Watson: The forgotten black football hero


Sports Reporter 

JUST like how the West has tried to outrightly scrap black history in politics and battle of patents, so is the case in sport.  

England and its so-called heroes take credit for being football ‘inventors’, yet history shows that football started as game of war in China.

Anyway, delving into how football is played, Andrew Watson, a fount of insipid slave trade and slavery history, will always be remembered for shaping the beautiful game into what it is today, but there are few details about him recorded.

There are two murals of black footballers facing one another across an alleyway in Glasgow. 

One helped shape football as we know it and the other is Pele.

Watson captained Scotland to a 6-1 win over England on his debut in 1881. 

He was a pioneer, the world’s first black international, but for more than a century, the significance of his achievements went unrecognised.

Research conducted over the past three decades has left libraries with some biographical details; a man descended of slaves and of those who enslaved them, born in Guyana, raised to become an English gentleman and famed as one of Scottish football’s first icons.

And yet today, 100 years on from his death aged 64, Watson remains something of an enigma — the picture built around him a fractured one.

His grainy, faded, sepia image evokes many different emotions — awe, pride, passion and, for one man in particular, discomfort.

When Watson moved to Glasgow in 1875, aged 18, he had hardly played football.

It was a time before professionalism, when the sport was still evolving and a single set of rules was yet to be universally adopted.

Within six years, he had established himself as one of the most talented and well-respected players, a trailblazer who helped popularise the Scottish ‘passing and running’ game – an early step in football’s evolution towards what we recognise today.

Watson twice played against England and, on each occasion, Scotland were convincing winners. 

The second victory of 5-1 at the original Hampden Park was a pivotal result that convinced the English Football Association its approach needed to change.

They turned to Watson to show them the way as a new elite amateur team was formed; Corinthian FC would later be credited with popularising football around the world. Watson, a public school educated player who would have spoken with the upper class accent of his new team-mates, was among the first recruits.

He assumed the role of ‘Scotch Professor’ and taught his English peers – both at Corinthian and numerous other clubs and representative sides – ‘the science’ of a more dynamic passing style.

He is seen as a conduit who helped modernise football during a period of great upheaval that signalled the ‘death’ of the ‘individual, dribbling game’, characterised by a single player running with the ball at his feet surrounded by eight forwards that had been favoured by the English.

“Pele was a genius footballer, but there are thousands of genius footballers whose influence dies with them the second they retire,” said Ged O’Brien, founder of the Scottish Football Museum.

“You can look at any game of football being played anywhere in the world – by any person of any gender or ethnicity or culture – and the ghost of Andrew Watson will be looking down on you, because they are playing his game.

Watson is the most influential black footballer of all time. 

There is nobody (who) comes close.”

During his lifetime, Watson’s influence was felt across the game. 

He was a captain, a national cup winner, an administrator, investor and match official — each achievement and contribution made as the first blackman to do so.

Historians, researchers and academics have worked hard to bring his legacy to light. 

But unravelling his personal story has presented a different challenge.

Watson was born in 1856, in Georgetown, Demerara, a colonial trading post established by the Dutch, captured by the French, then re-named by British rulers who imported slaves from Africa to work on its plantations. Now it’s the capital of Guyana – which has been a republic since 1970, four years after it declared independence from Britain. 

It borders Suriname, Venezuela and Brazil.

Watson moved to Britain aged around two. 

He was educated at some of the finest schools in England. His family boasted significant wealth and powerful family connections.

Watson’s mother, Anna Rose, was a black woman born into slavery and freed as a young girl, along with her mother Minkie.

His father, Peter Miller Watson, was a white Scottish solicitor among the most influential figures in Demerara. He looked after the affairs of Sandbach, Tinne and Co – a firm that exported sugar, coffee and rum and had been involved in the slave trade.

In a complex family tree is also John Gladstone, one of the largest slave owners in the West Indies and the father of William Gladstone, who served for 12 years as British Prime Minister over four terms between 1868 and 1894.

Watson’s family, in the 19th Century, was also expanding into banking and railway development – amassing huge wealth in the process.

“Andrew Watson was born into one of the most powerful, dynastical slavery conglomerates in the history of the British slave trade,” Al Nasir says.

“This is a guy who lived the life of privilege. 

He had a Prime Minister for a cousin and his family owned a bank.”

Aged 21, he drew on an inheritance of £6 000, plus interest, left to him following his father’s death. 

The sum would be worth around £700 000 today. 

He invested some of the money in his football club, Parkgrove, as well as in a wholesale warehouse business.

After moving on to Queen’s Park, where he won three Scottish Cups, the Scottish Athletic Journal profiled Watson in 1885 under the headline: ‘Modern Athletic Celebrities’.

Like many such articles about him, he is described as ‘first-class’ and is said to ‘play a sterling honest game’. 

But unlike other reports of the time, there is reference to abuse he had to contend with: “Although on more than one occasion subjected to vulgar insults by splenetic, ill-tempered players, he uniformly preserved that gentlemanly demeanour which has endeared him to opponents as well as his club companions.”

To those who have researched Watson, it gives a telling insight into what he had to deal with as a black player. 

No reports of the time explicitly mentioned racism.

“Why has the writer written it?” asks Richard McBrearty, curator at the Scottish Football Museum.

“I’ve read hundreds of these articles and they don’t talk of ‘splenetic, ill-tempered players’ for the white footballers. It’s the only reference I’ve ever seen and it happens to be a line mentioned in an article about a black player. 

That was part of what he faced.

It sets him out as a champion of football, not just for his playing prowess but as a blackman playing what was basically a white game at that time. 

He was a pioneer.”

His death was announced in 1921. – BBC


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