The former England international was the first black player to play for a white team, and went on to become one of the most influential footballers ever. Yet, he is largely unknown today.
Black Scottish international footballers were the most influential players in football for decades. They have been lost to history as they are no longer playing.
Watson was a pioneer who contributed to change the game of football.
In Glasgow, there are two paintings depicting black footballers confronting each other across an alleyway. The other is Pele, who helped shape football as we know it.
On his debut in 1881, Andrew Watson led Scotland to a 6-1 victory over England. He was a trailblazer, the world’s first black international, yet his accomplishments remained unnoticed for more than a century.
A guy descended from slaves and those who oppressed them, born in Guyana, raised to become an English gentleman, and renowned as one of Scottish football’s earliest idols, according to research done over the last three decades.
Watson remains a mystery today, 100 years after his death at the age of 64, with a jumbled image constructed around him.
His blurry, fading sepia picture inspires a wide range of feelings, including wonder, pride, passion, and discomfort for one guy in particular.
Watson had hardly played football when he came to Glasgow in 1875, at the age of 18.
It was a period before professionalism, when the sport was still developing and no uniform set of rules had been established.
He’d established himself as one of the most accomplished and well-respected players in Scotland within six years, a pioneer who helped popularize the Scottish ‘passing and running’ style, an early stage in the development of football into what we know today.
Watson played versus England twice, with Scotland coming out on top both times. The second win, 5-1 at the old Hampden Park, was a watershed moment for the English Football Association, convincing them that their strategy needed to alter.
As a new top amateur team was established, they looked to Watson for guidance; Corinthian FC would eventually be credited with popularizing football across the globe. Watson, a public school graduate who would have spoken with his new teammates’ upper-class accent, was one of the first recruits.
He took on the mantle of ‘Scotch Professor,’ teaching his English counterparts “the science” of a more dynamic passing style, both at Corinthian and many other clubs and representative teams.
He is regarded as a conduit who helped modernize football at a time of tremendous upheaval, signaling the “death” of the “individual, dribbling game” favored by the English, which consisted of a single player sprinting with the ball at his feet surrounded by eight forwards.
“Pele was a brilliant player,” says Ged O’Brien, creator of the Scottish Football Museum, “but there are hundreds of great footballers whose impact dies with them the second they retire.”
“Any game of football being played anywhere in the globe – by anybody of any gender, race, or culture – will have Andrew Watson’s spirit gazing down on them, because they are playing his game.”
“Watson is the all-time most influential black footballer. Nobody else even comes close.”
Watson (back row, fourth from right) with the Scotland squad that defeated England 5-1 in 1882.
Watson’s impact was seen across the game throughout his lifetime. He was a captain, a national cup champion, a manager, an investor, and a match official, all of which he accomplished and contributed as the first black man to do so.
Historians, historians, and academics have worked tirelessly to shed light on his legacy. Unraveling his own narrative, on the other hand, has been a different problem.
Watson was born in 1856 in Georgetown, Demerara, a Dutch-founded colonial trade station that was later seized by the French and renamed by British authorities who brought slaves from Africa to work on its plantations. It is now the capital of Guyana, which became a republic in 1970, four years after declaring independence from the United Kingdom. Suriname, Venezuela, and Brazil are its neighbors.
Watson came to the United Kingdom when he was around two years old. He attended some of England’s most prestigious schools. His family had a lot of money and had a lot of influence in the family.
Mark Al Nasir, a poet from Liverpool, spent years studying Watson’s history. He traced his own lineage back to Watson’s in Guyana after first “seeing himself” in pictures of a 19th-century footballer aired on a TV program in 2002.
“I saw a black man from Guyana who was the world’s first black footballer, who resembled me and shared our surname. ‘We had to be connected,’ I reasoned “Al Nasir, formerly Mark Watson, converted to Islam and changed his name to Al Nasir.
“I grew up believing that I was worthless, that I was nothing, that I came from nothing.” There was nothing about being black that made me feel proud or dignified. So, seeing someone like him, one of the game’s very architects, I had to figure out what we had in common.
“I was searching for a feeling of black pride, something to be proud of in my past.”
Al Nasir discovered slaves and slave traffickers among his ancestors.
“Both of their blood runs through my veins, and it’s a conflict I have to resolve inside my own spirit,” he adds.
“And Andrew Watson has both in his family.”
In June 1902, a sketch of Watson appeared in Scottish Referee, a weekly sports journal.
Watson’s mother, Anna Rose, was a black lady born into slavery who, like her mother Minkie, was liberated as a child.
His father, Peter Miller Watson, was a white Scottish attorney who was one of Demerara’s most powerful people. He was in charge of Sandbach, Tinne and Co, a company that exported sugar, coffee, and rum and had ties to the slave traffic.
John Gladstone, one of the biggest slave owners in the West Indies and the father of William Gladstone, who served as British Prime Minister for 12 years across four terms between 1868 and 1894, is also included in a complicated family tree.
In the nineteenth century, Watson’s family expanded into banking and railway construction, accumulating vast fortunes in the process.
According to Al Nasir, “Andrew Watson was born into one of the most powerful, dynastic slavery corporations in the history of the British slave trade.”
“This is a man who has lived a life of luxury. His cousin was the Prime Minister, and his family controlled a bank.”
Watson is also featured in a mural at the old Hampden Park location.
Watson attended Heath Grammar School in Halifax, North Yorkshire, after migrating to England with his older sister Annetta, and went on to study at King’s College, London, and Glasgow University.
He relied on an inheritance of £6,000 plus interest given to him by his father when he was 21 years old. In today’s money, the amount would be worth approximately £700,000. He put part of the money into his Parkgrove football team and a wholesale warehousing company.
Watson was featured in The Scottish Athletic Journal in 1885 under the headline: ‘Modern Athletic Celebrities’ after going on to Queen’s Park, where he won three Scottish Cups.
He is characterized as “first-class” and “plays a sparkling honest game,” as in many other stories on him. However, unlike other accounts from the period, there is mention of the abuse he faced:
“He consistently maintained that gentlemanly demeanor which has endeared him to opponents as well as his club mates, despite being exposed to obscene comments by splenetic, ill-tempered players on more than one occasion.”
It provides a striking glimpse into what Watson had to deal with as a black athlete to those who had done their homework. Racism was not mentioned in any of the reports at the time.
Richard McBrearty, curator of the Scottish Football Museum, wonders why the writer wrote it.
“I’ve read hundreds of these stories, and none of them refer to white footballers as’splenetic, ill-tempered players.’ It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a reference, and it’s a sentence from an article on a black player. That was one of the issues he had to deal with.
“It establishes him as a football champion, not only for his skill on the field, but also as a black guy competing in what was essentially a white sport at the time. He was a trailblazer.”
In 1881, Watson (front center, legs crossed) was a member of the Scotland squad that defeated England 6-1.
Watson is prominently featured in one of Scotland’s most renowned early photographs, and his broader impact is now clear. So, why was he overlooked?
Watson’s first wife, Jessie Nimmo Armour, died shortly after he arrived in London as a player in 1882. For the next 30 years, their two children would live with their grandparents in Glasgow. It signaled the start of a tumultuous time in Watson’s life, during which he played for a variety of organizations.
By 1888, he was nearing the end of his career and playing for Bootle, Everton’s major Merseyside opponent. He moved there with his second wife, Eliza Kate Tyler, with whom he had two additional children, and resigned from football to pursue a career as a marine engineer.
He went to sea and rose through the ranks of the West Indian and Pacific Steamship Company, eventually becoming chief engineer. He’d given up on football. In 1889, he was mentioned in the Glasgow Evening Post as “doing well as an engineer,” but his name quickly disappeared from public memory.
His death was reported in The Richmond and Twickenham Times in 1921, and he was mentioned as a relative of previous Prime Minister Gladstone. No obituary was written, and no football tributes were paid.
“What would have happened to football if you removed Andrew Watson from the chronology of the game, rather than simply erasing him from history as was previously done?” Llew Walker, author of Andrew Watson: A Wandering Life, wonders.
“Over the last 100 years, there has been a whitewashing of football history as an English game, and when the Scottish influence is taken out of the game, you also push Andrew Watson’s narrative out,” he continues.
Watson is being honored with a statue in Hampden Park, according to a campaign. But, due of the footballer’s familial connections and the money he was given later in life, Al Nasir is opposed to such attempts.
“What justification do you have for erecting a monument of Watson if you’re going to get up and say’remove William Gladstone’s name from a building at Liverpool University because he received money from his father and his connection to the slave trade?’ Al Nasir inquires.
“You can’t hold Watson to a different standard.”
Andy Mitchell, a historian, thinks Watson’s narrative is “still unfinished.” Even though Mitchell assisted in a recent significant rediscovery, many biographical facts remain a mystery.
Watson’s final resting location remained unknown for decades. It was speculated that it could be in Australia or Mumbai. Mitchell was the one who discovered the body at Richmond Cemetery in south-west London.
“In some ways, Watson is now being recognized as a pivotal person,” Mitchell adds.
“Despite this, there are many unanswered questions regarding his life and how he felt. He’s a mystery – a very significant mystery.”
Andrew Watson is a former professional tennis player and was regarded as the most influential black footballer for decades. However, he has been lost to history due to his lack of success in the sport. Reference: andrew watson tennis.
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