21 October 2021

Jim, outdoors, holding a photo of a sporting hero

An article for Black History Month by Sporting Memories Group Delivery and Practice Coordinator – and Historian to the Hampden Collection – Jim Purvis.

Andrew Watson in a team photo

Can you spot him in this photograph? Who? Andrew Watson – the first black international footballer, of course!

Not that difficult, was it? Well the photograph must have been looked at thousands of times since it was taken in the 1880s and yet it took until 1990 before anyone thought to ask if there was a story behind the picture of the confident-seeming young man who had just captained Scotland to successive 5-1 and 6-1 wins over the 'Auld Enemy'.

It had been accepted football folklore that the first black player was Arthur Wharton. a goalkeeper for, among others, Preston North End. But a little further investigation revealed that Andrew probably first played almost a decade earlier.

Who was he? And why have so few people – never mind football fans and historians – ever heard of him?

He was born on 24 May 1856 in Demerara Guyana (at that time British Guiana) to a Scottish solicitor turned sugar planter (you'd already guessed that from Demerara, hadn't you?) and a local freed slave, Hannah Rose. 

His father brought Andrew and his sister Annetta to Britain in the 1860s and Andrew was privately educated in the style of a young gentleman of the time. In 1869 Andrew's father died and at the age of 13 he inherited a sum estimated in today's terms to be in the region of £3 million.

Having enrolled for an engineering course at Glasgow University after school, his love of football blossomed, and he was soon invited to join Scotland's then pre-eminent club Queen's Park. He is described as follows in The Scottish Football Annual of 1880–81:

One of the very best backs we have; since joining Queen's Park has made rapid strides to the front as a player; has great speed and tackles splendidly; powerful and sure kick; well worthy of a place in any representative team.

Perhaps little wonder then that he was selected to captain Scotland in those two famous internationals. Scotland – playing their then accustomed 'combination' pass and move style – trounced England, who had kept faith with their 'kick and rush' tactics – on both occasions. Soon English clubs were clamouring to sign Scottish proponents of the 'modern style' – who became known as 'The Scotch Professors' – to play for and teach their English players the new way.

Most of the 'professors' were signed by clubs in the north of England – particularly in the football hotbeds of the time in Lancashire in towns such as Darwen, Preston and Blackburn. The game there was quite distinct in approach (payment of players, working class and style) from that of the 'Southerners'  (resolutely amateur and predominently public school dominated) but while arguably the first 'Scotch Professor' Andrew clearly had no need of payment to play!

Business took him to London and ultimately in 1883 an invitation to play for the famous amateur club Corinthians (Corinthian spirit, anyone?) where his influence as a teacher of the game was most marked. Ged O'Brien, founder of The Scottish Football Museum and the man who first posed the question above in 1990,  is in no doubt:-

   "[he is] the most influential black footballer of all time. There is nobody that comes close."

Sadly, Arthur Wharton was exposed to vile racism during his playing career – notably with the Preston North End side of the 1880s known as 'The Invincibles' – but perhaps strange to relate, Andrew Watson does not seem to have suffered in the same way. Contemporary reports make no mention of the colour of his skin and one match reporter seems to have thought his choice of brown boots (rather than the customary black) to have been more worthy of mention.

Why would this be? One would love to think that it was an indication of a more enlightened attitude on the part of Victorian Scots but could it be that his privileged background made him more 'acceptable' to his peers or that his undoubted football skills made his colour unimportant to what seems to have been an adoring contemporary audience?

Who knows? Such debate will perhaps be continued in times to come as interest in this heretofore unknown sportsman has increased in recent years. Andrew Watson's life after football was an interesting and varied one – which has been the subject of considerable research and interest. He died in London in 1921, at the time largely forgotten by the football public.

Hampden Historian Jim standing next to a mural
If this wee article has piqued your interest in this remarkable man and the early history of Scottish football then please contact me in my capacity as historian to the Hampden Collection and I can point you in the direction of much more information about Andrew and the other early pioneers. There is so much more to tell.