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Born: Monday 6 October 1919, Farnworth, England
Died: Wednesday 6 November 1996, Nottingham, England (aged 77)
Position: Centre Forward
Widely viewed as England's finest centre forward, Tommy Lawton would surely have achieved far greater success in his career had it not been for the outbreak of the Second World War when he was just 19 years old. One of the most prolific goalscorers in the English league while still a teenager, his senior career spanned 20 years despite making a remarkable drop into third tier football at the peak of his playing days.
Lawton was born in Farnworth near Bolton on 6 October 1919. When he was very young his father left home and Lawton went with his mother to live with her family. He spent much of his youth playing football with his grandfather and uncles, eventually joining Bolton League side Hayes Athletic and representing Lancashire schools by the time he was 14. Having left school, Lawton joined Rossendale United and soon began to attract the attention of a number of professional clubs.
Under the guidance of his grandfather, Lawton signed on as an amateur with Second Division side Burnley in 1935, taking a job in the club office with the promise of a professional contract once he reached the minimum age for professionals of 17. His grandfather was also given a job on the ground staff and the family provided with rent-free accommodation. Lawton quickly developed a reputation as one of the finest headers of the ball in the game, spending hours on the training ground perfecting his technique and timing. He also had a remarkably powerful shot with either foot and was unusually agile for a man of his height and build.
Midway through the 1936-37 season, with Burnley mid-table in the Second Division, Everton pinpointed Lawton as the ideal player to replace their ageing superstar William 'Dixie' Dean. Signed for £6,500, a remarkable fee for a 17-year old at the time, Lawton made his debut for Everton on 13 February 1937 and played a handful of games alongside Dean. Everton struggled through the remainder of that season and much of the next, but Lawton scored a league high 28 goals in 1937-38 to confirm his growing reputation as one of the finest forwards in the game.
At the age of 19 he won his first cap for England in the Home International Championship match against Wales in October 1938. Although the game ended in a disappointing 4-2 loss for England, Lawton opened his goalscoring account at international level with a first half penalty. He would go on to score in each of his first six internationals. The 1938-39 season would prove to be the finest of his career, with 34 league goals in 38 games, again the highest total in the league, helping Everton to finish four points clear of Wolves at the top of the table.
Lawton would never get to attempt to defend the title with Everton, as war broke out shortly before his 20th birthday and the league closed down for seven years. Like a number of other top players, Lawton served as a physical training instructor during the war and as well as continuing to appear for Everton in unofficial games he guested for several other clubs, including a game for Tranmere Rovers on Christmas Day 1940 when he had already played for Everton earlier in the day. Lawton was one of the most popular players in England at the time and his appearance could add thousands to a crowd.
Following the end of the war, Lawton stunned Everton by engineering his own transfer away from the club, signing for Chelsea in the autumn of 1945. Although he played just one season of league football for Chelsea, during which the club could only finish 15th in Division One, Lawton showed that the loss of several years of his career had not diminished his goalscoring ability. He scored 26 league goals and in an international against the Netherlands in November 1946 scored four times in an 8-2 England win. The 10-0 win over Portugal in May 1947 brought another four goal haul.
Never having fully settled in London, Lawton asked for a transfer early in the 1947-48 season. When it came the transfer shocked the English public, as Lawton signed for Notts County, then struggling near the foot of Division Three South, for a then-British record £20,000. With Lawton in the team, crowds increased massively and the club's fortunes gradually turned around. Shortly after his transfer, Lawton became one of the few players to represent England while playing in the Third Division.
Although he played several internationals while with Notts County, the last against Denmark in September 1948, it does seem that Third Division football curtailed Lawton's England career. Still prolific at club level, in the 1949-50 season Lawton broke the 30-goal mark for the second time in his career as his 31 goals helped Notts County surge to the Division Three South title and to promotion, seven points clear of Northampton at the top of the table. After a season and a half of relative struggle in the Second Division, Lawton left in the spring of 1952 and returned to London with Brentford.
For a short period he was player-manager at Brentford, but the team struggled and he soon resigned to continue as a player only. Later that year, Lawton was surprisingly offered another chance to play top division football at the age of 34. He signed for reigning league champions Arsenal, who had made a poor start to the season. Despite not being a regular in the first team, he was able to help the team pull away from the bottom of the table and contributed one of the goals in their Charity Shield win over Blackpool.
Lawton remained with Arsenal until early 1956 but his career was clearly in decline and he retired from the professional game at the age of 36, having scored more than 230 league goals. Accepting an offer to become player-manager of non-league Kettering Town, who were struggling near the foot of the Southern League. Having achieved a mid-table finish in his first season, Lawton led Kettering to the Southern League title in 1957 and as a result was offered the chance to manage Notts County, who were still in the Second Division.
His time back at County was not successful and he came to regret having left Kettering. After struggling all season, they ended up being relegated by a single point and Lawton left in the summer of 1958. After a few years away from the game, he made a brief return to management towards the end of 1963 when Kettering offered him the job of manager for the remainder of the season, a job which proved to be his last active involvement in football.
In retirement, Lawton spent several years running a pub and also worked as a salesman but found himself unemployed during the 1970s. Having drifted away from the game Lawton found a new lease of life when he was given a football column in the Nottingham Evening Post in the early 1980s. After a period of ill-health, he died of pneumonia in November 1996, aged 77. His ashes are kept in England's National Football Museum.
References (all accessed 28 February 2012):
- Published on Tuesday, 28 February 2012 13:13