Were it not for WWII, one of the finest young strikers to ever play for Everton could have been even more legendary.
“You’re that young Lawton, aren’t you? You’ll never be as good as Dixie.”
Those were the words that greeted a 17-year-old Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lawton as he boarded the number 4 tram to report for his first day of work at Goodison Park in January 1937. And the conductor who had uttered those frosty, unwelcoming words was correct – nobody could ever be as good as the phenomenon that was William Ralph ‘Dixie’ Dean. But Lawton – even though he was perhaps robbed of the opportunity to reach even greater heights – was at the beginning of an illustrious career.
Lawton was the epitome of the complete centre-forward. Possessor of two great feet and startling pace, – this, despite having to wear orthopaedic boots due to flat feet – the Lancastrian was a player with the rare ability to expertly combine grace and power. But it was in the air where Lawton was most in his element. Indeed, many of those fortunate enough to have seen Lawton play will tell you that he was as fine a header of the ball as has ever lived. Certainly, there were few better. A thunderously-built man, six feet tall and with a physique fitting of a rugby player: he was a man with gravitas. An aura beset him: his sleek, dark, combed-back hair aligned in a way which reflected his on-the-field near-majesty.
He hailed from the Greater Manchester town of Farnworth, a town which Everton have plenty to be thankful for – it was later to produce another Toffees legend, Alan Ball. Lawton’s all-round footballing ability was evident from an early age with his average goal tally as a young boy nearing 200-a-season, and his stand-out talent was recognised when he was invited to take part in a trial match for England schoolboys. He registered a hat-trick but, surprisingly, this was deemed not enough to earn him a single cap for any England youth side, even though he would go on to enjoy a prolific if war-interrupted career on the international stage.
A thunderously-built man, six feet tall and with a physique fitting of a rugby player: he was a man with gravitas.
He arrived at Everton from second division Burnley in January 1936, a teenager with such noticeable talent that top-flight side Everton were prepared to stump up £6,500, a figure which wasn’t too far off the then British transfer record. Along with that price tag, he came with the necessary qualities already prominent and in abundance, but could hardly have asked for a better tutor to fine-tune his game. Bill Dean, once labelled by his namesake Shankly as football’s answer to Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Bach, was that very man, and Lawton’s arrival in early 1937 meant a slight overlap with Dean’s incredible yet slowing Everton career. Dean and Lawton went on to feature alongside each other six times in the remainder of the 1936/37 season, a partnership which yielded four goals.
Lawton made his debut against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux on the 13th February 1937. Everton were trounced and the scoreline finished up reading 7-2, rendering Lawton’s debut goal from the penalty spot a mere consolation. Before the season was out, Lawton had found the net against Leeds United, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United, meaning he ended his first season at Everton with four goals from ten games.
His effortless adaptation to the top-flight was followed by an equally impressive transition to the international stage, as he was called up to the England team for the first time in October 1938, just a fortnight prior to his nineteenth birthday. Lawton duly scored, in a 4-2 defeat at the hands of Wales, and repeated that feat in his next five games for England, equalling a record to this day only held by three men and never bettered since.
Having benefited from the tutelage of ‘Dixie’ – who left the club for Notts County in September 1937 – Lawton topped the Football League goalscoring charts with twenty-eight in his first full Everton season (1937/38). A star player for Everton and England, his rich goalscoring form showed no signs of stopping, and he struck thirty-four times in the 1938/39 campaign as Everton cruised to their fifth League title. Lawton was scoring for fun, leading the line for club and country and, still only twenty years of age, he had the prime of his career ahead of him.
And then the atrocity, the worldwide disaster, the brutal monstrosity. War.
It was to steal the lives of seventy million people. It was also to deprive Tommy Lawton of the peak of his career. He was 21 when the war broke out and had already been the top scorer in the top-flight twice – who knows what added greatness he could have gone on to achieve had he not missed out on six years of his prime? Could he have fired Everton to another League-topping campaign? We shall never know.
On Christmas Day 1940, he played for Everton against Liverpool at Anfield in the morning and then for a depleted Tranmere Rovers side away to Crewe Alexandra in the afternoon.
During the war Lawton served as a training instructor in the Army’s Physical Training Corps, whilst at the same time continuing unofficially for Everton and England and, under wartime rules, guesting for clubs including Aldershot, Chester, Tranmere Rovers and Scottish outfit Morton. His story was just the same as before the war: goals aplenty and the star of each side he played in. His twenty-three wartime caps for England brought about twenty-four goals although, of course, these were all unofficial fixtures.
On Christmas Day 1940, he played for Everton against Liverpool at Anfield in the morning and then for a depleted Tranmere Rovers side away to Crewe Alexandra in the afternoon. Lawton explained: “The Tranmere people came into the dressing room and asked if anyone wanted to play as they were two men short. I said, “Go on then, I’ll help you out.” And I did.” It was those kind of freak situations which have ensured that football during the wars has been all but erased from the record books. A terrible shame, for both club and player.
He was not to officially play for Everton again, and moved to Chelsea once the World had recoiled into something vaguely resembling commonality in 1945. Now 26, he was well into his prime. He broke many a club goal-scoring record at Stamford Bridge, but, like so often in his career for one reason or another, he left a year later for third-division Notts County. It was a shock to football: the equivalent of Wayne Rooney signing for, say, Preston North End. He is still talked about as one of County’s greatest ever players and enjoyed remarkable success at Meadow Lane, firing the team to promotion and scoring a total of 103 goals during a five-year-spell.
A player-manager role at Brentford was the penultimate step of a fine career, followed by a two-year swan song with reigning First Division champions Arsenal. He then went on to manage Notts County and non-leaguers Kettering Town before trying his hand at scouting and as a columnist in the Nottingham Evening Post.
Statistics alone speak volumes about just how good a player Lawton was: 231 goals in a 390-game career, with twenty-two in his twenty-three games for England. He was a superb player, a great worthy of accompanying Dixie & co. in the record books, simply the best centre forward in the land as the World approached the midway point of the twentieth century.
In November 1996 he made the final transfer of all, aged seventy-seven. His legacy leaves him as one of the greatest centre-forwards in Everton’s history, and one who could, but for the futile catastrophe that was the Second World War, have been even greater.
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