Obituary: Tommy Lawton

Certain footballers straddle their eras like titans, their pre- eminence so palpable that any attempt to place them in a pecking order is meaningless. So it was with Tommy Lawton, the princeliest, the most complete, simply the best centre-forward in Britain as the 20th century approached its half-way mark.

Lawton carried with him the unmistakable aura of stardom, radiating charisma and, even in quiet moments on the field, emitting a wholly distinctive brand of cool menace. Though a powerfully-built six-footer, he combined the physical strength expected of a big man with the nimbleness of a ballet dancer. His movement over the ground was graceful, seemingly languid at times, but that was an illusion. In fact, he was quick, often blindingly so, and he had a habit of pouncing with sudden venom to score goals seemingly out of nothing.

His control of the ball was commendable and the power of his shot was ferocious, but it was in the air that Tommy Lawton attained his full and glorious majesty. Indeed, shrewd contemporary judges assert that no more brilliant header of the ball ever lived. His muscular legs and abdomen enabled him to spring to prodigious heights, and he was blessed with a sense of timing that verged on the uncanny.

Indeed, such was his expertise that at times he appeared to defy gravity, creating the optical illusion of hovering while the ball homed in on that wide forehead, the sleek, dark hair and prominent beak of a nose intensifying the impression of some ravenous raptor closing on its prey. He played fair, too, being a dream to referee despite carrying all that muscle, reserving his occasional moments of tetchiness for less talented team- mates who failed to reach his exacting standards.

Yet, for all his magnificence, Lawton - in common with many gifted contemporaries - suffered a double blight on his career. He lost six years of his prime to the Second World War, and he played at a time when financial rewards for even the top performers were in no way commensurate with their pulling power. Thus while the clubs' coffers bulged as crowds flocked to see the big names, the players were restricted to wages that were risible in comparison.

Lawton, an intelligent fellow with a sharp business brain, railed against such iniquity. He spoke his mind, fell into dispute with various employers and became something of a wanderer from job to job. Thus, while adored by supporters of whichever club he was representing at the time, he never remained in one place long enough to become a folk hero in the manner of, say, Tom Finney at Preston or Billy Wright at Wolves.

The phenomenal sharp- shooting ability of the strapping Lancastrian first became apparent during his schooldays, when he netted some 570 goals in three seasons. Thereafter he started work in a tannery near his Bolton home and joined Burnley as an amateur in 1935, turning professional at Turf Moor a year later. He made his senior debut as a 16-year-old, then underlined his promise with a hat-trick at home to Tottenham Hotspur four days after his 17th birthday in October 1936.

That was more than enough to alert the attention of bigger clubs to such a precocious talent and, sure enough, three months later he joined Everton for pounds 6,500. Now, briefly, Lawton found himself playing alongside Bill "Dixie" Dean, perhaps the most famous goal merchant of them all. Bill was nearing the end of his prolific career, but he was willing and able to pass on priceless knowledge to the callow colleague who was to inherit his mantle.

Accordingly, Lawton became his club's marksman-in-chief in 1937/38, and topped the Football League's scoring chart with 28 goals. The following term brought even richer bounty: his 35 strikes, once again more than anyone else in the country, were hugely instrumental in Everton landing the League Championship, and he earned the personal accolade of an England call-up while still in his teens. Lawton strode on to the world stage with stupendous assurance, netting in each of his first six games, and there seemed no limit to what he might achieve.

But then came the war - he served in the Army's Physical Training Corps - and though he shone in unofficial internationals alongside such luminaries as Stanley Matthews and Raich Carter, he was reduced to guesting for the likes of Aldershot, Tranmere Rovers and Morton at club level. Thus his early prime was lost to top-class competition.

When life returned to something like normality in 1945, Lawton found himself at odds with Everton, and he was transferred to Chelsea for pounds 11,500. By then 26 and an awesomely formidable operator, he excelled in his one full season at Stamford Bridge, breaking the club's scoring record with 26 goals and netting twice for Great Britain against the Rest of Europe in 1947.

However, later that year his relationship with his new employers ran into difficulties and an announcement that he was leaving precipitated a hectic chase for his services. There followed one of the sporting shocks of the age when the spearhead of England's attack was sold to Third Division Notts County for a then-record fee of pounds 20,000.

It was an eccentric move, to say the least - a modern equivalent would be Alan Shearer throwing in his lot with, say, Crewe Alexandra - even though the maximum-wage rule then in force meant that he did not lose out financially. Whatever his reasons for accepting such a dramatic drop in status, the great man threw himself into his new club's cause with gusto, and in 1950 helped them lift the Division Three (South) title. By that time, though, he had lost his England place, the selectors unwilling to persist with a player out of touch with top-flight football, and many supporters felt he was doing himself an injustice.

From time to time there were rumours of a transfer back to the big time, yet when Lawton moved on again, for pounds 12,000 in 1952, it was to another unfashionable outfit, Brentford of the Second Division. Come January 1953, when he became player-boss at Griffin Park, the switch began to make more apparent sense, but there was to be no smooth transition to management. Instead Lawton presided over a period of travail. He was booed for the first time in his life, to which he took grave exception, and before long he resigned as manager while continuing as a player.

Then, in September 1953, in the twilight of a remarkable if not entirely satisfying career, came a development as amazing as had been his earlier switch to Notts County. Aged nearly 34, Lawton joined Arsenal, the reigning champions, who had started the season badly and whose largely young, transitional side were sorely in need of his nous and maturity.

It was a bold move which met with only qualified success. It was six months before he scored his first League goal, and he wasn't always sure of his place, but he was able to assist several youthful marksmen in the same way that Bill Dean had once helped him. Ironically, the Gunners had wanted to sign Lawton when he had left Burnley back in 1937, when they were in their all-conquering pomp and he had the world at his feet. Had they done so, club and player might have scaled unimagined heights together.

As it was, Lawton departed Highbury in 1956 to become player-boss of non-League Kettering Town, proving an enlightened and imaginative manager as he led them to the Southern League championship the following year. On the back of that achievement, he took over the reins of Notts County in 1957, but his return to Meadow Lane was ill-fated, County being relegated from the Second Division at the end of his sole campaign in charge.

Perhaps temporarily disillusioned by the game, Lawton spent four years running a village pub near Nottingham, later returning to Kettering for stints as manager and director and to Notts County, as a coach and chief scout, in the late 1960s. Thereafter he worked as a salesman for a grandstand seat firm, and in 1984 began a respected and popular football column for the Nottingham Evening Post.

During his playing days Lawton had seemed a serious, sometimes even sombre individual, giving the impression of a man well aware of his own worth but unsure that he was receiving adequate recompense for it. But later he was able to adopt a philosophical attitude, reflecting wryly on the fortune he would have earned had he been born 50 years later.

In any event, he could be content in the knowledge that he was one of the finest footballers Britain has produced. His 231 goals in 390 League games, and his 22 strikes in 23 internationals were enough to prove that. Yet he was a performer who transcended mere statistics as surely as, in his pomp, he had soared above hapless defenders. He was an entertainer whom people would travel long distances to watch and part with hard-earned cash for the privilege. Above all else, Tommy Lawton was a star.

Thomas Lawton, footballer: born Bolton, Lancashire 6 October 1919; played for Burnley 1935-37, Everton 1937-45, Chelsea 1945-47, Notts County 1947- 52, Brentford 1952-53, Arsenal 1953-56, Kettering Town 1956-57; capped 23 times for England 1938-48; manager, Brentford 1953, Kettering Town 1956-57, 1963-64, Notts County 1957-58; coach and chief scout, Notts County 1968-70; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Nottingham 6 November 1996.

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