On 15 September 1928, Manchester City inside left Tommy Johnson gave one of the most extraordinary performances Goodison Park has ever witnessed.
‘Perhaps the most thrilling game of recent years was that at Goodison Park in September 1928,’ recalled the Liverpool Evening Express five years later. ‘Manchester City were late in arriving – they were fined for it. Everton had them guessing. [Tom] Weldon scored in the first two minutes. But gradually the City improved and eventually left the field winners by 6-2. Tommy Johnson was Everton’s bugbear on that occasion. He was playing the unusual position of centre-forward. He rattled in four fine goals, paused to let [Eric] Brook score a fifth and then completed his “nap hand” with a lovely shot.’
JOHNSON WAS THEN a 27-year-old England international and had already established a reputation as one of the finest goalscorers in Manchester City’s history. He had scored more than 20 goals in each of the previous three seasons, and would end the 1928/29 season with 38 goals – a City record that still stands.
His tormenting of Everton that September afternoon summed up a troubled season for the League Champions, who fell from top spot to 18th place by the season’s end. The Everton board recognised that too much of the goalscoring burden lay with an increasingly injury-prone Dixie Dean and sought to redress it by bolstering the forward line. Johnson was identified as a key target during the autumn of 1929 but approaches to the City board were rejected. Over the following winter Everton’s form collapsed and relegation became a genuine threat. Everton’s board spent heavily – some £20,000 – on players including Jock Thomson and Billy Coggins. Surprisingly, when they went back to City in March and asked after Johnson, a £6500 bid was accepted, despite supporter protests. Johnson became an Everton player and overnight 7000 was knocked off the Maine Road gate.
‘His nature, judgment, skill and experience should prove of immense worth in the critical days ahead,’ reported the Liverpool Post and Mercury of the new signing. ‘A fine positional player, he has a good shot, and his shrewd judgment and placing are excellent. He stands 5ft 9 and half inches and weighs 11st 11lb. Manchester City are well endowed with inside forwards, and no doubt Johnson realises that a change will be of benefit to him.’ Johnson joined a team in turmoil. Everton were in the midst of a record run of six straight defeats and although they would win four of their last five games they finished the 1929/30 season rock bottom. Johnson, who had encountered relegation with City, had suffered it again.
But Everton had already laid the basis of their next great side and the next three years were to be among the most thrilling in the club’s history. Johnson was at the heart of this revival, with Dean, Jimmy Dunn, Jimmy Stein and Tommy White forming one of the greatest forward lines Goodison has ever seen. They won the Second Division Championship at the first time of asking, scoring an incredible 121 goals – Johnson claiming 14. Their return to the First Division was just as impressive. Champions again, 116 goals scored, 22 by Johnson, who missed only one game.
A year later they reached the final of the FA Cup at Wembley, where Johnson had been on the losing side with City seven years earlier. This time he faced his former club and Everton ran out easy 3-0 winners.
Johnson was one of the most popular members of this outstanding Everton team, as an Evening Express profile recorded on the eve of the Cup Final: ‘Known familiarly as “Tosh”, he is the club comedian. Dean’s bridge partner, so beware! His [stage comedian and actor] Sydney Howard expression is nothing to go by. Once scored five goals for Manchester City against Everton and rarely forgets to mention it to his colleagues. Says he only makes up the eleven, but that’s his way. Wonderful shot, with his left foot.’
And yet, despite the high regard in which he was clearly held, to be a 1930s footballer was to be a commodity, to be bought and sold at the whim of your directors. The team that had thrilled over the previous three years started the 1933/34 season poorly. Dean was injured again, which cannot have helped. But finding themselves in mid-table mediocrity, in March 1934 the board circulated the names of eight players available for transfer to other clubs. The list, which included Johnson, Dunn and Ted Critchley, was leaked to the press. A furious Will Cuff said, ‘Unless there is confidence in football matters, the sport cannot go on. The effects of any club divulging the names of players will eventually stop clubs sending out lists altogether.’
None of this stopped the fire-sale and within days Liverpool came in with a £650 offer, which was duly accepted. Johnson had rendered Everton four years excellent service and at Anfield he enjoyed an Indian summer. In 1936 he dropped out of league football, serving Darwen of the Lancashire Combination until the outbreak of war.