Manchester born centre forward Johnny (sometimes known as Jimmy) Hanlon played schools football in the Hulme area of the city before signing for Manchester United on amateur forms in April 1935. Graduating through their Central League team, and described as blessed with “marked natural abilities”, he turned professional that November but he had to wait until 1938 to get his chance. “After an inconspicuous start in season 1938/39, the United introduced Hanlon to the senior team and there was at one a remarkable improvement in his form” went a contemporaneous commentary. He was “a notable discovery of the 1938/39 season” being described as “quick off the mark and a fine shot”.
In fact he made his Football League debut against Huddersfield Town in November 1938, scoring in a 1-1 draw with United languishing bottom of the League. With Hanlon in the team they lost only once in his first thirteen League matches, and among his 12 goals he scored a hat-trick in a win at Blackpool in February 1939. United recovered to finish fourteenth, however peacetime football was soon abandoned with the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.
After the conflict, with Matt Busby assuming the manager’s job at Old Trafford, Hanlon returned to Manchester United and scored at Preston North End as they exited the 1946 FA Cup, the first post war peacetime competition. He was a regular starter in United’s 1946-47 campaign that saw them finish as runners up in the League Championship, however thereafter he was a fringe player until he joined Second Division club Bury in October 1948 after 21 goals in 70 appearances spread over the ten years dominated by the War. At Gigg Lane he scored once in 33 appearances for The Shakers, joining non league Northwich Victoria in the 1950 close season and playing for Rhyl in 1951 before his eventual retirement.