Sven follows in a giant’s footsteps to Notts Co

As extraordinary as former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson’s move to Notts County may be, a real shock would be if the first signing on his arriving at Meadow Lane was, say, Wayne Rooney.

Yet, NORMAN GILLER writes, it was a transfer of that magnitude that happened when Tommy Lawton was signed on a world record fee from Chelsea

Sven Goran Eriksson’s arrival at Notts County is not the first time that the Football League’s oldest club has caused a tsunami of amazement in the world of football. My generation will recall when Tommy Lawton joined them from Chelsea in 1947, the equivalent today of Wayne Rooney signing for, erm, Notts County.

At the time, Tommy was England’s free-scoring centre-forward, and he moved to the then Third Division club from Chelsea for what was a world record £20,000 — £17,500, plus Irish international half-back Bill Dickson.

He became the biggest hero in Nottingham since Robin Hood, the Meadow Lane attendances jumping by an average 10,000 to 35,000 spectators a match. Tommy teamed up with a young, gifted inside-forward called Jackie Sewell. He provided the passes and Tommy the goals — 103 in 166 games.

County scored 102 League goals in his first full season, and 95 the following campaign when Lawton shot them to promotion to the Second Division. What Sven would give for that sort of goals output.

Ten years after signing as a player, Tommy returned to County as manager, lasting just 11 months as the club tumbled back into the Third Division.

It was the 1960s when I caught up with my schoolboy hero. By then, I was on the Daily Express, and in a readers’ poll he was voted the all-time greatest England centre-forward.

Tommy telephoned me to say: “As flattered and proud as I am, your readers have got it wrong. Dixie Dean was the greatest of all centre-forwards. He taught me how to play the game properly when I was a young player with him at Everton. No question that Bill was the king.”

Over the next few years I got to know Tommy well, and found him an intelligent and likable man but bitter over the way his generation of footballers had been treated. “Grounds were continually full in the immediate post-war years,” he said. “Players of the class of Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and Billy Wright were being paid the same amount as footballers in the lowest leagues. The most I ever earned was £20 a week, and in my peak years for England I got £8 a match.

“We used to be given second-class train tickets to get to and from matches, while the FA officials used to travel first-class. I was one of the few players who kicked against the loyalty trend and had several clubs – Burnley, Everton, Chelsea, Notts County, Brentford and Arsenal – while the likes of Tom Finney, Billy Wright and Frank Swift were one-club loyalists.

“I used to get accused of being greedy, but I had lost six years to the war and tried to earn as much from my football talent as possible while I could. It was only after I retired that players at last broke free from the slave shackles.”

I asked Tommy if it was true that he once jokingly scolded Stanley Matthews for crossing the ball with the lace facing towards him. I was delighted to find it was a true story and not myth.

“It was in the same year of 1947 that I joined Notts,” he told me. “We were playing Portugal in Lisbon and it was the first time the selectors dared play Matthews and Finney in the same forward line. We ran riot, winning 10-0. Stan Mortensen and I got four goals each, and Matthews and Finney also got on the scoresheet. It was the closest thing I ever saw to perfection on the football field.

“Everything we tried came off, and Portugal just didn’t know what had hit them.”

Lawton went on to explain an unusual piece of skulduggery. “There was a dispute before the game over which ball should be used. Walter Winterbottom demanded the usual full-size ball that was common to most international matches, but the Portuguese coach wanted a size four ball, the type used in our youth and schools football.

“The referee ordered that we should play with the full-size ball, and Morty, making his debut, had it in the back of their net within 20 seconds of the kick-off. It seemed to take the goalkeeper an age to retrieve the ball, and he was fiddling around on his knees appearing to be trying to disentangle it from the corner of the netting. We were in possession within moments of the restart and quickly realised that the goalkeeper had switched the ball for the smaller one.

“A minute later he was also fishing that one out of the back of the net! When I headed in my third goal from a Matthews cross I jokingly complained to Stan that the lace was facing the wrong way when he centred it. Yes, I really did say it.”

Tommy told me that his spell as manager at Notts County was his most miserable time in football. “I can remember most things from my career,” he said. “But I have wiped that period from my mind. I just could not get to grips with things, and when we were relegated I realised managing was not for me.”

Lancastrian Lawton adopted Nottingham as his hometown, and in his late middle-age was rescued from the brink of bankruptcy by the fees from a regular weekly column in the Nottingham Evening Post.

Shrewd Sven, whose agent is former Sunday Times swimming correspondent and SJA member Athole Still, will not need a ghosted sports column to keep him in the manner to which he has become accustomed. But you can bet your football boots that he will not find a player in Tommy Lawton’s class to fill the nets for Notts County.

Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.

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