Tom McAteer was born Smithstone, Cumbernauld in in 1876, the son of Patrick McAteer, who had migrated to the area to work in the coal mines, and his wife, Margaret Starrs. He played junior football for Kilsyth Wanderers and Smithston Hibernian before moving to England in 1898 to sign for Football League First Division club Bolton Wanderers. He spent four seasons with Bolton, scoring 10 goals from 59 league appearances: they were relegated in the first, he helped them gain promotion in 1899-1900 and played regularly in the third season but lost his place in the fourth, and was released in 1902.
After two seasons in the English Southern League , the first with West Ham United, during which he played only 13 league matches, and the second with Brighton & Hove Albion, where he was appointed captain and played in every match but one (34 scoring 6 goals), Tom returned to Scotland where he signed for Dundee in May 1904. He was a regular in the 1904-05 Scottish Division One season as Dundee finished in mid-table, but played only four matches the following season and moved on, to the Lancashire Combination club Carlisle United.
He played for Clyde during the 1906–07 season before returning to Carlisle, captaining the team to the second round proper of the 1907-08 FA Cup. After they were eliminated from the competition in February 1908, he joined Clyde on a permanent basis. Tom captained Clyde as they defeated both Rangers and Celtic to reach the 1910 Scottish Cup Final, a match only settled after two replayed when Clyde lost to Dundee.
At the end of the season, the 34-year-old Tom McAteer signed for Celtic. Never a first-team regular, Tom still played in 24 Division One matches for his new club, and scored a late goal in the 1911 Scottish Cup Final replay against Hamilton Academical to clinch a 2-0 win.
In 1912, Tom briefly played for Wishaw United before returning to league football on a part-time basis with Albion Rovers and Abercorn. When war broke out, Tom enlisted and served with the Cameron Highlanders; he was badly wounded in 1915. After the war he worked as a colliery surface worker.