Seventy years after he last pulled on an Everton shirt, the questions about the career of Tommy Lawton, a player many fans considered the finest all round centre forward they ever saw – superior, inconceivable though it might seem, even to Dixie Dean – remain as pertinent as they ever did. What if war had never intervened? What if a troublesome marriage had never influenced his career? What if he had never sought a move from the First Division while still in his prime? What if he had been given a run of more than 32 months in an Everton shirt?
Born in Farnworth, near Bolton in October 1919, like Dean, Lawton’s father was a railwayman, while his mother worked in one of the town’s cotton mills. As a youngster Lawton idolised Dean and would score 560 goal in three years of schoolboy football. He joined Burnley as a sixteen year old and, included in the first team as a teenager, flourished. A hat trick against Tottenham in October 1936 brought him national prominence. Two months later, he was an Everton player – the £6,500 fee a record for a teenager. Lawton later suspected that the deal had long been set up. Eight weeks earlier, the left wing partnership of Jimmy Stein and Willie ‘Dusty’ Miller had arrived at Turf Moor on free transfers. Were they down-payment for the teenager?
Signed as Dean’s long term replacement, the now veteran centre forward took him under his wing. ‘He impressed me right away,’ Dixie said. ‘He was quiet and listened.’ Lawton was aware of his natural abilities and improved under Dean’s guidance to the extent that he came to be considered the superior all round player.
Lawton made his Everton debut in February 1937 in a 7-2 defeat against Wolves. He made the score sheet via the penalty spot but the critic of The Sporting Star dismissed the new boy, ‘Lawton did not have a bad match, for he was rarely given the support necessary to successful leadership.’ In these first days he played inside forward, deputising in the centre whenever Dean was injured. But it was increasingly obvious that the older man’s days were numbered.
‘He [Dean] was always so high in praise of Tommy and all the young lads,’ Joe Mercer recalled. ‘I remember Tommy coming into the side for a Cup replay at Tottenham. He scored a goal in the first half turning on the ball beautifully and Dean said, ‘Well that’s it. That’s the swansong, that’s the end of it.’’
‘He helped me a lot when I first joined the club,’ Lawton later said. ‘He had his faults, he was a boisterous character, but everyone liked him.’
During a Summer tour of Denmark in 1937 Lawton led the Everton attack and four games into the 1937/38 campaign Dean was dropped. The stage was set for Lawton. He responded by finishing the First Division’s leading goalscorer with 28 goals. ‘If Lawton is the best centre forward playing today,’ wrote the Sporting Star, ‘I have yet to see one better. . . he is not merely a proposition, but a ready made player, and I have never seen anyone, including [Ted] Drake, hit the ball so swiftly and accurately on the turn.’
Lawton was nicknamed ‘the floater’ for his famous heading ability (’I used to take him out to play head tennis and with us it was just like Wimbledon,’ Dean recalled) and was soon being championed for an England call up. ‘Lawton is undoubtedly England’s centre forward,’ Charlie Buchan wrote in the News Chronicle. ‘His great headwork, moulded on the pattern of Dixie Dean, and his clever footwork, stamps him as England’s leader for many years to come.’ The first of 23 caps came against Wales in 1938.
During the 1938/39 season Lawton maintained his scintillating form, with 34 goals in 38 appearances as Everton lifted the league title. ‘They were a bloody good side,’ Lawton recalled, ‘And the next year we should have won the League again, the FA Cup and the bloody boat race if they’d put us in it.’
War, however, put paid to such aspirations. Lawton’s unstoppable form nevertheless continued in the regional leagues in which he scored 85 times in 108 games for Everton. He also guested for Aldershot (eight games, thirteen goals) and made 23 England war time international appearances.
When peace came, Lawton was still young enough to star for the Everton team for years to come, and was still aged only 26 when the 1946/7 season kicked off. But he was no longer an Everton player – amazingly he had been allowed to join Chelsea for £11,500 in 1945. For years the deal was a mystery, but later in life Lawton admitted it was to escape his marriage to a local girl. ‘The marriage just wasn’t working out, in fact it was purgatory,’ he said. ‘Home was hell, something had to be done.’
From hereon Lawton’s career suffered as the result of several staggering career choices. In 1947 he joined Notts County, who played in the Third Division South, for a British record fee of £20,000 – the equivalent, perhaps, of Wayne Rooney deserting Manchester United for Macclesfield for £50 million. There was a spell at Brentford, and in the veteran part of his career he joined Arsenal, where he was reunited with Joe Mercer. Never again did he hit the same heights as he had done for Everton.
Lawton regretted leaving Everton for the rest of his life. He never won another trophy and although he continued to represent England until 1948, his domestic career was a pallid imitation of what had preceded it. ‘On reflection,’ he later admitted, ‘I should have stayed and transferred the wife.’
On leaving Highbury in 1955, Lawton struggled to find a life outside football. His intermittent spells in charge of Notts County and Kettering were interspersed with unemployment, debts, depression, drink problems and petty crime. On more than one occasion he contemplated suicide, the same fate that had befallen his contemporary Hughie Gallagher in 1957. Mercer eased some of his friend’s financial worries by arranging his testimonial in 1972, only the second such match, after Dean’s, Everton had granted one of their former players. Eventually he found a niche of sorts, writing a twice-weekly column for the Nottingham Evening Post right up until his death in November 1996.