From prison to Premiership and finally, the Saffrons

Jamie Lawrence (right) competes for the ball against the USA
Jamie Lawrence (right) competes for the ball against the USA

Few footballers have a story to tell that is quite as compelling as Jamie Lawrence’s.

From criminal convictions to International caps. From one-man crime wave to doting father and mentor to troubled youths.

Herald Sport caught up with Eastbourne Town’s newest recruit to talk about his unconventional and inspirational journey. It’s a journey that has led him to the Saffrons, where he’s teamed up with good friend and manager Tony Reid.

Together they have a tough task in lifting the club off the bottom of the Ryman South, but he has committed himself to the cause for the remainder of the season and said they are fully concentrated ahead of this weekend’s crucial trip to Hythe Town.

“We haven’t won any games yet but we just need to get a win from somewhere, anyhow,” he admits. “It can be tough when you’re down there, when things aren’t going well but we’re working hard.”

And hard work is something that Lawrence knows all about.

A difficult childhood meant he was left to fend for himself after his parents returned to their homeland of Jamaica when he was just 17. His youth was plagued by crime as a result, and the notion of becoming a professional footballer would have seemed absurd. “I had a tough upbringing,” he explains. “I was left in South London on my own with no money so I went in to crime. It came with the territory. At that age when you’re on your own you’re fearless and I’ve done things I’m not proud of but it’s part of me.”

That life would lead to Lawrence being convicted of bank robbery in 1990 and sentenced to four-years at the Camp Hill prison on the Isle of Wight , something he describes as a “blessing in disguise.”

And it was here where Lawrence’s footballing ability would become evident.

During his time in prison, under the encouragement of the staff, in particular physical training instructor Eddie Walder, the man who Lawrence credits for turning his life around, he was granted day release to play for local side Cowes Sports.

“That was the turning point in my life,” the now proud father of four says. “I had someone who actually believed in me. For all they knew I was just a criminal but they had so much trust in me and for them to have that was unbelievable.”

His talent for the game became apparent very quickly and on his release from prison he was quickly snapped up by Sunderland where, coincidentally he would run out on his début to the tune of Jailhouse Rock!

He went on to play in the Premier League for Leicester City under Martin O’Neill, where they won the League Cup, played more than 150 times for Bradford City, where he is considered a legend, and the pinnacle of his life’s turnaround came when asked to represent Jamaica.

With his father on his deathbed at the time of the international call, the moment will always be bitter-sweet for Lawrence. He revealed, however,that winning 42 caps is his proudest achievement, having played against the likes of Brazilian superstar Ronaldo.

On retiring from the game, keen to give something back to the sport that changed his life so drastically, he set up the Jamie Lawrence football academy, providing troubled youngsters, excluded from mainstream society, with a place to come and play football and a platform to stay away from crime.

Now 43, his remarkable story gives Lawrence a credible voice, one that his pupils can relate to and he is eager to share some of the academy’s success stories.

“These kids need things to do. Whether it be sports, music, anything really. A lot of them need father figures and people to look up to. Most of them have no-one and they end up turning to gangs as their family. But there is literally loads of them who have now become honourable young men and we’ve got players that are now playing league football.”

Lawrence has come full circle from his early bad-boy days and he tells the story in his own words in his autobiography “From Prison to the Premiership”, which is now available on Kindle.

Whilst he was quick to claim responsibility for all of the bad things he has done in the past, Lawrence must be equally praised for his own successes. He puts it down to dedication, something that Eastbourne Town will hope to benefit from.

He is, however, all too aware of how different things might have been and says “I remind myself every single day of where I used to be.”