65 in 87 for Everton, 22 in 23 for England, 231 in 390 career league games and an inductee of the National Football Museum Hall of Fame who also held his ashes. Tommy Lawton was a phenomenally successful striker whose career was cut short by injury and retirement was marred by money troubles leading to begging letters asking for money and work off Richard Attenborough. A rollercoaster life that illustrated his great ability and great misfortune.
In December 1936, Lawton arrived from Second Division Burnley for £6,500 which was a record fee for a player under 21. The then 17-year-old Lawton was greeted at Lime Street by Will Cuff, Tom Percy and Theo Kelly and he arrived with the task to replace one William Ralph Dean who was then touching 30. Of course, this was meant to take time, Lawton was still young, but Dean was just a year from the end of his illustrious Everton career.
Lawton may have been signed to replace Dean, but he was so talented that at 17 he was deemed good enough to play alongside him. Despite only playing nine games together, the master and apprentice relationship was clear from the start and Dean was quick to praise Lawton’s ability to listen, his pace, finishing and willingness to take a knock and not lose his temper. Dixie knew his career was nearing an end, when Lawton was the first-half goalscorer against Spurs in a FA Cup replay in February 1937 Dean said “Well, that’s it. That’s the swan song. That’s the end of it”.
Lawton was in and out of the team, playing whenever Dean was injured or suspended. He impressed during a pre-season tour of Denmark and in the 1937-38 season he broke into the Everton first-team on a much more permanent basis. Following a dip in form, injury and punching Theo Kelly, Dixie Dean played his last Everton game in December 1937 and, despite having flat feet, Lawton was the perfect man to fill his shoes.
Lawton took his chance and didn’t let the legendary Dean back in the side. In his first full season Lawton was top-goalscorer in the league with 28 in 39 games for the 14th placed Toffees, including a winning penalty at Anfield in October. Lawton was superb in the air but also on the floor with a prodigious passing range, mazy dribbles and a powerful shot.
Lawton was certainly not a one season wonder and repeated his goal scoring prowess which he had displayed in the previous season. He bettered his tally with 35 goals, once again more than anyone else. These goals were the catalyst for Everton winning their fifth League Title and earned Lawton his first England cap in the 1938-39 season, all whilst still in his teens. He took to the international stage as competently as he had for Everton scoring in each of his first six games, Lawton was at the peak of his powers.
Unfortunately for all involved the war interrupted Lawton’s electric form. He had written to Leicester City following the league winning campaign as he wanted to return to his former Burnley manager Tom Bromilow, but this did not come to fruition and the 1939-40 season was halted after three games, in which Lawton had scored four goals.
When the football finally returned Lawton requested to leave Everton, he wanted to move South to be closer to his wife. He was sold to Chelsea in November 1945 for £14,000, he played unofficial matches for Chelsea and England before the official return of league football for the 1946-47 season. Lawton scored 30 goals in his first full Chelsea season helping them finish five places below Everton in 15th.
Lawton’s club career saw him score 20 goals or more in three of the next four seasons, a feat which he did not repeat for the final eight years of his career. Following two seasons at Chelsea, Lawton dropped down to the Third Division South for a British record fee of £20,000 to re-join a former Chelsea masseur at Notts County. This move may have angered Everton fans as he had supposedly left Everton to be close to his wife, yet within three years he was in Nottingham in the Third Division. After five years and failing to lift County any higher than the Second Division, Lawton was nowhere near as prolific in his final years scoring 17 in his final four seasons.
Lawton managed two former clubs in Brentford and Notts County, though with little success. He was player manager whilst at Brentford and his decisions to signed aged players alongside himself brought their attacking line to a combined age of 104, he resigned after 28 games. He had a successful period as player manager of Kettering, aged 36, and guided them to the Southern League Championship. This success provided Lawton the opportunity to return to Notts County, yet his one season in charge ended in relegation from the Second Division and he was sacked. This was the lowest point of Lawton’s career, he was no longer playing, and his managerial career had ended almost as soon as it had started in 1958.
He managed a pub team in Nottingham for four seasons and worked as a scout and coach for various clubs. He drifted between employment for many years, but he was at rock bottom in 1970. He wrote to former Chelsea chairman Richard Attenborough asking for a £250 loan and a job, his financial issues then soon became public. He was offered a high-paid job at a furnishing company in London, yet the company went into liquidation after a year. Lawton continued to write cheques in the company’s name which got him into considerable legal trouble.
Lawton had to be bailed out by Everton and Brentford who both provided him with a testimonial, as well as an Arsenal fan group and an anonymous benefactor. Lawton’s later life was marred by unemployment, legal issues and financial embarrassment until he secured steady employment at the Nottingham Evening Post in 1984. He eventually passed away aged 77 after a battle with pneumonia.
A sad end to an illustrious career for a very gifted striker. Lawton was faced with a phenomenally challenging task of replacing Dixie Dean, he did so with so ease that he ousted him within months. He was deadly in front of goal and helped secure Everton his only First Division trophy. Lawton had toyed with leaving Everton and he may not have stayed had the war not occurred. Lawton seemed to be rather unlucky, he missed out on wages that he deserved that would have secured him a happier retirement, he missed out on the greatest years of his career due to the war yet he did not let it make him bitter:
“What glorious years. Years that all the money in the world couldn't buy. I have been lucky. I have played with great clubs; I have escaped serious injury; I have played for my country; I have even captained my country; I have won many of the game's top honours.
Soccer has been good to me and I hope that I have repaid the game in some small way. I have had great experiences. I have met some wonderful people. I have memories that nobody can take away from me. If I could turn the clock back 20 years, I would still go into the game as a full-time professional and I can say to any lad who is contemplating a career in football: Go ahead son ... providing you are willing to work and work hard and providing you are willing to learn the craft thoroughly. You will meet some of the grandest fellows you could ever wish to meet and you will have a pleasant, healthy life and be quite well paid for it.”
Peter Kenny Jones https://peterkj.wixsite.com/football-historian @PeterKennyJones