Thomas Lawton was born on 6 October 1919 to Elizabeth Riley and Thomas Lawton senior in Farnworth, Lancashire. His father was a railway signalman of Irish extraction, and his mother worked as a weaver at Harrowby Mill. His father left the family 18 months after Lawton was born, and Elizabeth moved back into her parents' home in Bolton. Elizabeth's father, James Hugh "Jim" Riley, became Lawton's surrogate father. Lawton's natural footballing ability earned him a place on the Bolton Town Schools team in 1930. He was picked by Lancashire Schools at the age of 13. Despite scoring a hat-trick in a trial game for England Schoolboys, he never earned a full England Schoolboy cap. At the age of 14 he began playing for Hayes Athletic in the Bolton Senior League, and went on to score 570 goals in three seasons. The FA's rules meant he was unable to turn professional at a club until he was 17, and Lawton's grandfather rejected Bolton Wanderer’s offer for Lawton to work as a delivery driver for two years before turning professional at the club. Lawton instead played as an amateur for Rossendale United in the Lancashire Combination, scoring a hat-trick on his debut against Bacup. He took up temporary work at a tannery, and then joined Burnley as assistant groundsman after his mother rejected an offer from Sheffield Wednesday as she objected to him travelling to Sheffield on a daily basis.
Tommy carried with him the unmistakable aura of stardom, radiating charisma and emitting a distinctive brand of cool menace. 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. 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 man 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. While he was adored by supporters of whichever club he was representing at the time, he never remained long enough to become a folk hero in the manner of, say, Tom Finney at Preston, Nat Lofthouse at Bolton or Billy Wright at Wolves.
Joining Burnley as an amateur in 1935, he turned professional at Turf Moor a year later. He made his senior debut as a 16-year-old, underlining his promise with a hat-trick at home against Tottenham Hotspur four days after his 17th birthday in October 1936. He scored 16 goals in 25 appearances for Burnley. That was more than enough to alert the attention of bigger clubs to such a precocious talent and three months later he joined Everton for £6,500. Briefly, Tommy found himself playing alongside Bill “Dixie” Dean who was nearing the end of his career but typically he was willing and able to pass on priceless knowledge to the young man who was to inherit his mantle. Tommy went on to finish as the First Division's top-scorer in 1937-38 and 1938-39, helping Everton to finish as champions of the Football League in the latter campaign. League football was then suspended for seven full seasons due to the outbreak of war in Europe, during which time he scored 24 goals in 23 appearances for England whilst guesting for Everton and other clubs.
In November 1945, he moved to Chelsea for £14,000, and scored a club record 26 goals in 34 league games in the 1946-47 season. However later in 1947 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 £20,000. It was an eccentric move to say the least -a modern equivalent would be Alan Shearer throwing in his lot with Crewe Alexandra or Harry Kane moving to Oldham Athletic. He helped the club to win promotion as champions in 1949-50, before he moved on to Brentford in March 1952 for a club record £16,000. Celebrated by Stanley Matthews as a “brilliant header of the ball”, centre forward Tommy Lawton also had two good feet and blistering pace. When he joined Notts County in 1947 attendances at Meadow Lane soared. The affection was mutual with Bolton-born Lawton naming Nottingham his adopted city.
In January 1953, Brentford appointed him player-manager, though he would only remain in charge for nine months. He joined Arsenal as a player in November 1953 for £10,000, where he saw out the remainder of his playing career.
He scored 22 goals in his 23 England appearances over a ten-year international career from 1938 to 1948, including four against Portugal in May 1947. He helped England to win two British Home Championship titles outright (1946- and 1947-48), and to share the Championship in 1938-39. He fell out of international contention at the age of 28 due to his contempt for manager Walter Winterbottom, his decision to drop out of the First Division, and the emergence of Jackie Milburn and Nat Lofthouse.
In later life, he was content in the knowledge that he had been one of the finest footballers Britain has ever produced. His 213 goals in 390 League games and his 22 strikes in 23 internationals were enough to prove that. 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.