Atomic bombs, battleships and Blackpool… how 99-year-old Cyril Lawrence has led a life less ordinary
- Cyril Lawrence was a winger who played for Blackpool, Rochdale and Wrexham
- The 99-year-old was 19 when football last ground to a halt due to World War II
- Teenager had just been on the verge of making his Blackpool breakthrough
- Lawrence played as much football as he could while serving in the Royal Navy
- Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?
When football last ground to a halt, Cyril Lawrence was a teenager on the verge of a breakthrough into the Blackpool team.
They were top of Division One, having started the new season with three wins under Joe Smith, the manager who would preside over a golden post-war era when Stanley Matthews dazzled on the wing.
Salford-born Lawrence was an inside forward in the ambitious ranks of young professionals alongside players such as Stan Mortensen, who went on to achieve legendary status at Bloomfield Road.
Cyril Lawrence, 99, was a teenager when football last ground to a halt back in 1939
They can both be seen cross- legged on the floor in the front row of a team photograph which is among Lawrence’s prized possessions from his footballing career.
Lawrence is now 99 years old. He has titanium knees and two discs removed from his back, but he stayed active and believed in keeping fit. His health has deteriorated rapidly in the last three months and he is no longer able to conduct an interview over the phone.
And yet his formidable courage and sense of adventure might offer inspiration at a time when football has been halted by the corona-virus outbreak and a national emergency once again takes precedence over sport.
‘Blackpool was a great club at the time and Cyril fought hard to get in there,’ says his grandson David. ‘He was breaking into the first team when the country went to war but rather than feeling bitter about what might have been he went off and saw the world.
‘We’ve always been very close. He would take me to watch Manchester United when Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson were managers, but he told me more about his life in the Royal Navy than he ever did about his life as a professional footballer.
At 19, Lawrence lied about his age in order to register for national service before conscription was introduced.
‘I spent my childhood alongside the Salford docks,’ he said. ‘And I decided the Navy was to be my new life so I volunteered.’ As he completed his military training he was able to represent Blackpool in a wartime fixture against Bolton in December 1939 and returned for another game, while on leave, against Stockport in September 1943.
Wartime football was encouraged to lift morale, although the size of the crowds was strictly limited and some games had to be abandoned amid air raids.
Lawrence played several times for Hyde United before he was deployed on the brand new battleship HMS King George V, assigned to the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands.
He would spend more than five years serving on the ship, which performed an active combat role and witnessed some of the most historic episodes of the war, including the pursuit and sinking of the Bismarck and the surrender of Japan.
Lawrence’s early career at sea was spent on the Arctic convoys delivering aid and essential supplies to the Soviet Union.
‘He would tell us how he’d cover his face and hands with cooking fat from the galley to protect against the bitter cold before going out on deck to cut the ice from the cables,’ says daughter Elaine. ‘He would be locked into his gun turret from the outside because, if the ship went down, the air inside the watertight turrets would help to keep it afloat.’
On a convoy bound for the northern Soviet ports in dense fog in May 1942, the battleship collided with the destroyer HMS Punjabi, which was cut in two and sank with the loss of 49 lives.
‘We were zigzagging to avoid submarines,’ he recalled in an article about life on the King George V. ‘The weather was foul and visibility poor when we came in contact with the Punjabi. It was tragic. One of the survivors was the ship’s cat. She was named Madame Punjabi.
‘She remained on board for many years until we reached Sydney and it was thought she abandoned the KGV for pastures new.’
Lawrence represented the Royal Navy at football, appearing in exhibition matches in Cairo and Alexandria and against New South Wales at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
His footballing prowess helped him around the custom for sailors to transfer to other ships during times of repair and refitting and he became the KGV’s longest- serving seaman.
When the ship was in Liverpool in 1944 being prepared for its redeployment to the Eastern Fleet, Lawrence married Claire who, like her husband, will be 100 in June. They are cared for these days by their daughters Elaine and Norma and their families.
HMS King George V ended its wartime service in the Pacific Ocean, involved in the allied invasion of Okinawa and the bombardment of Hamamatsu and sent to observe the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
Lawrence was in Tokyo Bay when Japan surrendered, aboard the USS Missouri.
The Americans borrowed the table and chairs for the signing ceremony from the wardroom of the KGV.
He was despatched onshore to help collect prisoners of war and formed part of the guard of honour when the British Embassy in Tokyo was reopened.
It was Christmas 1945 when he left the KGV for the last time and re-signed for Blackpool two months later on a deal worth £5 a week with a £3 bonus when he made the first team.
His football had suffered at the expense of his military service, however, unlike other players stationed at home who were able to maintain a higher level of football throughout the war.
He found he could not break into Smith’s excellent side, who would go on to reach the FA Cup final three times in six years, winning the trophy in 1953 and finishing runners up in Division One behind Manchester United’s Busby Babes in 1956.
Lawrence’s playing career was over by the time Matthews and Mortensen produced their heroics at Wembley.
He left Blackpool for Rochdale and then moved on to Wrexham where he suffered a serious knee injury at the age of 31, a sad landmark which provokes an amusing family story.
‘Claire did not care for football and had never seen him play but she went on this occasion,’ says son-in-law Rod. ‘Cyril gave her the ticket and told her to wait in her seat for half an hour after the match and he would collect her and they would go to the bar.
‘More than an hour after the match and she was still sitting in her seat when someone came over to ask what she was doing.
‘She said she was waiting for her husband. “Cyril Lawrence?” they asked. “He was injured in the first half. He’s been taken to hospital”.’
It would be six months before he was out of hospital and walking again.
‘He just got on with it,’ says Elaine. ‘I think his generation did just get on with things. They were a hardy lot.’
Lawrence worked as a plumber and glazier and, although he became a keen follower of rugby league, he has always stayed in contact with his former football clubs.
Perhaps they can channel his unbreakable spirit in this time of crisis.
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