Tom Fleetwood was one of Goodison’s first great stalwarts, a man who made some 400 appearances – including 121 during the First World War – and lifted the League Championship in 1915, while playing in an array of positions. This saw him start his Goodison career as an inside forward, play most of his career in defence and even make a brief appearance in the Everton goal.
A SON of the city in which he played most of his career, Fleetwood nevertheless started out at Rochdale. He was spotted by Everton’s former captain, Jack Taylor, who recommended his signing to the board. £425 captured the forward’s signature in March 1911 and it was to be an investment he repaid many times.
Despite a lack of top-flight pedigree, Fleetwood was drafted straight into the starting XI as Everton sought to bolster their flagging First Division title challenge. A goalless draw at home to Bradford was a disappointing start and the following week Everton fell to fellow title challengers, Aston Villa. The Liverpool Echo nevertheless took some solace from the newcomer’s input. ‘One of the best features of a good clean game, in which much artistry was shown, was the footwork of Fleetwood, the new Walton forward,’ its correspondent reported. ‘Resolute yet fearless, Fleetwood was always a source of danger, and could have got a goal had he not lost the ball when [defender James] Logan charged him hard.’
Everton finished the 1910/11 season fourth, with Fleetwood playing the final game at half back in place of Robert Young. It was to be a portent of what was to follow and over the summer of 1911 Fleetwood continued the transition from hopeful First Division forward to top-class defender. In the annual whites v blues trial match, it was reported that the ‘half-backs line was strong and Fleetwood’s continued appearances at half-back instead of forward seems likely to bear good fruit’.
Young started the 1911/12 season in the half back position, while Fleetwood sat out in the reserves. But this was to be just a temporary situation. Everton started the season slowly and after Fleetwood had appeared three times as centre forward, he supplanted the Scot in the Everton defence.
Not everyone was pleased by these changes. ‘Young and Fleetwood have defects in common, and the faster the pace the less effective these deliberate players are,’ reported the Liverpool Post and Mercury. ‘The result of slow thinking and lumbersome action in a centre forward is extremely difficult to neutralise by other more desirable qualities. It was hoped Fleetwood would develop more craft, alertness, and keenness in his new position, but up to date he remains the slowest man of a pretty fast line ... His nomadic tendencies [do] not promote the necessary cohesion, and hence the attack was frequently finessing to regain advantage, which had been practically frittered away. A centre forward who is slow to see his chances must necessary always be late in endeavouring to profit by them. Everton certainly want more dash and initiative in the centre.’
But Fleetwood’s switch marked an about-turn in Everton’s fortunes. Sixteenth at the start of October, they rose to second by mid- January. ‘Fleetwood pleased immensely at centre half, and has steadied down wonderfully,’ reported the same newspaper later in the season. ‘He showed great self-control and never indulged in over-vigorous tactics... Nowadays Fleetwood’s passes are kept low and are seldom overdone.’
EVERTON, the perennial nearly-men of the era, finished the 1911/12 season runners-up, three points behind Blackburn Rovers who beat them 3-1 in what was effectively the title decider four games from the end of the season. Fleetwood was now a first-team regular and although he faced a brief challenge from Billy Wareing he regained his place in time for the 1914/15 season when he made 35 league appearances as Everton won their second First Division title.
WAR BY THEN had taken hold and resulted in football’s reorganisation into regional leagues. Unlike some of his team-mates, Fleetwood continued to turn out regularly for Everton.
He also appeared for England in two victory internationals against Scotland in April and May 1919. When peace came he was the first name on the Everton teamsheet and was elected captain for the 1919/20 season. Once he even – in October 1921 – appeared as goalkeeper after Tom Fern was injured in a match against Oldham.
The club, nevertheless, was in a period of transition. In 1919/20, the first season back, Everton finished 16th, then a more promising sixth. But in 1921/22 they had slipped back to 20th and missed out on relegation by just four points. Fleetwood, now in the veteran stage of his career, was facing challenges from Hunter Hart and Joe Peacock – another forward-cum-defender– but it was the arrival of Neil McBain from Manchester United midway through the 1922/23 campaign that saw him off. When the 1923/24 season kicked off Everton had its most settled look in years but there was no sign of Fleetwood. A month into the campaign a board minute recorded: ‘The Chairman reported an offer made by Mr D. G. Ashworth on behalf of the Oldham Athletic F.C. of £750 for this player’s transfer, the amount to
be paid in two instalments viz half on 30th Octr & half on 30th Novr & interest on the money at the rate of 5% to be paid. It was stated that the player would be entitled to an accrued share of benefit of about £300. It was agreed to accept this offer & to give the Club permission to approach.’ Fleetwood accepted Oldham’s offer and the career of one of Everton’s most reliable and versatile sons was over.