management at the Johan Cruyff Institute. His father remains an associate of Cruyff Football, the team charged with maintaining the great man's vision, serving as an adviser on relative age effects in football. "I still have a lot of contact with them," says Lawrence.
"Wim Jonk studies the videos of my games and tells me what I did right and what I did wrong. When I am in Amsterdam, we sit down and go through all of that. There is another guy called Matthias Kohler who is really knowledgeable and he calls me a few times a week to see how I am doing and give me strength and conditioning programmes."
Lawrence began his journey in Britain and is now in Belgium. But it is clear that he was made in Holland, moulded by his experiences at Ajax. And all because of that summer visit to Amsterdam almost a decade ago and one unsolicited email to a now defunct youth team.
*A version of this article originally appeared in March 2018