Nobby Lawton

Stylish Preston wing-half
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The Independent Online

Norbert Lawton, footballer: born Manchester 25 March 1940; played for Manchester United 1956-63, Preston North End 1963-67, Brighton and Hove Albion 1967-71, Lincoln City 1971-72; married (one son, one daughter); died Manchester 22 April 2006.

West Ham United were captained by the illustrious Bobby Moore, while Preston North End were led out by the rather less renowned Nobby Lawton, but when the two clubs staged one of the most exhilarating of all Wembley FA Cup finals, in 1964, the unassuming Lancastrian was anything but upstaged by the recently appointed England skipper.

Indeed, though Preston of the Second Division were pipped by a stoppage-time goal as the top-flight Hammers prevailed 3-2, many neutral observers made Lawton the man of a rollercoaster of a contest in which his plucky side had twice led. A stylish, cultured wing-half, Lawton had been characteristically composed as the action raged around him, taking the eye with his intelligent, imaginative distribution and quietly authoritative leadership. He inspired loyalty and affection from the men in his charge.

Thus he became one of the most prominent figures in Preston's modern history, yet there had been a time in the late 1950s when Lawton might have been destined for eminence with Manchester United, the club with whom he shared a birthplace of Newton Heath.

After excelling as a teenager with Lancashire Schoolboys, he signed amateur forms with the Red Devils in 1956, training on two evenings a week while working for a coal merchant. His early progress at Old Trafford as a creative inside-forward or wing-half - a midfielder in modern parlance - was encouraging, and he played a prominent part in United's FA Youth Cup triumph of 1957.

In the wake of the Munich air crash of February 1958, which claimed the lives of eight United players and left two others maimed, cultured young talent such as Lawton's was at a premium. Accordingly, on the following Good Friday the tall, rather slender 18-year-old gave up his job with the coal company and became a professional footballer.

However, within days, his fledgling career was in jeopardy. After playing for the reserves while suffering from heavy flu he succumbed to double pneumonia, lost the use of his legs and was out of action for many months.

The United manager Matt Busby retained faith and with the club's post- Munich reconstruction still in full swing, Lawton made his first-team début as an inside-forward at Luton in April 1960. By the middle of 1961/62 he had gained a regular berth, forming a promising left-wing partnership with Bobby Charlton.

Lawton was ever-present in United's run to the semi-finals of the FA Cup, where they were well beaten by Tottenham Hotspur, but somehow his confidence was never quite on a par with his abundant ability, and soon, in the face of inevitably brisk competition for midfield places, he slipped out of Busby's plans.

Devastated by such rejection at the age of 23, he determined to rebuild his career elsewhere and in March 1963 he accepted a transfer to Preston North End. At Deepdale he found space to develop his game, at last feeling he could relax and concentrate on playing, rather than striving constantly to prove himself.

Quickly he matured into an influential figure, being made skipper for the 1963/64 campaign which ended with North End missing out narrowly on promotion to the top division, then losing at Wembley. It was a crushing double disappointment, but now, at least, he was established at the heart of a team which appeared to be going places.

As it turned out, the side relapsed into mid-table, and although Lawton continued to flourish personally, despite being hampered by serial knee problems, he never quite fulfilled all that early potential. He remained as captain at Deepdale until the pace of Second Division football became too much for his painful joints and, in September 1967, he moved down a grade, joining Brighton and Hove Albion for three years before finishing his career with a season and a half at Fourth Division Lincoln City.

After retiring as a player in 1972, he took sales jobs with several companies and in 1977 returned to Newton Heath to work for an export packaging firm.

Ivan Ponting