Walking off the pitch after his final game with the Kinetic Foundation, Nico Lawrence was far from happy.

His team had just beaten QPR U18s 3-0, but that didn’t change Nico’s mood. His issue? It was too damn easy!

This story, told by Lawrence's former coach Dan Hogan, speaks volumes about one of Saints’ newest recruits; both in terms of his footballing ability and the unrelenting attitude that brought him to St Mary’s - eventually. 

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“Even when he’s playing you can see him set himself little challenges,” Hogan chuckles. 

“If he’s playing against a quick strong physical nine, he’ll give them half a yard to run at him so he can really show his level and to basically make himself look better. Which at times we probably wouldn’t advise! He really sets himself challenges to push himself.

"He likes to think that whoever he comes up against, he’ll be superior to and you can see that on the pitch when he’s playing. Which is really refreshing to see.”

It may have taken a while for Nico to get to where he is now, but his arrival is by no means a coincidence.

After starting his development in Fulham’s academy, Lawrence moved from West London to South, joining Crystal Palace when the Cottagers released him. But once again, he was let go as his fledgling career was knocked back before it had even really gotten started.

Taking an alternative route following a stint at Sutton United, Lawrence joined Junior Elite, an “FA Charter Standard voluntary-ran grassroots football club”. But as was quickly becoming familiar, it just didn’t work out.

When Lawrence finally found his way into the Kinetic Foundation -  set up to help young players grow as individuls and showcase their talent while looking for permanent contracts - he was 18 and time was seemingly starting to run out. 

A relative outcast to the academy system and at an age when players were getting contracts, Lawrence was still just searching for a route in.

But that didn’t deter him. In fact, it seems to have done the opposite.

“He plays with no fear. I think that’s a big part of his character,” Hogan says. “A lot of kids who would have gone through the process that he did - playing for a top-end academy in Fulham and Crystal Palace when he was younger, a lot of boys would play within themselves but he’s one of those rare players that really backs his ability all the time and eventually, it obviously paid off.”

Daily Echo: Nico Lawrence in action for the Kinetic Academy.Nico Lawrence in action for the Kinetic Academy.

As with seemingly everything in his journey to Southampton, things were far from straightforward even after Lawrence arrived at Kinetic. Just weeks later, Covid broke out in the UK and the nation became confined to their homes.

If it felt like time was running thin before the lockdown, just imagine how frustrating that period of relative idleness was.

“We probably didn’t see as much of him as we would have liked,” Hogan explains. “And for those boys, especially being a second-year scholar, I think it was a very hard time for him. Obviously, he had aspirations of going into the pro game a lot sooner.

“He had a sense of frustration, where he wanted an opportunity, he wanted someone to take a gamble on him. Himself and other boys who come out of the system, getting back in is the hardest part. And he had a sense, not of impatience, but I would say frustration. Where he knew he was good enough, he just needed someone to take that gamble on him.

“With his mental resilience and his mindset, he didn’t allow the knock-backs to affect him as much as other boys had done in the past. He just kept plugging away and took his opportunity again when it came. Patience is the biggest thing and he could have rushed and tried to chase things but he put his trust in us and eventually it came good. 

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“He’s got to where he has because of his ability and I believe his personality as well has got him to where he is. He’s quite reserved but on the pitch he’s just a completely different animal where any challenge he feels he’ll overcome. It’s a testament to himself - if there’s a challenge on the pitch he’ll go for it head on.”

When things relented slightly after the first lockdown, Lawrence returned to consistent training with Kinetic and his rise was given a jump-start after a game against Southend’s U23s when the central midfielder by trade was deployed at centre-back.

“He was probably the best player on the pitch,” Hogan says. “We had a conversation with him saying ‘we believe you might have a better chance of getting signed as a centre-half.’

“He had the attributes to play centre-half and from there until the back end of the year he played probably six games with Kinetic plus numerous showcase games where he just took to it amazingly well. 

Daily Echo: Dan Hogan coaching in the Kinetic Academy.Dan Hogan coaching in the Kinetic Academy.

“He was playing on the left side but he’s just as competent on the right. And we really started to see him progress and just get better with every game. The biggest surprise for us, we played QPR U18s in the last game of the season and we won 3-0. Nico was a rolls-royce in that game, he came off the pitch frustrated because he found the game too easy and he wasn’t challenged. He’d been playing centre-half for six weeks!”

It clearly worked but did it take convincing for Lawrence to switch positions?

“He was in straight away,” Hogan answers. “As soon as he knew it would give him a better chance of getting signed, he was all in for it. He was willing to take that sacrifice of maybe having more enjoyment as a midfielder and getting on the ball a lot more to convert into a centre-half. He really bought into it and like I said, it paid off in the end for him.

“He’s very grounded but he has that arrogance about him where he knows he’s good enough for the level if not better than the level. But he just performs consistently all the time. And I think that’s a credit to himself. A lot of kids his age have periods where they’re up and down and inconsistent but Nico’s level of consistency is quite frightening, to be honest. His consistency is down to his mentality and backing his ability for sure.”

Despite taking major strides forward within weeks of adopting the new position, yet more speed-bumps filled Lawrence’s journey to St Mary’s.

Trials at multiple EFL clubs including Hull City ended without a contract and at the end of his second-year scholar season, Kinetic recommended a somewhat alternative route for him to continue learning his trade: non-league football with Glebe.

“It’s a different education and I believe it’s an education that a lot more academy boys should have from a young age," Hogan says. "Being able to play men’s football, get exposed at that level and really dive into that side of the game. And for me, I think Nico really found his edge from playing men’s football. 

Daily Echo: Nico Lawrence in action for non-league Glebe. Image by: Ian MiddlebrookNico Lawrence in action for non-league Glebe. Image by: Ian Middlebrook

“Valuing defending has slightly crept out of the modern game and defenders being defenders first and Nico really buys into not being exposed and making sure he wins his individual duels for 90 minutes. 

“He was playing with men who were 30 years old and as he was welcomed into that environment of a men’s changing room, people wouldn’t let him get away with being late, there was a fine system in place and there was other factors where he’s got people really driving him and making sure he’s on it all the time. I think that rubbed off on him and came out in the right way.

"On the pitch, Nico is very quiet and a big part of being in a men’s dressing room is that he wasn’t allowed to get away with being quiet. Over the last year, he’s essentially become a man which is really nice to see.”

Lawrence’s impressive adaptation to men’s football in the Kent Southern Counties league quickly alerted numerous EFL clubs and he went on trial with Southampton in January.

A few weeks later, with serious competition from multiple other football league sides, Saints signed Lawrence to his first professional contract - making him the 55th player from the Kinetic Foundation to sign a pro deal.

“A week before I think he was playing in the FA Vase and then he went to Southampton off the back of that," Hogan recalls. "It was really nice to see him in an environment he deserved to be in. And you could really see he cared. By the end of the game, speaking to the staff at Southampton and from my perspective, he was the best defender on the pitch.

“What people may not understand is that Nico hasn’t been in full-time football for nearly five years. And going into that environment and being able to perform at the level he did…just shows Southamton that being able to work with him every day he’ll find a whole new level for himself physically and really being able to push his game will only have a positive benefit for him.

Southampton’s a great club, they’ve got good pathways for their young players, the first team always play an attractive brand of football and across the academy, it suits him. For me, I think it’s the perfect fit for him.

“I believe he’s got a real chance. With his attributes, his mindset and being in that environment I think he’s got into the pro game at the perfect time. When a lot of boys would be coming out, he’s now going in and he’s got a good few years to really push himself and not rest on his laurels.”

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