STEVE LAWSON - Sparrowhawk To Lion

Born in France, an Internationalist with Togo, yet, with the most Scottish name in the Livingston dressing room, it is perhaps fitting that Steve Lawson seems to have found a home in West Lothian as he gears up for his third season as a Lion, which is now only eight days away.

Well maybe not for Steve, who is nursing an injury. Something he neglected to mention as we arranged our shoot. You can imagine our surprise when he rocked up with a suitcase of ‘fits in one hand and a crutch in the other. A modern day Long John Silver. Yet, after talking the talk in our interview, Steve was more than ready to walk the walk; thankfully more cat than plank.

We caught up for a conversation in Edinburgh’s latest style and substance spot: It Started In The North on Easter Road. We sat down on the comfiest couch known to man for an extensive and varied conversation. Here’s what was said.

Let’s start with your earliest memories of football growing up, how did you get in to the sport? Ok, so I started out at 5 years old but, in France, you are supposed to start at 6. My mum told me that I was so impatient that I had to start at 5! I then played for the same club for around six or seven years. But then, because I wanted a better team, I moved twice.

You were too good? Uh-huh! So I went to the West Coast and that is when I started playing professionally. So it worked!

You can play in midfield and at right-back. Was there a player with similar versatility that inspired you in your adolescent years? I can play all the positions! (Laughs) But not really. As a midfielder, I like to watch Iniesta. When I play as a right-back, I like to watch Dani Alves. I love those guys. They are my inspirations.

Tell us about how you got spotted by Vannes OC? It’s a long story! So I was playing for my team in Paris when Didier Drogba’s uncle saw me playing and he liked what he saw. He told me after the game that he wanted to help me get to professional football!

Was that as a right-back or as a midfielder? I was right-back. So he took me to Vannes on trial. But, when I got there, they said to me: “You are not a right-back, you are a midfielder” - so that’s where that started!

The club was only founded in 1998. What were the dynamics like at the club? I think it’s the same as Livingston, as Livingston were only formed around the same time as Vannes, albeit following on from Meadowbank. But, at Vannes, we had very good staff, very professional.

Do you think you benefited coming through in the French lower leagues as opposed to being a youth player at the likes of Lyon, PSG, Marseille etc? I would say yes. But, more so because, at a smaller club, you have to fight harder to showcase your talent and be spotted to further your career. At those big clubs you mentioned, the players there are already in good teams. You need to work so hard to reach their level whilst in the second, third or fourth tier. So it’s very tough. But, because of that, I have a fighting mentality. I don’t like to come to a club and have everything easy or have it given to me, I want to fight for it.

You then moved on to Switzerland with Le Mont and then Neuchâtel Xamax before you were spotted by Livingston in the summer of 2018. How did your move to West Lothian come about? So David Martindale and Kenny Miller saw a video of me playing and, from that, they got in contact with my agent. They asked if I could come over for a trial. I said: Why not?! But I am not going to lie! When they asked me to come over, I hadn’t heard of Livingston! (Laughs) I knew of Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen, Hibs, Hearts… so I asked my friend from Switzerland who played with Hearts to give me some information.

Who was your contact? Ibrahim Tall. So I asked him about the league. He told me that it is very physical, the intensity is high and, for me, it would be a good league to play in. So I said “OK!”. Just like that. (Laughs)

You mentioned there that Kenny Miller spotted you alongside David Martindale, but, by the time you signed for the club, there was no manager in place. Was that a strange situation? (Laughing) No, not really. As I never really had the time to get to know him. But he is a really good man. But, after he left, the way we played changed.

I’m glad you mentioned that as I wanted to ask you about the playing style at the club. The team often get branded as long ball merchants by pundits but, despite that, you can also get the ball down and play. Does that association annoy the players? Sometimes it does. I like to play football. I like to have the ball at my feet. So do the other guys. We had Steven Lawless last season; he’s a small guy - he’s not going to head the ball! But he is very, very good technically. But we also have Lyndon Dykes, who is very good at holding the ball up and we can play off him. Craig Sibbald is another one who is small; he’s a very good player. So we know that we can go long if we need to but we also know that we can play - we can mix it up.

Your arrival at the club coincided with Livingston’s return to the Scottish top-flight, how did you find the quality in comparison to what you had been used to previously? I think it’s more the intensity that is different; it is so high! All the players who come on trial from France and Switzerland say that it is unbelievable. Because, in those countries, you have the time to put your foot on the ball, look up, find a pass. In Scotland it is not like that.

You’re now going in to your third year with Livingston, which is the longest time you have spent at a club, why do you think that is? Well, at some of my previous clubs, I actually wanted to stay longer! But certain situations that arose meant that couldn’t happen. Such as my first club in Switzerland, they no longer exist!

Oh right, Ok… Yeah! (Laughs) Then, at my second club, I had some trouble with the chairman over my contract. It’s difficult to explain! But, after that dispute went back and forth three times, I had to leave. I am not the kind of guy who is going to beg the chairman to offer me a contract with the right terms. Now at Livingston, everything has been good! So, why leave?! (Laughs)

On a personal level, has it been good for you to have some stability having moved around on annual basis for a few years prior to Livingston? (Laughing) Yes! I am so tired of leaving! It is not nice having to leave the friends that you make at your club and then start again. That is why I am good at Livingston.

Who are the guys from the club that you hang out with off the pitch? So there’s Hakeem Odoffin, Dolly Menga, all the French players! As well, sometimes Efe Ambrose, sometimes Marvin Bartley. We have a really good group. But, in the changing room, I love all the players.

What would you say are the main cultural differences you have found between football in Switzerland and France versus Scotland? Well, when I first came across to Scotland, I was very quiet on the pitch. But you can’t be like that. You have to scream and shout! “Man on!”, “Time!”, “Man on!”, “Time” - it is constant! This is the main difference for me. Even with the fans, they are much more… lively than France! (Laughs)

Have you picked up any of the Scottish language yet? Nothing yet! But, when I first came over, it was so difficult for me to understand! David Martindale picked me up for the first time and, when he was speaking, I was sat thinking: “What is he talking about?!” (Laughs) I thought that my English wasn’t that bad but that had me thinking otherwise! I had to ask him to slow down! But I think that's why I hang out with the French and English players - they are easier to understand! (Laughs)

You seem very family orientated, but was it difficult for you moving to Scotland and being further away from them? Not so much. I am used to it by now. I left my family home when I was 14 when I went to the West Coast. So I am accustomed to it by now.

I saw you tag an account called @LawsonMusic on Instagram which has a sizeable following! Does someone in your family make music? That’s my big brother! He’s a solo artist. He’s just starting out. His latest song is very good!

Were you not feeling his earlier ones? No, no I still liked them! But this one I really like (Laughs)

Other than your big bro, who are your favourite artists? I couldn’t pick a name or a genre as I could be playing 50 Cent one minute and the next song that comes on is Dolly Parton! (Laughs) So I don’t think I can say I have one particular sound.

I understand! What about guys from back home? There are some cool artists coming out of France just now. Yeah, for sure. I like Hamza, Siboy and Kalash.

How about before a match, do you have a set playlist for those occasions? (Exhales) Oh yeah! The playlist knows! It is full of African songs and, whenever I hear it, I want to dance! So I’ll be in the changing room before training and games with my headphones in and you will find me dancing! The other players sit and watch me, not able to hear the song, and say: “What is he doing?!” (Laughs) But I have to be happy before coming on the pitch. If I come on the pitch angry, I won’t play good.

How does that compare to what get’s played in the Livingston dressing room? It’s definitely not the same as the other boys. But I am in charge of it sometimes. Other times it can be Craig Sibbald, Lyndon Dykes; so we mix up the styles. Sometimes I want to hear something from Sibbs but, sometimes I want to hear something from me… so I take it back!

What about live shows, do you ever attend any of those? I have seen my brother perform and I went to a couple of things when I was younger, but I don’t get to see many now.

We are currently sat in It Started In The North, a newly established fashion store on Easter Road, but how would you describe your own style? It depends! But, if I had to use one word, it would be ‘unique’. It’s true! As I have some weird clothes… But I like it! For example, sometimes I go out with black shoes, but, on the other foot, it will be a white one! (Laughs) Today, for you, it’s soft!

You shouldn’t have! Where do your fashion influences come from? I would not dress like him, but I like Memphis Depay.

Other than here, where would you go to pick up a new outfit? Online! But, if I had to go to a shop, I like Harvey Nichols, I like Zara as well.

You were born in France but play internationally for Togo, do you ever incorporate any African elements in to your style? Mhmmmm, no.

Just on Togo, tell us about your ties to the country? Both of my parents are from there. So this is my country. But despite that, I don’t think I will live there when I finish playing football; I think I will go back to France.

How does it feel to represent The Sparrowhawks on the pitch? Phew. I think my international debut is the highlight of my career so far. Singing the national anthem gave me goosebumps. I loved it.

I also wanted to ask you about the BLM movement; firstly, tell us about your thoughts on the campaign itself. I think the movement is a good thing. But, it’s not like the problem is only two or three months old, it started hundreds of years ago. But I think it is good now that people are realising that change needs to happen. I also like how peaceful the movement has been; people from different backgrounds and cultures can join it - it’s not just Black Lives Matter, this is All Lives Matter - Arabians, Asians - it’s the same for all of us. I saw a video on Instagram that I liked: there were black people kneeling in protest and, just in front of them, were around a hundred white people protecting them from the police. So I think the movement is good, it shows that we are all in this together. All of us… in the same shit!

100%! Have you ever encountered any racism personally in your career so far? Never in the changing room but on the park I have. It wasn’t directed at me, but at a teammate of mines at Vannes. So he got hit by the football in the balls and he fell to the floor. Then, a spectator at the side of the park shouted on: “It’s better like this. Now the monkey cannot have children”.

Wow. I was 16. I couldn’t believe it. Sixteen! We play football! Just come to the game and enjoy it! That quote remains in my mind even until now. It’s crazy. I cannot imagine how someone can say that. But I have not received anything personally.

What would you like to see be done in Scottish football to continue to drive racism out of the game and out of society? Honestly? I think it’s not possible to completely remove it. A baby is not born a racist; he is taught to be one. So it’s not something that the FA can totally remove as they have limited control over it. But, when it does happen, they need to step in and punish the fan or player appropriately. In Scotland, however, I have not seen or heard anything. Other than Marvin Bartley a couple of years ago. So the Scottish FA have less to deal with I would say. But, in countries like Italy, with incidents involving players like Moise Kean, Mario Balotelli and Prince Boateng, they have a lot of work to do.

Absolutely. Just on Scottish football, the Premier League returns to action next weekend following a lengthy lay-off during which we went in to lockdown, but how was your lockdown experience? It was good! I was with my fiancé at home, I went out to run sometimes, I went to the shop to get some food. Other than that, I was just relaxing. As you know as well, I also had my school exams more recently.

Yes! Tell us more about what you are studying towards. So it’s a Commercial Negotiations course. It will help me both in football and after. I will maybe use it to go and speak to Gary Holt and David Martindale soon…. (Laughs)

Lastly, if you could choose between winning the AFCON with Togo or a Scottish Cup success with Livingston, what would it be? I think you are waiting for nothing! It has to be Togo! Sorry Livingston fans! (Laughs)

Words: Scott Kelly

Photography: Connor Stewart

Location: It Started In The North, 138-140 Easter Road, Edinburgh

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