Farewell to a friend - a tribute to Ian Laws

Ian laws (left) during his time as sports writer with Graeme Anderson  in the press box at the Stadium of Light
Ian laws (left) during his time as sports writer with Graeme Anderson in the press box at the Stadium of Light
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SUNDERLAND Echo journalist Ian Laws died on January 26 of a suspected heart attack at the tragically young age of 41. Friend and colleague Graeme Anderson recalls the man known to one and all as Lawsy.

IT’S still impossible to take in the fact that Ian Laws has gone, but the truth is we might have lost him in the spring of ’99 when, by his own account, an elephant almost sat on him.

Lawsy had gone over to Denmark on something of a scoop. We’d just broken the story that Carsten Fredgaard was to become Sunderland’s expensive close-season signing, and our man had flown over to watch him in action for Lyngby ahead of his move.

Afterwards, Fredgaard happily consented to an interview and photographs, (if only the midfielder had been as good a footballer as he was affable a man!), and Lawsy had suggested the local zoo as one of the locations to get a sense of place for his pictures.

So engrossed was Lawsy in getting his photograph – and those who knew him could vouch for how absorbed in a task he could get – that he failed to notice the grey bulk of the giant herbivore ambling backwards towards him.

Only the strangled cry of the increasingly concerned Dane alerted the focused photographer, and a startled Lawsy jumped out of the way just as Dumbo swished past him.

Lawsy couldn’t help but laugh on his return home, wondering how the Echo would have tactfully reported his demise.

It’s a good story and I hope you like it. I’ve got loads of them.

But then everyone who came into contact with Ian tended to have a humorous tale to tell.

It’s remarkable to think how many times a mention of his name in company would bring a smile to the faces of those present, for he had a rare ability to get on with pretty much anyone.

He was a character, but not in a loud, brash way.

He was bloke-ish, loved the banter and crack of his mates or any fans he got into conversation with, but always listened twice as much as he spoke.

And when he did speak, it was invariably worth listening to. When I think of him, it’s always with him with a smile or a big grin on his face and he loved to laugh.

He had the driest sense of humour, I think, of anyone I’ve ever met and it came to him instinctively.

Last year, giving him a lift into town from the Echo, for example, we pulled on to Chester Road at the Hastings Hill roundabout and looked over to the fields of grass left after the recent clearances of Pennywell’s council estates.

“Eee, I remember this when it was all houses, you know,” he said absent-mindedly.

Lawsy came out with stuff like that all the time. He was modest and self-effacing, but he was as sharp as a tack.

As a journalist, he was the sort of guy who gives reporters a good name.

I got to know him well, over the course of a decade spent living in each other’s pockets, and I enjoyed his company enormously.

The Echo’s budget does not stretch to separate rooms for its reporters during coverage of away games, so he was my room-mate and we became known as “Eric and Ernie”, with wind-up colleagues occasionally enquiring which one of us had the glasses and pipe and which the slippers and toupee.

We never really thought of it as odd, but that’s journalism for you and long before his encounter with the elephant, he’d got used to the bizarreness which sometimes comes with the job.

As a news reporter, he’d already sung karaoke on live morning television; dressed up as Long John Silver for a carnival float, and cycled from the Board Inn to Fawcett Street in competition with a bus and car to see which was the fastest way into town after the new bus “super-route” had been introduced on Durham Road.

For the record, he and his bike won.

It was sport, though – football especially and Sunderland Football Club in particular – that was his passion, and he relished his decade on the Echo sports desk from 1999-2010.

It wasn’t always easy for him.

There’s a vast difference between being a supporter of Sunderland Football Club and a reporter on Sunderland Football Club – even if the hearts are in the same place.

Any view you espouse will automatically alienate someone, even if the majority might agree with you.

Every time you reveal a fact or a story, there’s a danger you’ll upset someone who’d rather it had stayed secret. And even the most harmless disclosures of information can sometimes cause offence in the super-sensitive world of football.

At such times of conflict and misery, you’d occasionally hear Lawsy quietly repeating to himself, reminding himself: “It is my job, not my life. It is my job, not my life. It is my job, not my life.”

Despite the words themselves, I always took it is an indication of how deeply he cared and how sensitive he remained, despite years in the hard-knock world of his chosen career.

Not that such unhappy times happened very often.

Lawsy was very good at his job – boxing promoter Frank Maloney once famously refused to start a press conference because Ian was running late, telling the disbelieving press corps: “We’ll wait a few minutes until Lawsy gets here.”

Ian’s last interview was carried out this week, when he talked to Julio Arca ahead of tomorrow’s Sunderland-Middlesbrough game – a piece which will appear in the club’s matchday programme.

Programme editor Rob Mason said: “Ian apologised if the piece was longer than expected but said he was enjoying himself so much cracking on to Julio again, that it over-ran.”

Julio told the Echo: “I cannot believe Ian is dead.

“It was good speaking to him just a few days ago and I was expecting to see him and his son, James, at the match on Sunday. I enjoyed the interview and I remember during my time at Sunderland that the players liked and respected him.”

Tributes like that have flowed into the Echo since his death.

Mick McCarthy rang up the club to ask for his condolences to be passed on to the family. Boxer Tony Jeffries’ dad, Phil, said: “Our family are utterly devastated by the news. We’ve spoken to Frank Maloney who is in New York and he’s shell-shocked but wants to try to make it back for the funeral.”

Chairman Niall Quinn expressed his condolences. Gary Bennett rang up in disbelief. David Craig called to offer the thoughts of all at Sky Sports to his family and friends. Journalists from across the sports industry have been in touch and continue to call offering their support.

Former manager Peter Reid said: “I’ve always thought that when you’re a manager, you need a good relationship with your local man. You need to be able to trust them, confide in them at times even, so that they’re in the picture and report accurately.

“Lawsy was just a young lad when he started covering the club, but he picked things up quickly and you could have a laugh with him, too. It’s terrible news and my heart goes out to his family and his kids.”

The Sunderland Echo was a very sombre place to be when we heard the news. It felt like a death in the family, which in a way, it was. He was well-liked throughout the company.

Everyone who came into contact with Lawsy soon felt as though they knew him. He was open and giving and easy to get on with. But, in truth, he was a very private person and kept his private life largely to himself.

Several of his close friends in journalism still have the text he sent to his mates out of the blue which simply said: “Got married today.”

On an away trip on the south coast after a game against Portsmouth, we were giving him stick in a late-night pub for the fact his phone was constantly ringing. “Well,” he admitted, finally getting sick of the mickey-taking: “It IS my birthday.”

If the wedding had to go uncelebrated, at least the birthday didn’t, and I still remember the goldfish bowl size cocktail the pressmen chipped in to buy him – a wary Lawsy observing: “So that’s what absinthe looks like.”

Throughout his life, his deep love for Sunderland Football Club, shone through.

So there was a strange appropriateness to the fact that when he died on Thursday night, he was wearing a Sunderland shirt.

His love for the club, however – great though it was – was nothing compared to his love for his family and in particular his children – Lauren, James and Millie.

Private person though he was, everyone who knew Lawsy understood how much he adored his kids.

He was utterly devoted to them.

And while our loss is massive, theirs is incalculable.

A little more than a year ago, Lawsy left the sports desk and moved into the expanding internet side of the newspaper business.

He had grown a little disillusioned with the way football was going, disappointed that the personal relationships he had struck up with players like Julio were now things of the past as access to players became more and more restricted with each passing season.

But the driving force behind his decision to leave sport was that he could spend more weekends, more time generally, with his children.

I’m glad that he got to spend more time with them in those last 15 months.

Though it will be no consolation to them right now, I hope they take some comfort eventually from the knowledge that he leaves them with a host of golden memories and the fact they could not have had a better dad.

For my part, I will miss the kindness and warmth of my friend and his good counsel down the years.

Rest in peace, Lawsy. Rest in peace, Ian.