Life

The Incredible Story of Andrew Watson, the First Black International Footballer

Having played for some of the greatest sides in the world, Watson's fascinating life is full of boundary-breaking "first" achievements.
October 1, 2020, 10:25am
Andrew Watson
Photo: History and Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

In photos of 19th century Scottish football, one player stands out. He has darker skin than his teammates, and tight black curls, but that isn’t why your eye is drawn. It's his stance. He is entirely confident of his place on the greatest team in the world, as it was at the time. The man’s name was Andrew Watson, and he was the world’s first Black international footballer.

Born in 1856, with a football career that spanned 1874 to 1888, Andrew was also the first Black football captain, the first Black football administrator, and likely the first Black professional footballer, preceding Arthur Wharton – who many assumed to be Britain’s first Black professional player – by over a decade.

He captained the Scotland team that beat England 6-1 in London in 1881, which remains a record home defeat for England (it would be 120 years before another Black player was selected to play for Scotland). Until recently, Andrew’s incredible story was untold.

Andrew Watson’s legacy was uncovered by Ged O’Brien, founder of the Scottish Football Museum, who discovered his story by digging into the player archives. Ged considers Watson to be one of the most influential players of all time.

“As far as I am concerned, he is greater than Pele,” he says. “He helped change the direction of world football history. The world is full of tens of thousands of brilliant players in the last century-and-a-half, and it is down to his influence. This is because it was the passing and running Scottish style of football that was taken down to England and transported across the world. The entire DNA of world football originated with Andrew Watson.”

Andrew’s life story is as fascinating as his achievements. He was born on the 24th of May, 1856 in Georgetown, Demerara, British Guiana (now Guyana) to a Scottish father, Peter Miller Watson, and Hannah Rose, a local woman. His father managed family-owned sugar plantations in West Demerara, and used slaves to carry out the work (when slaves were liberated in the colony in 1835, he received compensation). The wealth obtained via this slave labour sent Andrew to Heath Grammar School in Halifax, where he was educated alongside the UK’s elite. When Peter died in 1869, he left Andrew £35,000 – a sum that equates to millions of pounds today, securing Andrew’s financial future.

At 19, Andrew studied at Glasgow University for a year, before leaving to set up a wholesale warehouse business and focus on his true passion: football.

Throughout his 14-year career, Watson played for a number of Scottish and English teams, including Liverpool’s Bootle and Glasgow’s Parkgrove FC and Queen’s Park, which was considered to be one of the best teams in the world at the time (he’d also take a position as match secretary at both Glasgow clubs). In 1883 he was the first non-English player to be invited to play for the Corinthians, an exclusive London club made up of upper class gentlemen. In 1882, while playing for London Swifts, he became the first Black football player to play in the FA Cup.

The potential “first Black professional footballer” accolade comes from his time at Bootle; there are suggestions he was paid to play for them, which would have broken the rules (only players who’d lived in the local area for a number of years were entitled to be paid), but there is no concrete evidence of this. As restrictions on playing professionally weren’t lifted until years later, it has been argued that the “first professional” distinction is meaningless, as it wasn’t yet possible for Andrew Watson to play as a full professional – but for all intents and purposes, he did.

Though several articles at the time hinted at racism – “Although on more than one occasion subjected to vulgar insults by splenetic, ill-tempered players, he uniformly preserved that gentlemanly demeanour” (Scottish Athletic Journal, 1885) – most match reports made no reference to the colour of his skin, and were only effusive in their praise of his ability. Independently wealthy and well educated, Andrew was considered an upper class gentleman.

“He had education and he had money,” says Dr Tony Talburt, Senior Lecturer in Black Studies at Birmingham City University and author of Andrew Watson: The World’s First Black Football Superstar. “So despite his Blackness, he was able to mix with white members of society and excel in his sport. It is very unusual to see a Black person excel so much during this time in a Victorian period where there was colonialism, the British Empire and so much discrimination against women or anyone who didn’t fit in. The Corinthians was a gentlemen’s club of proper elites, and Andrew Watson was handpicked to join that club.”

While most Glasgow residents had never heard of Andrew Watson until recently, the tide is beginning to turn. Last year, his mural was painted at the city's Hampden Bowling Club, the site of Scotland’s 5-1 victory against England in 1882, and recently joined by a second mural in the Shawlands neighbourhood.

Complicating Andrew’s legacy is the source of his wealth: his father’s exploitation of slaves. Author and performance poet Malik al Nasir – who has traced his family history back to Andrew Watson, and is researching his life alongside studying the UK’s role in the slave trade for a PhD at Cambridge University – says this element of Andrew Watson’s story should be recognised.

“Andrew Watson was an incredible figure of Black history, but he was a beneficiary of the proceeds of slavery, and that’s a nuance that needs to be understood,” he says. “I believe that Andrew Watson should be commemorated for his contributions to football, but with an acknowledgement he was a beneficiary of the slave trade as well. I think similar things should be done with all beneficiaries of the slave trade.”

What’s certain is that Andrew deserves a resting place that accurately reflects his legacy. His grave in London’s Richmond Cemetery is in a state of disrepair – a dilapidated headstone spelling out his name, date of birth and death in letters so faded they are barely readable, with no mention of his football career.

“Next year is the 100-year anniversary of Andrew Watson’s death, and I think it’s quite sad his grave has been left unkempt,” says football history enthusiast Alistair Firth who is leading the charge for a more fitting memorial.

What needs to happen, adds sports historian Andy Mitchell, is a “prominent and permanent memorial that truly recognises his place in sporting history as the first Black international footballer, the first Black administrator and possibly the first Black professional player”.