IF ONLY. THE TOMMY LAWTON STORY
BY Vince Cooper
The history of football is littered with ‘if onlys’. ‘What if the Manchester United side hadn’t been decimated in Munich’ is one of those most frequently heard.
Here’s another. What would Tommy Lawton’s career have looked like if it hadn’t been for the intervention of World War Two? Just 20-years-old when the fighting started, the centre-forward was just settling in to life as Dixie Dean’s replacement at Everton.
Lawton lost six prime seasons of football yet still managed almost 250 career goals, despite becoming something of a wanderer after the war and ending up having split time between six different league clubs. He also found the net 22 times in 23 ‘official’ appearances for his country. There were 24 more in 23 wartime matches for his country but sadly, they don’t count in official records.
So, it’s definitely a ‘what might have been’ scenario but it’s also a fine career.
Lancastrian Lawton went to Castle Hill School in Bolton where he was followed at centre-forward by another future England marksman in Nat Lofthouse. He started his senior career at Burnley in 1935.
On leaving school Lawton was chased by a number of clubs and he originally signed for Sheffield Wednesday before his family, wanting him closer to home, stepped in and vetoed the move. The deal to sign at Turf Moor also included a job as an assistant groundsman for his grandfather and a rent-free home for the family.
He made his debut for the Turf Moor club as a 16-year-old in March 1936, and scored twice on his second appearance, a crucial 2-0 win for his relegation-threatened team over Swansea at Vetch Field. As he would recall years later, the new star wasn’t given too much time to enjoy his success. “I had just settled down to think about giving myself a nice pat on the back when another player in the team, a bluff north-countryman pulled me up with a jerk,” Lawton recalled.
”Don’t think too much of thyself”, Lawton was told. “Tha’ve a long way to go and a lot to learn”.
Learn he did, and quickly. Not long after, he banged in a hat-trick against Spurs days after his 17th birthday and Lawton’s skills weren’t confined to the football pitch. Like many of his day he was also a more than competent cricketer once scoring 87 out of a total of 114 for Burnley C. C.
Lawton at Everton
But it was at football that he really excelled and at Burnley he had already shown huge promise, scoring 16 goals in 25 games before a move to Everton, with the Toffees stumping up £6,500 for the 17-year-old saw him come under the wing of the legendary Dixie Dean. The record breaking single-season scorer famously and magnanimously said when the youngster arrived; “I know they’ve bought you to replace me, I’ll do all I can to help you”.
Everton 1937-38 with Lawton next to Dean in the middle of the front row
And help Dixie undoubtedly did. The pair enjoyed extra, afternoon training sessions together working mostly on aerial ability where as Dean later said; “I was pleased to see Tom had the right idea in the air. I impressed on him the value of this asset to a centre-forward”.
Lawton competes with Stan Cullis of Wolves for a cross
In the lead-up to the Second World War, Lawton soon became the country’s top marksman, finishing as the First Division’s leading scorer for two seasons including in 1938-39 where his 35 goals helped Everton land the title.
He made his England debut as a 19-year-old in 1938, scoring in a 4-2 loss to Wales. He netted in each of his first six games for his country and was clearly the nation’s leading centre-forward when top-class football came to an abrunt halt and the war took over.
Perhaps the biggest of these came in the 1939 clash against Scotland at Hampden Park.
Jimmy Dougall had put Scotland ahead in the first half but midway through the second period Albert Beasley capitalised on a fine through-ball from Lawton to level. Time was running out; Scotland needed only a draw to take the Home International Championship whereas England needed to win for a share. 90 seconds remained. Lawton takes up the story.
“Stan got the ball near the corner flag on the right”, he recalled some years later. “Somehow he shook off two defenders and crossed to me at the far post.
”I threw myself forward and added the finishing touches to earn a 2-1 victory”.
Tommy leading England out in a war time international against Switzerland at Stamford Bridge
During the hostilities, Lawton joined the Army and served as a training instructor, rising to Company Sergeant Major whilst still turning out for Everton and also as a guest player for Aldershot, Leicester City, Tranmere Rovers and Morton (he even managed an appearance for the Scottish League) as well as those international appearances, some of which were as captain.
When the fighting had come to an end so had Lawton’s first marriage and he requested a transfer from Everton to help deal with separation from Rosaleen whom he had wed in 1941. Everton reluctantly agreed to the request and he moved to Chelsea for £11,500.
In action for Chelsea against Moscow Dynamo
Early on in his Chelsea career he played in the famous friendly match against the Russians of Moscow Dynamo, scoring the home team’s final goal in the 3-3 draw.
Lawton continued finding the net regularly, scoring 30 times in 42 games for the Londoners and twice for Great Britain in a match against The Rest of Europe before falling out with the club after asking to be excused from a Scandinavian tour.
Scoring from the penalty spot for England against Sweden in 1947
Lawton submitted another transfer request. Chelsea agreed ‘under protest’ and he was on the move again. The £20,000 fee was slightly deferred as Chelsea handed over a cheque of their own, paying £3,000 for Irishman William Dickson who would make over a century of appearances for the Londoners.
The cheque with which Notts County bought Lawton
When it was announced that Chelsea would sell their star man, clubs up and down the country scrambled for their cheque books. Lawton’s decision to join the Meadow Lane club was made mainly because of a man called Arthur Stollery who was County’s manager at the time.
In Notts County colours
Stollery had been the physiotherapist at Stamford Bridge and the two were close friends. When he was sacked Lawton is said to have agreed that he would play for whoever Stollery joined. Lawton was a firm believer that footballers were underpaid (the maximum wage was still in force of course) and there was much talk that he received a hefty amount when signing for County.
The centre-forward remained at Meadow Lane for four seasons helping them win promotion as champions of the Third Division (South) and scoring close to 100 goals. He also became the first 3rd Division player to be chosen for England, making his final start for his country against Denmark in 1948.
When Lawton’s international career came to a close he had bagged 22 goals in 23 appearances whilst netting another 24 times in 25 war-time and victory internationals.
‘Of Brentford and England’
By 1952 Stollery had left Notts County and Lawton was sold to Brentford for £16,000. He was appointed player-manager at Griffin Park initially but after criticism from fans, stepped down from the managerial role. Nine months later he moved again, this time it was back to the big time, joining reigning champions Arsenal for £10,000 at the age of 34. It was the third time the North London club had tried to buy the forward and they finally got their man.
Lawton finally gets to run out for Arsenal
After two years at Highbury where he scored 13 times in 35 games, Lawton moved to Kettering Town where he again took on the role of player-manager before eventually hanging up his boots and focusing on management. After a year at the helm with Kettering he returned to Notts County as manager but was sacked in 1958 and the experience there clearly soured him as he vowed to stay out of management. After running a pub for four years he was lured back, having further spells at both Kettering and at Meadow Lane before working as a grandstand seat salesman whilst writing a football column for the Nottingham Evening Post
After retirement Lawton fell on hard times. Having spent his entire career earning only the maximum wage (£12 per week plus a £2 win bonus at it’s peak) he certainly didn’t retire with the riches that today’s stars enjoy. He and second wife Gay lived in a rented house in Nottingham and he was forced to sell the many trophies and caps he had won throughout his career.
The lowest point came in 1972 when Lawton was placed on probation for three years after being found guilty of fraudulently issuing cheques.
That he is not remembered as a true ‘great’ by any one set of fans is mostly because of the many, mostly financially-driven moves he made throughout his career. But looking back on a career that lost six prime years due to World War Two, Tommy Lawton has a worthy claim to be classed right up there with the greatest number nines England has ever produced.
Tommy Lawton passed away in Nottingham in 1996 aged 77.