Ceri Bowley never got to see Tom Lawrence become the difference-maker he believed his fellow Welshman could be for Gio van Bronckhorst’s Rangers. But the former Gers coach remains confident the fit-again playmaker can still make a major Ibrox impact for Philippe Clement
Today marks the first anniversary of van Bronckhorst’s sacking. And his former right-hand man Bowley looks back on the season-ending injury suffered by Lawrence as a sliding-doors moment, a blow which contributed to the chain of events that ultimately led to the Dutchman being ushered out the Edmiston Drive exit.
What was first thought to have been an innocuous bump to the former Derby skipper’s knee during a clash with Ross County just a month into the season turned out to be far more serious. With the versatile playmaker’s debut campaign in Glasgow cruelly cut short just as he was getting into his stride, GVB's team were denied the use of a skillset Bowley believes few others at Ibrox could provide at that time.
And with further injuries mounting up, van Bronckhorst’s rollercoaster Rangers reign soon came off the tracks as the man who had led the club on their Europa League adventure was sacked just six months after that brush with glory in Seville as humiliation in the Champions League was followed by a faltering Premiership push.
But with Lawrence at last back in action for Clement’s side, former City Group coaching guru Bowley expects to see his compatriot finally fulfil the role he always envisioned him performing for Gio’s team.
“Tom's qualities are different,” Bowley told Record Sport. "From travelling with the ball to picking passes, receiving in tight areas, scoring goals, assisting, running in behind - Tom has a range of abilities that others just don’t have.
“So when you lose that thing that’s different, it’s obviously going to affect the variety of your play. Tom was unique and it’s not easy to replace that uniqueness.
"He’d just got going at Ibrox and was starting to contribute goals. We were starting to see the real Tom Lawrence before he got injured.
“I was gutted for Tom because I know how passionate he is about doing well at Rangers. He had a set-back after that initial injury which made things even more difficult.
“I just hope for him, the new manager and the club, they can have Tom back playing consistently because when he is, he’ll be very effective for Rangers.”
Lawrence’s injury hell meant he missed out as Gers ended 12 years in the Champions League wilderness. It was especially cruel given crucial the role he’d played in helping the club edge out PSV Eindhoven to secure their group stage return.
Bowley explained: “If you look at PSV away last year in the Champions League play-off, particularly in the first half, Tom with his positioning and actions was instrumental for dictating when we pressed, and when we remained compact in a mid block.
“In the first leg, he saw that Ibrahim Sangare was rotating into a false full-back position. There was a 15-minute spell at Ibrox where we struggled with it before we got some information on to the players that allowed us to get to grips with it.
“Then in the second leg they did a similar thing, only this time they played with Cody Gakpo in the inside pocket. But the way Tom positioned himself stopped that threat, which just goes to show how tactically aware Tom is.
“His football intelligence is so important. But so are the other aspects of his game. Everyone talks about numbers but if you want to be successful you can’t just have a single talisman, you need others contributing.
“James Tavernier does that but we needed others and Tom has that ability. We saw that with the goal he scored at Easter Road.
“Tom has that ability to run beyond the striker. Antonio Colak was excellent for us around the box but he’s not the type to outrun defenders.
“We needed other people to get beyond him and Tom was one we looked to. He was different to the other midfielders - bar Scott Arfield - because he could do that from a central position. But he also had flexibility. He could play as a 10, an eight, from wide right or even wide left and adapt very quickly.
“Tom has the ability to take the ball in, which is so crucial in pressurised environments like Europe - and he’s got the bravery to do it too. He’ll take it anywhere.
“Think about league games where teams sit deep. Tom can take the ball in the pockets where there’s not much space. He attracts pressure, which causes problems as it opens up space elsewhere. But you can also rely on him to keep the ball under pressure. That’s what makes him so dangerous.
“It’s invaluable as it allows you to either play through teams or go wide. When you lose a player like him, you become more limited in how you attack.”
Ironically, County were again the opponents as Lawrence made his long-awaited return to action in August.
There’s been another brief lay-off since then with niggles continuing to frustrate the 29-year-old - but having made just his third start of the season against Livingston before the international break, Bowley has no doubt Lawrence will become a major player for new boss Clement as the Belgian looks to continue his positive start in Scotland.
“Tom definitely leads on the pitch,” said Bowley. “If a team-mate’s under pressure, give Tom the ball. He’ll look after it for you.
“If you look at Tom, you can see he’s gone through some adversity which builds character. He’s had a good grounding at Manchester United’s academy and has gone on to be a skipper at Derby, where he played an instrumental role coping with some of the off-field issues they had at that time.
“That tells you a lot about his ability to stand up and be counted when times are tough. And I think he can do that again for Rangers.”