Tommy Lawton was once considered to be the next Dixie Dean. He had a remarkable goalscoring record, becoming the First Division’s top goalscorer twice, despite being only a teenager. The outbreak of World War II prevented him from fulfilling his potential, however he still had a magnificent wartime goalscoring record, scoring 152 goals in 115 games for Everton. After the war, he left Everton for Chelsea for a fee of £11,500 in 1945 and then he joined Third Division South side Notts County for a British record fee of £20,000. He then had spells at Brentford and Arsenal before becoming player-manager of Kettering. He won the Southern League title in his debut season by 8 points, which was enough to impress his former team Notts County and hired him as their manager in 1957 after the season finished. From then on, it all went wrong.
This wasn’t the first time Notts County wanted Tommy Lawton as manager. A few months prior to his appointment, the club offered him the role but Lawton rejected it.
After very careful consideration of the whole situation and on the principle that my players must believe in me and my methods, I feel it is only fair to the Nottingham public that Mr [Frank] Broome [Notts County’s caretaker-manager] and the players should have the opportunity to provide them with a successful side.
The Kettering players have always believed I could bring them success and I am determined that both they and myself shall reap the benefits from our labours.
Over a month later, he decided that he would leave Kettering at the end of the season and eventually joined Notts County – a decision he would later regret.
In his first season as Notts County manager, the Magpies were relegated. They beat Rotherham 3-1 in their last game of the season, and earned 7 out of a possible 12 points in the last 6 games, including a win against the champions West Ham. Lawton’s first season as Notts County manager was this only season as manager as he was sacked the following July, with Lawton saying according to the board, it was for financial reasons. In an Observer interview in 1971, Lawton said he got the blame for Notts County’s relegation and defended himself by implying Lincoln’s remarkable escape played more of a part.
Lincoln won their last six games and that put us down, but I got the blame.
Lincoln beat Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham, Bristol City, Huddersfield and finally Cardiff to save themselves from seemingly-guaranteed relegation. Before that run, Lincoln were on a 17-match winless run in the Second Division, which included 13 defeats.
Tommy Lawton regretted returning to Notts County:
I should never have come back to Nottingham, though. Never go back, they say, and they’re right. I was too soft, too trusting. When it came down to it, I didn’t get the backing I’d been promised. Yet when I was there, we had Jeff Astle, Tony Hateley and Terry Wharton on the ground staff. Not a bad start for the future.
Since his sacking, he owned a pub and a sports shop and became an insurance salesman and a football pools representative. He returned to the club as a coach in October 1968. He was then appointed chief scout in February 1969 before being sacked again 9 months later after a shake-up to the scouting department by newly-appointed manager Jimmy Sirrel.
Since his dismissal, he briefly became a furniture representative. He then became unemployed for a year and he suffered from ill health after having a heart attack and a bout of thrombosis. In the aforementioned interview with the Observer, he appeared to be in good spirits. But behind those words were tears.
10 months before the interview took place, Lawton wrote a letter to film director and good friend Richard Attenborough, asking him for a favour.
This is a sad letter for me to write, Dickie, after so many years. Could you let me have a loan of £250 to be repaid in the course of 1 year beginning from the above date [4 May 1970]. I would not ask, if it wasn’t so urgent and lose your friendship, but all I need is time.
Please, Dickie, please help me, and if you cannot see your way to do so, don’t think too badly of me.
Lawton had fallen on hard times. He had difficulty rubbing two pennies together. At the peak of his football career, he was earning £15 a week – which equates to over £25,000 a year in today’s money – as well as money from endorsements and suchlike. He asked Attenborough for a loan in desperation. Unfortunately, this was only the start.
A week later, Attenborough wrote back explaining to Lawton that lending him money was very difficult because of limited private cash after his earnings were in the hands of an investment company and he had to correspond to an investment scheme for 5 years. He did, however, loan him £100. Lawton replied thanking him whole-heartedly and that “the most important thing to my wife and I is that our friendship is not impaired.”
More than two weeks later, Lawton wrote to Attenborough again, telling him he is looking for another job and asked him to put in a good word for singer Adam Faith, who was opening a furnishing company. He asked because he feared unemployment again.
Things are pretty tough, Dickie, and what I would have done without you, God alone knows. I have had a series of misfortunes over the years, and now it looks as this job is in jeopardy.
He wanted to keep his wife and his son happy and he also said that his wife was “ill with worry of what will come of it all, and I must admit, so was I.” Attenborough decided to help his friend and sent Faith a letter recommending Lawton.
However, as mentioned in another Lawton letter, Faith’s company was only based in Scotland, therefore Lawton had to look elsewhere as he was based in Nottingham. He then said Faith would keep in him mind if the business expanded. Instead, in the same letter, Lawton asked Richard Attenborough if Chelsea manager Dave Sexton had an opening for a part-time scout after his fears of unemployment came true.
No more known letters between the pair had been sent for 8 months, implying that Lawton didn’t get a scouting role at Chelsea. However, in a letter from April 1971, Lawton said:
I am happy to tell you that I am now in a job that will bring success for the future.
And that job was at a furnishing firm called Catesby’s at Tottenham Court Road in London. In the same letter, he asked Attenborough for two tickets to the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Liverpool. Attenborough accepted his request and Lawton watched Arsenal beat Liverpool 2-1, and he seemed to have finally got his life back on track. However, his happiness was very brief.
The following August, Richard Attenborough wrote this letter to Tommy Lawton:
I was distressed to learn from my Secretary that she had had no reply to a letter which she apparently wrote to you at the beginning of July.
I understand that the two tickets that I obtained for you for the Cup Final have still not been paid for. Had you asked for them from me as a present, I would, as previously, have been delighted to give them to you. However, my office understood that they were to be paid for by your Firm and consequently, they were to be the most expensive.
I am not a little hurt that you should have caused me this embarrassment.
Lawton received a letter from Attenborough’s secretary in May, informing him that they haven’t received a £10 cheque (over £130 in today’s money) from him yet for the cost of the tickets. His secretary sent another letter the following July – the letter Attenborough was referring to – again, informing Lawton that the £10 cheque hasn’t been received. Attenborough and Lawton’s friendship had since turned sour. And things were about to get worse for Lawton.
In June 1972, Tommy Lawton appeared in court and was subsequently charged after pleading guilty to obtaining money and a car by deception. He also obtained other items including cigarettes and whisky. The previous October, the parent company of Lawton’s firm, Donosbru Furnishings, went into liquidation. According to Lawton’s lawyer, he was hired as a director of a subsidiary company bearing his name – Tommy Lawton Ltd. He was offered £2,000 a year (nearly £27,000 a year in today’s money), a car, commission and a 0.25% share in Tommy Lawton Ltd. He was also told that he would earn £500,000 (around £6.7 million in today’s money), but his lawyer said the firm only wanted Lawton’s name to further themselves. He was expected to have received £960 before the end of September, but received only £450 (over £6,000 in today’s money) – less than half. Lawton ended up with an overdraft of £600 – which equates to an overdraft of over £8,000 in today’s money. Lawton found himself in a financial crisis again, but sadly, there’s more. Lawton had total debts of £2,500 (over £33,500 in today’s money), nearly half of which were judgments made against him in court. As a consequence, a desperate Lawton wrote fake cheques to friends who tried to help him in order to pay off his loans, with his lawyer saying:
He was sure that the rest of the money would come and thought the cheques issued were all right.
He was then ordered to pay £304.50 at £1 a week (over £4,000 in today’s money), thus worsening Lawton’s financial situation even more.
During the trial, Lawton said:
I believed that they were paying money into my bank, but they were not. When I can and if I can, I would like to pay these people back.
The prosecutor said the offences were “the culmination of a bad chapter in the life of a professional footballer in that had once been notable for glamour and excitement.”
Tommy Lawton was at a low point – he was unemployed, on social security benefit and heavily in debt. Throughout his turmoil, he had sold his football shirts and his medals in order to make ends meet. Thankfully, he had a close friend who wanted to help solve his money problems – former teammate Joe Mercer. Mercer arranged a testimonial match for Lawton. Notts County offered the match to be played at Meadow Lane, but it was decided that it would take place at Goodison Park – Lawton and Mercer’s former home.
Joe Mercer thanked Everton for offering them the ground to host the match:
We are very grateful to Everton. Goodison is an ideal setting for this match as it is the home of great centre-forwards.
Ahead of his testimonial in November 1972, Tommy Lawton had a frank interview with Guardian journalist Michael Carey.
Despair – that was the only word for it. I was out of work and I had no money to speak of. I used to go out in the morning and catch the bus to make my family and the neighbours think I was going to work. Then I would come home in the afternoon and discuss the sort of day I had had, just like any other working man. The only difference was that I used to sit in the market square or the library until it was time to go home.At night, I would lie awake and wonder what would happen. I was desperate and there seemed no answer. More than once it crossed my mind to walk into the Trent and end it all, but I always thought about my wife and children and the stigma they would have to bear.I have had two lives, if you like: one in football and one outside. I never made much money in either of them and I was always a soft touch. In fact, some of my so-called friends from the old days have already been on the telephone again after reading about the testimonial, but I learned my lesson.
He was ashamed to tell his family that he couldn’t get a job and pretended he did have one because he didn’t want to let them down. He ended up feeling isolated and he thought he had no-one to talk to. And the people he thought were his friends let him down and made him feel abandoned. He was ready to commit suicide. But he cared about his family so much that he didn’t want them to suffer as much as he did.
He also spoke about his regret leaving Kettering for Notts County, which planted the seed for his downfall.
I should have stayed there for three or four years learning my trade. At Arsenal, Tom Whittaker and Bob Wall gave me some tips and tried to help me, but I was too ambitious too soon. I thought I could do as a manager what I did as a player. In this game, you only find out you are wrong when it is too late.
Looking back, I realise I might have had a career as a manager if I had not rushed it. On the other hand, I might still have been a big flop, you can never tell. But it was a big mistake to go back to Notts County. There was unrest at the club with a divided board… half of them hated me and I detested them and I mistakenly thought I could overcome them.
He added following his redundancy as chief scout of Notts County in 1969, he got complacent, believing he could get a job anywhere because of who he was.
I think I could have got another job then, but I sat back expecting people to come to me. I was still conscious of my image, that I was Tommy Lawton, that something would turn up. It was the old story, my pride was shattered, and I did not appreciate that no individual is bigger than the game itself.
The testimonial attracted thousands and thousands of fans with Everton 2-2 drawing against a Great Britain XI featuring the likes of Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Peter Shilton, with Mick Buckley and Jimmy Husband scoring for the Blues and Colin Stein and Terry Conroy scoring for the Brits. George Best was expected to play in the testimonial but he withdrew at the last minute, but donated £100 as a way of making up for his absence.
His financial despair didn’t end though. In August 1974, he was found guilty of obtaining goods by deception again – this time for deceiving a friend for £10 (nearly £100 in today’s money). Lawton borrowed the money for petrol and expenses in order to visit Joe Mercer in Coventry to collect money from the benefit fund. However, he said the car broke down on the M1 and by the time he got the car going again, it was too late to get to Coventry and went back home and used the £10 for food instead and couldn’t pay his friend back because he couldn’t afford it.
I had to have money. We had no food in the house. I told him that so that he would give me some money. I was desperate.
There was £365 left in the Tommy Lawton Benefit Fund (over £3,600 in today’s money) and Mercer said he would have allowed Lawton to have the money if he asked.
Money problems arose again in December 1975 when a friend of Lawton bailed him out of a prison sentence by paying his arrears after being sued by the council for failing to pay them. His friend pitied Lawton and empathised with him and his long-suffering bad luck.
You just have to help a man like Tommy, who has been left high and dry by an unkind world.
10 years later, Lawton’s money woes continued and Brentford organised another testimonial match for him, which, like his other testimonial, ended in a 2-2 draw. However, he had much better luck after the testimonial as the Nottingham Evening Post offered him a job as a football columnist. He accepted and he subsequently became respected and admired by readers. His situation significantly improved and he thanked the newspaper for helping him turn his life around after over 15 years of pain.
Tommy Lawton suffered for years because of bad decisions and bad luck. He thought his problems were over by trusting people who gave him an opportunity to turn things round, only for everything to go even worse. He opened up about everything, including talking about his depression and contemplating suicide at a time where the subject was very taboo. In spite of all the suffering and all the debt, he didn’t want his family to suffer and he battled through it and earned his reward by becoming a respected football columnist in Nottingham, which gave him a new lease of life in his final years.