Stuart Lawrence: ‘Stephen would be in awe of how the tournament has grown’ | Soccer
Stuart Lawrence is addressing his audience on the spectacular playing fields of Danes Hill School in Surrey, one comprised mainly of young football prospects and their parents, and he finds himself reaching for a famous old line. “It was Albert Einstein who said that the true measure of intelligence lay in the power of the imagination,” he says. “So keep on hoping and dreaming.”
For Stuart, it had started with an idea. How could he link football – the sport that so obsesses him – to the legacy of his brother, Stephen Lawrence, whose racist knife murder in 1993 and the bungled police investigation have been among the great sadnesses of our times?
“Why can’t we just do a tournament?” his friend Josh Evans suggested. Evans is the head of the eponymous Josh Evans Soccer School, one of the raft of private academies that have sprung up across England to develop young players and bridge the gap between grassroots football and the academies at professional clubs. And lo, the Stephen Lawrence Cup – organised and presented by Evans and his staff – was in motion.
It enjoyed its first edition last year, nine clubs competing at Downsend School in another Surrey enclave, but at Danes Hill 23 clubs are present; West Ham have sent two teams to make up a 24-strong field. The Premier League is well represented with Arsenal, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Fulham and Southampton also involved while Millwall, Reading, Swansea and Watford are there from the Championship and AFC Wimbledon from League Two.
The professional clubs send under-11s teams, the private academies and grassroots clubs their under-12s, and what bears reporting from last Saturday’s event – apart from the startling levels of technical ability – is how much everybody wanted to show their support for Stephen Lawrence and the charitable foundation in his name. Millwall, for example, were asked whether they wanted to compete and they said they would look into it. They were told who and what it was for. “We’re there,” came the reply.
“I think Stephen would be quite in awe about the amount of people that have come and also how much the tournament has grown in a year,” Stuart says. “We’ve already started talking about next year – about getting international teams, about getting girls’ teams.
“We’ve got kids from different cultures, different backgrounds and all competing at a top private school. Some of these kids might not have seen facilities like this before or been in this type of environment. But it just shows that there is another side to everything.
“That’s why I was talking about Einstein and the imagination. I want them all to have this imagination where anything is possible. If you want to come to a school like this, it’s possible but what are you going to have to do to get there? It’s all building blocks to get you to the mountain top. With hard work and determination, great things can come.”
Stuart was 16 when Stephen – two years his elder – was killed as he waited at a bus stop in Eltham, south-east London. It was not until 2012 that two of the gang of suspects – Gary Dobson and David Norris – were jailed for 15 and 14 years respectively.
The public inquiry into the case identified institutionalised racism and incompetence within the Metropolitan police and the Lawrence family’s tireless fight for justice brought changes to the force, the law and politics. Dame Cressida Dick, the former Met commissioner, said the murder had the greatest impact on the police of any in modern British history.
“The hurtful bit is that they [the convicted killers] got to live their lives for 19 years; they got to have kids and just carry on,” Stuart says. “Them not owning up and denying it all adds to the pain. We’re now getting towards the part of it where they start talking about parole. I just want to close this chapter but it never closes.
“We’re 10 years on from the investigations they were doing into police corruption, into police misconduct, and we still don’t know about that. Do we have to wait for people to pass for us to be able to talk the truth? There are still people that know things [about the murder].
“That’s the hardest part and it’s more for my mum and dad. I just want them to be able to go: ‘This is what really happened, these are the mistakes that were made, here’s who was responsible for them and here’s what will happen to those people.’ It’s having some sense of peace with it before you meet your maker.”
Stuart idolised Stephen and football was one of the many things that bonded them. “He was a massive Man United fan whereas I’m Arsenal,” Stuart says. It was when Stuart became a father to Theo in 2011 that the game took him in another direction. When Theo’s coach at Fit For Kids in Wandsworth did not turn up one day, he stepped in to help with the session and, in his words, “just got the bug”.
Stuart took an under-nines team at FFK and started to do his coaching badges. Working as a secondary school teacher at the time, Stuart looked for a way to break into the professional game and he felt that scouting could provide it.
He did a few courses and worked unpaid at AFC Wimbledon for six months, looking for under-seven players to go into the development centre. Then he got a job as a south London scout for Brighton, scouting players in a similar age bracket. He also coached the under-sevens and under-eights at the development centre in Carshalton. He stayed with Brighton for five years. This season he is the assistant coach of the Josh Evans under-13 team as he seeks to complete his Uefa B licence.
More broadly, how does one of the country’s most high-profile racial justice campaigners see the climate at the top levels of the English game? Stuart is unimpressed at the lack of black people in coaching and decision-making positions and is measured but hard-hitting about the Premier League’s move to have players take the knee only before specific matches this season.
He feels the authorities have “taken an option not to deal with it [racism and discrimination] any more,” suggesting they were happy to have ticked a box and have pulled back from driving the conversation over a more prolonged period. “Football has shirked its responsibilities,” he argues. “The game did everything to stamp out hooliganism inside stadiums. Why not do the same in the anti-racism push?
“When the Premier League captains first decided to take the knee, it was the idea of Troy Deeney and Tyrone Mings,” Stuart says. “Then Kevin De Bruyne said: ‘If you guys are doing it, we are all doing it.’ I know this because Troy told me.
“It takes allies to be active. Which is why I’m surprised that in a landmark year, the Premier League’s 30th anniversary, they are not going to continue to do it all the time when they’ve got so much exposure. I feel really upset that they’ve said: ‘Only special occasions.’ Every Premier League match is a special occasion.”
Stuart could certainly apply the description to last Saturday’s tournament and not only because Theo played in it. Arsenal beat Southampton in the final but it was not about the results, more about young players coming together in a spirit of sportsmanship, encouraging differences, striving to fulfil potential. About honouring and celebrating Stephen.