By RICHARD CAWLEY
Byron Lawrence’s career has failed to deliver on his early promise – but that doesn’t stop Dulwich Hamlet’s new signing from striving to surpass where he once was in the professional game.
The midfielder seemed to have the footballing world at his feet when he made his Ipswich Town debut at the age of 16 – the second youngest debutant in the club’s history.
Then Tractor Boys manager Paul Jewell likened the teenager to Arsenal ace Jack Wilshere.
But Lawrence’s progression ended under Mick McCarthy and he was released in 2014. Two years followed at Colchester United, again with next to no senior football played.
“Paul Jewell had a lot of faith in me and gave me my debut at a young age,” said Lawrence. “But then he left. Every manager has a different opinion.
“I’m partly at fault for not doing enough. I was quite an early developer. At 15 or 16 I had the same build I have now, but with a bit more muscle. I was fully developed and my technical ability was good enough to train with the first team.
“I needed to keep pushing, a new manager came in and it didn’t click. I wasn’t in his plans. I was 18 when I left Ipswich. Because I had been playing in the reserves for three years I felt I wanted to get in a first team. With hindsight, maybe I should have stayed and proved myself to Mick McCarthy.
“Maybe it was a confidence thing, that I didn’t think I was good enough at the time to get in Ipswich’s first team – I’d try and do it at a different level.
“I do my stuff in the gym and I want to try and get to where I was again. But I was never in Ipswich’s first team or Colchester’s first team as a regular. So I want to get back to the league but not just be a young lad – someone who can do a job.”
Lawrence has impressed at Leiston. His initial exploits for the Isthmian League side landing a move to big-spending Billericay Town. He was loaned back to Leiston last season.
“Playing at this level has been a massive learning curve for me,” he said. “A little midfield player coming into non league, I’ve had to adapt to the way people play and the standard is high.
“Professional footballers when they are young think these levels are kind of easy. But when people leave professional football and go into it a lot can’t get a non-league team – they try it and are not good enough.
“I want to play well for Gavin Rose and see what happens with Dulwich now. Long-term I’d love to get back into pro football – but so would a million other players.
“I do the extra bits outside of football to try and make sure it can happen. I work out and play five-a-side still – I try and commit to it even though I’m not full time.”
Lawrence is not expecting Dulwich just to make up the numbers following promotion to National South.
“Since I’ve been in the Ryman League they are the best footballing side I’ve seen,” he said. “I played a bit of Conference South for Bishop’s Stortford. Dulwich have got really strong players and I can see us being one of the better teams in the league.
“I play as a number eight. I try and get forward. In my conversation with Gavin he said he’d like me to get more goals and that he’ll help me to do that.
“At Leiston I got something like 13 goals in my first season and eight last season. So I’m around the 10-goal mark. You want a goalscoring midfielder to get between 15 and 20. At the moment I haven’t shown I can do that.
“I like to drop deep and get on the ball, I find myself doing that a lot. I want to make things happen.”
Leiston boss Glenn Driver played his part in Lawrence’s move to the Hamlet.
“I wanted to get up a level to Conference South,” said Lawrence. “I knew about Dulwich and Gavin and kind of wanted to be a part of that, to see if that was possible.
“I had an agent who was trying to help me out and got in touch with Gavin. And Glenn spoke to Gavin and gave a reference. That was nice, to be fair, because if I didn’t sign for Dulwich or move up a level then I’d probably have stayed with Leiston. He knew that and still helped me.
“We have got a good relationship. He wants me to play as high as I can.”
Lawrence was playing for Billericay at the end of the 2016-17 season. The Essex club made national headlines as players linked up to sing R Kelly’s song ‘World’s Greatest’ before matches.
Owner Glenn Tamplin, who managed the team at the time, has a lion mural put in the home dressing room.
Asked about the pre-game singing, Lawrence said: “It was something I hadn’t experienced before, it was definitely unique. The players went with it.
“It followed an inspirational teamtalk. It’s not something you’re used to. Some players might say it worked for them, some might say it wasn’t any good. It was a routine we had. It was strange, I’ll give you that.
“I didn’t get to see the Billericay experience in full, it was the season just gone that they really went for it. In the summer after I signed they signed a lot more and it was a tough team to get into.
“I enjoyed playing at the end of the [2016-17] season. The pressure was on. It was very intense.
“When I was on a season-long loan at Leiston last season I kind of felt like I wasn’t a Billericay player, even though I had signed for two years.”
Photo by John Heald.