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Liam's got Europe on his radar

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Republic of Ireland Press Conference - Tuesday 22nd March 2011...22 March 2011; Republic of Ireland's Liam Lawrence after a press conference ahead of their EURO2012 Championship Qualifier match against Macedonia on Saturday March 26th. Republic of Ireland Press Conference, Grand Hotel, Malahide, Co. Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE...ABC

Republic of Ireland Press Conference - Tuesday 22nd March 2011...22 March 2011; Republic of Ireland's Liam Lawrence after a press conference ahead of their EURO2012 Championship Qualifier match against Macedonia on Saturday March 26th. Republic of Ireland Press Conference, Grand Hotel, Malahide, Co. Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE...ABC

Republic of Ireland Press Conference - Tuesday 22nd March 2011...22 March 2011; Republic of Ireland's Liam Lawrence after a press conference ahead of their EURO2012 Championship Qualifier match against Macedonia on Saturday March 26th. Republic of Ireland Press Conference, Grand Hotel, Malahide, Co. Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE...ABC

THE Champions League next season will be a very lonely place from an Irish point of view.

If Anthony Stokes leaves Celtic, and seeing as Aiden McGeady's Spartak Moscow have failed to qualify, it's almost certain that no Irishman will be involved in the group stages of the competition next term – except one, perhaps.

He has remained under the radar since he left the English club scene late in the transfer window last summer, but Liam Lawrence has been carving out a nice niche for himself in the Greek league with PAOK Salonika.

The normal league season in Greece has ended, Lawrence's side finishing second behind champions Olympiakos, but the Greeks only hand one club, the champions, an automatic qualification place for the Champions League.

The next four enter a play-off system to determine who ends up in the Champions League and the Europa League, so PAOK face into six more games over the next month to determine their fate.

Lawrence is out of contract at the end of the season but the club have already said they'd like to keep him on, especially if they make it to the Champions League.

But with his family (two young sons) based in England while he plays in Greece, it would be a hard decision for the 31-year-old to remain there, and he admits to being conflicted by the prospect of playing in the Champions League.

At the back of all that is the chaos and confusion which seems to be a feature of the Greek game. Fans of the once-mighty AEK Athens rioted in reaction to their relegation – as PAOK just this week sacked their manager, despite that second-place league finish, as punishment for losing in a cup semi-final last Saturday.

A club statement claimed the team had "wronged themselves" by losing in the cup and the club asked fans for "forgiveness".

"They want instant success here and they don't hang about," Lawrence says. "Our fans went mental when we lost the cup game and here, the fans get what they want."

Yet Lawrence, who was last capped against Scotland in May 2011, says he's thrilled with the move to the football-obsessed port city of Salonika.

"It's been really good and better than I thought. Coming to a different league, with a different language and new surroundings was going to be a challenge, and some of it has been an eye-opener," he told The Herald.

"The football side of things has been great, I've loved it here, we had a good season by finishing as runner-up in the league and getting to the cup semi-final, and we have a good chance of making it into the Champions League.

"The atmosphere here is something I have never experienced before. I played in derby games in England, and I always thought that Portsmouth-Southampton or Sunderland-Newcastle were intense games, but this is a different level."

Payment of players' wages was a constant problem in Greece, even before the financial crisis hit, but while Lawrence has had no problems on that score, there is a gnawing issue of family. His move to Greece from Portsmouth was last-minute and, having moved house in England twice in the previous year, Lawrence opted not to upset his young family again with another move, so he's on his own in an apartment outside Salonika while his kids are back in the UK.

"The football has been good but the personal side has been tough," he admits. "It's tough being on your own and you have the language barrier but it's been an experience.

"It will be hard to stay out here, I miss my two boys and I've not seen my mum since Christmas so I will need to have a think."

They have spoken about a longer contract for me and Champions League football next season would make me think very hard about it. Every player wants to be in the Champions League, so it's going to be a hard call for me to make, if we do qualify for the Champions League."

The international outlook for Lawrence is more complex, as he was effectively ditched from the squad, with a text from Giovanni Trapattoni, in the build-up to Euro 2012. Trap texted him and thanked him for his service over the years but clearly suggested he was no longer required.

"I found out from the TV that I was out of the squad, so I texted Trap and we had a conversation. He was apologetic, then he phoned me a while after and he said sorry again, that he would keep tabs and maybe look at me again in the future. But there has been nothing since then," revealed Lawrence.

"When there is a miscommunication it upsets players and staff, everyone. It's better to be clear. If you want to pick a player or not pick him that's fine but you need to be clear with people, speak to them and let them know, not let them find out off the TV," he says.

"Ireland is always in my mind. I'm only 31 and I'm not over yet. I am still disappointed with how it all happened with Ireland and how it all came about. I can't let it get to me, I just get on with it.

"I know Ireland have options out wide now but I have been playing in the middle here and I have loved it.

"I would always come back, no matter what. I was never one to pick and choose my games. That summer in 2011, after we'd had the Carling Nations Cup games and the qualifier in Macedonia, everyone else went on holiday while a few of us stayed to play the Italians in Belgium so I would always be willing to travel and turn up."

Lawrence's international demise began with the defeat at home to Russia in the Euro 2012 qualifiers, when he was replaced after an hour, and he appears to have taken the blame for the loss to Russia.

He was involved after that, playing against Norway, Uruguay, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and was an unused sub for five games, but in reality his international career was over, a fact confirmed when he was excluded from a 24-man squad for a friendly with the Czech Republic.

He says: "I know I didn't play that well at home to Russia and maybe that was the start of me not being in the side, having had a good run until then. I never really got going after that – at international level you can't afford to have off days.

"I had a feeling around the time of the Czech game that things weren't right but it's water under the bridge for me now.

"I would happily come back and play, it's been two years since I last played, I am a grown man and I have accepted that and moved on, but I would love to play for my country again.

"People can look and say I'm 31 and I'm too old but that's rubbish. They keep stats here in the league, and they regularly show I run 12k in a game – more than anyone else in the team.

"Never say never but I think the writing is on the wall for me. If I am in the Champions League next season I might get looked at again but I wouldn't hold my breath."


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