Tommy Lawton

Football's Pioneers: Tommy Lawton

Professor Matt Taylor, from De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History & Culture, profiles Tommy Lawton, one of the 20th century’s star players.
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Biographies often describe the Second World War as ‘lost’ years in a footballer’s career. But wartime football made some players into household names. This was certainly true of Tommy Lawton (1919-96), Everton’s young centre-forward, who had made his England debut in October 1938.

An Army Physical Training Instructor during the war, Lawton was based in Birkenhead so was able to appear frequently for his own club. He also guested for Leicester City, Greenock Morton, Chester City, Aldershot and Tranmere Rovers and played for the British Army and Army Command teams.

On Christmas Day 1940, he turned out for Everton against Liverpool in the morning and then for Tranmere Rovers against Crewe in the afternoon. Lawton’s 244 goals in league and cup games and 90 in international and representative matches was unmatched during the war but are omitted from official records.

Most significantly, he became one of the stars of a high-quality England squad. He scored four in the 8-0 demolition of Scotland at Maine Road in October 1943. Lawton considered it the finest England team he had played in.

According to the FA’s Charles Wreford Brown, a former England player himself, the so-called ‘Wonder XI’ displayed ‘the greatest combination and team work in the whole history of international football’.

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Tommy Lawton
Tommy Lawton

Lawton leads out England as national team captain.

By the time of the return of national league football in 1946/47, Lawton had moved to Chelsea and had become one of the first footballers to put his name to an autobiography. Strong and tough, and an exemplary header of the ball with a rasping shot, he helped to define English centre-forward play.

He was one of the country’s best known footballers and was still only 26 years-old. 

Lawton’s professional career began at Burnley, then in the Second Division. He made his debut at 16, scoring twice in his second appearance, away at Swansea. He was frequently to repeat the advice given to him by a dour team-mate after that game: ‘Don’t think too much of thyself. Tha’ve a long way to go, and a lot to learn'.

Lawton moved to First Division side Everton in 1937, replacing his boyhood hero Dixie Dean and scoring 35 goals in 38 games to help the Toffees win the 1938/39 title. But he was restless, always seeking a new challenge.

After two post-war seasons at Chelsea, Lawton made a sensational move to Notts County in the Third Division South. It was the first £20,000 transfer in Football League history. 

The move was controversial but it paid off for County. Lawton added thousands to the gate and helped the club into the Second Division in 1950. After a spell at Brentford, he finished his playing days back in the First Division with Arsenal. 

Moving down two divisions hadn’t helped Lawton’s England prospects. He initially retained his place, becoming the first Third Division player to be capped. But he didn’t get on with England manager Walter Winterbottom and the new emphasis on coaching and physical preparation.

Nonetheless, he is remembered by many as a true pioneer of the 20th century.

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