Andrew Watson: The 'most influential' black footballer for decades lost to history

Watson was a pioneer who changed the way football was played
Two murals depicting black footballers are located in an alleyway in Glasgow. One was instrumental in shaping football's current form, while the other is Pele.

Andrew Watson was the captain of Scotland in a 6-1 victory over England, his debut in 1881. Although he was a pioneer and the first black international in the world, his contributions were not recognized for over a century.

We have some biographical information from research over the past 30 years: A man who descends from slaves and those who enslaved them. He was born in Guyana and raised to be an English gentleman. He is also known as one of the first icons of Scottish football.

Yet, 100 years after his death at 64, Watson is still a mystery, and the picture he has created around him is fractured.

His faded, grainy, sepia photo evokes many emotions: pride, passion and, for one man, discomfort.

Watson was 18 when he moved to Glasgow, in 1875. He had never played football.

This was before professionalism. The sport was still in its infancy and there was no single set of rules.

He was a respected and talented player who had established himself in six years.

Watson played twice against England. On both occasions, Scotland won. The English Football Association was convinced by the second victory at Hampden Park (5-1), that it needed to change its approach.

As a new elite amateur football team was created, they turned to Watson for guidance. Corinthian FC would be later credited with popularizing soccer around the globe. Watson, a player from a public school, was one of the first recruits. He would speak with an upper-class accent like his new teammates.

He was the 'Scotch Prof' and taught his English peers at Corinthian, as well as many other clubs and representative sides, "the science" and a more dynamic style of passing.

He is seen as a conduit that helped modernize football during a time of great upheaval. This period marked the "death” of the "individual dribbling" game, which was characterized by one player running with the ball at his feet and surrounded by eight forwards. It had been favored by England.

Ged O'Brien founder of the Scottish Football Museum, says that although Pele was a genius footballer "there are many genius footballers whose influence fades the moment they retire."

"You can see any football game being played around the world by anyone of any gender, ethnicity, or culture. Andrew Watson will be watching you because they are playing his game.

"Watson is the greatest black footballer of all-time." Nobody comes even close."

Watson, fourth from right in the back row, with the Scotland team who beat England 5-1 on 1882

Watson's impact on the game was felt throughout his life. Watson was a captain, a national Cup winner, an administrator and investor, all of which were first-ever black men to achieve these achievements.

His legacy has been brought to light by historians, researchers, and academics. It has been a challenge to unravel his personal story.

Watson was born 1856 in Georgetown, Demerara. This colonial trading post was captured by the Dutch and later renamed by the British who imported slaves from Africa for its plantations. It is now Guyana's capital. This republic was established in 1970, four years after the declaration of independence from Britain. It borders Suriname, Venezuela and Brazil.

Watson immigrated to Britain at the age of two. He attended some of the best schools in England. His family was wealthy and had strong family connections.

Mark Al Nasir, a Liverpudlian poet, spent many years researching Watson's history. He first saw himself in images of a 19-century footballer on a BBC TV documentary. In 2002, he began to trace his own genealogy back to Watson's Guyana.

"I saw a Guyana black man who was the first black footballer in the world. He looked just like me and had our family name. "I thought, 'We must be related'," said Al Nasir who changed his name to Mark Watson after converting to Islam.

"I grew to believe that I was worthless and that I was not worthy of anything. Being black was not something that gave me dignity or pride. It was a great opportunity to see someone like him, one who is the true architects of the game. I wanted to discover what our connection might have been.

"I was searching for a sense black pride, something in our history to be proud about."

Al Nasir discovered that descendants were slave traders and slave owners.

He says, "The blood of both runs through my veins and it is a dilemma I must reconcile within myself."

"And Andrew Watson's Family consisted of both."

In June 1902, Scottish Referee published a drawing of Watson.

Watson's mother Anna Rose was a black woman born to slavery who was freed when she was a young girl with her mother Minkie.

His father, Peter Miller Watson was a Scottish white solicitor who was one of the most prominent figures in Demerara. He was responsible for Sandbach, Tinne and Co, a company that exports sugar, coffee, and rum and was involved in the slave trading.

John Gladstone is part of a complicated family tree. He was one of the largest West Indies slave owners and also the father of William Gladstone who served 12 years as British Prime Minster over four terms from 1868 to 1894.

Watson's family was also expanding into railway development and banking in the 19th century, amassing a lot of wealth.

Al Nasir explains that Andrew Watson was born to one of the most powerful, dynastical slave conglomerates in British history.

"This was a man who lived the life full of privilege. He was a cousin to a Prime Minister and his family owned a bank.

Watson is also featured in a mural on the site of Hampden Park's original Hampden Park.

Watson moved to England with Annetta, his older sister. He attended Heath Grammar School, Halifax, North Yorkshire. After graduating, he continued to study at King's College London and Glasgow University.

He was 21 years old when he received a 6,000 inheritance plus interest from his father. This sum would amount to approximately 700,000. Some of the money was invested in Parkgrove football club and in a wholesale warehouse.

Watson was then moved to Queen's Park where he won three Scottish Cups. In 1885, The Scottish Athletic Journal featured Watson under the headline, 'Modern Athletic Celebrities'.

He is described as "first class" and "plays a sterling honest sport", like many other articles. However, unlike many other reports at the time, there are references to abuse that he had to deal with.

"Although he was subject to vulgar insults from splenetic, illtempered players on more than one occasion, he always maintained that gentlemanly demeanour that has earned him the respect of his clubmates as well as his opponents."

Watson's story gives an interesting insight to those who have studied it. There were no reports at the time that explicitly mentioned racism.

"Why did the writer write it?" Richard McBrearty is the curator at The Scottish Football Museum.

"I have read hundreds of these articles, and they don’t mention'splenetic or ill-tempered' players for white footballers. This is the only source I have seen, and it was a line that was mentioned in an article about black players. This was just a part of the challenges he faced.

He is a champion of football not only for his playing skills but also because he was a black player in a game that was largely white at the time. He was a pioneer."

Watson (front center, legs crossed), pictured with the Scotland team which beat England 6-1 in 1881

Watson is front and center in one of Scotland's most iconic early photos. His wider influence can now be clearly seen. Why was he so forgotten?

Watson's first wife Jessie Nimmo Armour, who arrived in London in 1882 as a footballer, died shortly after arriving. For the next 30 years, their two children would live with their grandparents in Glasgow. This marked a turbulent period in Watson’s life, during which he lived almost a nomadic lifestyle playing for many teams.

He was at the end of his career, playing for Bootle, Everton's main rival in Merseyside. He moved in with Eliza Kate Tyler his second wife, and they had two more children.

He worked for the West Indian and Pacific Steamship Company and rose to the rank chief engineer. He was lost to football. He was mentioned in the Glasgow Evening Post 1889 that he was "doing very well as an engineer", but his presence disappeared from public consciousness.

In 1921, The Richmond and Twickenham Times announced his death. This newspaper referred to him as a cousin of former Prime Minister Gladstone. There were no tributes to football or an obituary.

What would have happened to football if Andrew Watson was removed from the timeline of football? Llew Walker (author of Andrew Watson: A straggling life) asks this question.

He added: "There has been a whitewashing in football history over the past 100 year, and when you push Andrew Watson out of the game, it also pushes Andrew Watson's story."

Watson is being honored with a Hampden Park statue. Al Nasir, however, is opposed to such efforts due to Watson's family ties as well as the inheritance he received later in his life.

"If you're going to say, "Remove William Gladstone from Liverpool University's building because he received money through his father and his connection to the slave trade", then what arguments do you have for putting up a Watson statue? Al Nasir asks.

Watson is the only standard you can use.

Andy Mitchell, a historian, believes Watson's story "still to be finished". Even though Mitchell was involved in a major rediscovery, many biographical details are still largely unknown.

Watson's final resting place has been unknown for decades. It was believed to be in Australia or Mumbai. Mitchell, a man from south-west London, was the one who discovered the grave.

Mitchell says that Watson is now being recognized as an important figure in some ways.

"But there are still many questions about his life, and how he felt. He is an enigma, a very important one.