Almost two years into his tenure as Wales manager with the jury still very much out on whether or not he is even remotely close to being the best man for the job, a moral conundrum over the selection of Tom Lawrence for his squad in the current international break is someone Ryan Giggs could have done without.
It is one he claims to have agonised over before making what he decided was the best decision for Welsh football and – one suspects, more crucially – his own future employment. Having sat out Wales’s draw against Slovakia in Trnava as an unused substitute, Lawrence will once again be available for what is ostensibly a must-win game against Croatia in Cardiff on Sunday.
Two days later, along with Mason Bennett, Lawrence is scheduled to appear at Southern Derbyshire magistrates court charged with drink driving after being arrested at the scene of an accident in which his car rear-ended that of his Derby teammate. A passenger in Lawrence’s car, the Derby captain Richard Keogh, suffered a knee injury which will keep him out for the rest of the season and could end his career.
Lawrence and Bennett, together with an unnamed player reported to be from Derby’s youth team, fled the scene of the crash in panic before returning when they realised an unconscious Keogh had been left behind. While their stricken teammate was being loaded into an ambulance, Lawrence and Bennett were arrested and taken to the cells.
It was an undeniably unseemly business, for his part in which Lawrence has since issued a grovelling apology, describing his stupidity as “a total error of judgment”.
Rather predictably opting not to sack a couple of valuable assets certain to be snapped up by other clubs willing to overlook their charges if it meant getting them for free, Derby settled instead on fining them both the maximum six weeks’ wages contractually allowable and ordered them to carry out 80 hours of community service each.
While the pair are entitled to due process when they go before the court hearing on Tuesday, it would be naive to imagine that similar punishments, as well as obligatory driving bans, might not be coming down the judicial pipe. On the plus side, nobody was killed.
Having been forced to sit out one game by Derby in the aftermath of their drunken escape, Lawrence and Bennett were quickly welcomed back into the fold by their manager, Phillip Cocu, if not all the club’s fans. Exiled from the team that played against Birmingham the weekend after the crash, they received a frosty reception upon their return to first-team action at Barnsley a few days later, when the former started and the latter came off the bench.“People make mistakes, so you have to accept it,” said Cocu. “There are consequences but we also have to stick together and go forward and play football because the game goes on.”
While Bennett played no part in Derby’s next game at home to Luton, the boos that greeted the announcement of Lawrence’s name suggested a sizeable contingent of fans believed the player had brought shame on Pride Park. Quite how long it will take them to weasel their way back into the affections of supporters remains to be seen.
Enter Giggs, a man who in cahoots with Sir Alex Ferguson turned the avoidance of international duty with Wales into something of an art form during his playing days and is perhaps not ideally placed to appreciate the significance of being denied the opportunity to play for his country. “I recognise you get criticised and that people are entitled to their own opinion,” Giggs said, when fielding predictable queries about his decision to include Lawrence in the Wales squad.
“I can’t tell you what will happen in the future but people are entitled to their own opinion and opinion is split. I recognise both sides of the argument. I looked at all the different situations and felt that for Tom and for Welsh football this was the right decision.” As a manager who already splits Welsh opinion, Giggs opted to divide it even further on the basis that he was going to be damned whatever he did.
In justifying his decision, Giggs said he knows Lawrence to be “a good guy”, adding that he wanted to check on his player’s wellbeing. While there are those who will argue, with plenty of justification, that allegedly getting behind the wheel of a car drunk and causing an accident on the way home from a heavy drinking session are not necessarily the actions of a stand-up guy, even the most saintly make similarly grave errors of judgment from time to time.
Lawrence has expressed his contrition, accepted what punishment has already been handed down from his club and must now prepare for whatever other legal sanctions are coming his way, if found guilty. Given the extremely high-profile nature of his claimed tomfoolery, they may well be at the steeper end of the scale but at some point the reprisals inflicted upon him for his alleged role in what is a shameful but depressingly common offence on British roads will have to stop.
Choosing not to enquire after his player’s welfare would have been something of a dereliction of duty on the part of Giggs, even if, as is generally accepted by all involved, Lawrence has behaved appallingly. However, this pastoral care could have been administered in conjunction with a brief period in exile for the player, if only to demonstrate to impressionable young football fans that poor personal choices as in the charges can have professional consequences.
Compared to national humiliation, the potential sanctions of enforced community service, a couple of whacking great fines, a long spell off the road and the prospect of having to sit his driving test again, being forced to sit out a couple of Wales fixtures hardly amounts to a hill of beans in the cosmic scheme of punitive measures. But in sidelining Lawrence, for two games, Giggs might have gone some way towards appeasing those who say footballers are role models and should behave accordingly. Whether or not they actually are is an entirely different debate for another day.