Andrew Watson: The pioneering Black footballer who turned pro at Bootle and played for Scotland
Today, anyone hearing the words Scottish, Liverpool, and full-back, will think automatically of Andrew Robertson.
Following in the footsteps of Scottish players at Liverpool, like Alan Hansen and Kenny Dalglish, the defender has become a well-established hero at Anfield.
Winning plaudits for his die-hard performances as well as his attacking flair, Robertson is actually imitating the antics of a Victorian trailblazer and a forgotten black hero who played in Liverpool.
Back in the 1800s, when football was still an amateur matter, a man called Andrew Watson made history when he became the first black professional footballer in England.
Playing at Bootle FC, Watson created quite a stir, not just because of his ethnicity, but because he was one of the benefactors of illegal activity at Bootle FC at a time when the FA forbade clubs to pay players who were not born within the vicinity of their ground.
Born in 1856 to a wealthy Scottish sugar planter called Peter Watson and a British-Guianese woman called Hannah Rose, the young Watson enjoyed a somewhat enhanced start to life.
He was born in the former British colony of Guyana and moved with his father and sister Annetta, to England later on.
Though he faced racism on his arrival, Watson enjoyed certain privileges as a result of his father’s status and wealth.
He and his sister even inherited a huge amount of money when their father died in 1869 and Watson was educated at one of England’s foremost grammar schools in Halifax before completing his schooling at King’s College in London.
While at school, Watson excelled at sport, competing in events like the high jump, but it wasn’t until later on that he discovered the game of football.
At 18, he went to university in Glasgow, rediscovering his Scottish roots while studying natural philosophy.
At university he fell in love with football, learning from the best in the business; the Scottish, who were renowned as the best players in the world at the time.
During the Victorian era, the sport was controlled by the rich and remained strictly amateur; alumni public school boy teams like the Old Etonians ran and dominated the FA Cup competition because their players were rich and privileged enough to take time to train, while the poorer mill teams relied on players who worked full-time.
In 1876, aged 20, Watson signed for Maxwell FC, a local Glaswegian side, before moving to nearby Parkgrove.
At Parkgrove FC he made history, serving as the club’s match secretary, making him football’s first black administrator. While there, he played alongside another black Scottish player, Robert Walker.
Watson was fast establishing himself as a talented half-back, a kind of wing-back-come-midfielder, in an age when teams regularly played just two defenders and five attacking players.
In April 1880, Watson was selected to play in a combined Glasgow team in a match against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.
The Scots won 1-0 and Watson joined Queen’s Park that same month, becoming a member of what was Britain’s biggest football team at the time.
It is worth remembering that football was still strictly amateur while Watson was playing in Scotland, as he made his money from the Watson, Miller and Baird company, a wholesale warehouse business based in Glasgow.
In fact, paying players was still strictly an illegal practice in both England and Scotland, although things were slowly beginning to change.
English teams were beginning to pay Scottish players to switch from their native sides to ones over the border, paying them under the table to play in their teams.
At the time, Scottish players had developed a new and exciting brand of football based more on passing and movement, rather than the English game that focussed on individuals dribbling with the ball.
Watson remained at the amateur Queen’s Park, leading them to several Scottish Cup wins and becoming the first black player to win a major competition.
He was even remembered in the Scottish Football Association Annual of 1880/81, with the compendium describing Watson as “one of the best backs” ever seen, a player with “great speed” who “tackles splendidly”; remind you of anyone, Liverpool fans?
Watson won his first of three international caps in March 1881, once again making history when he became the first black player to represent Scotland.
His debut was the stuff of dreams. Not only did Watson captain the side, he also led them to a 6-1 win over England, still a record home defeat for Three Lions.
A few days later, Scotland thrashed Wales 5–1, with Watson wearing the armband once again.
Watson’s third and final international cap came against England in Glasgow on March 11, 1882.
The Scots triumphed again, beating the English 5-1 but it was to be a bittersweet moment for Watson who never played for Scotland again.
In the summer of 1882, Watson made the move down to England, ending his international career as the SFA only picked players based in Scotland at the time.
All the best Scots were now playing south of the border, being paid off the books to play in English mill teams eager to beat the likes of Corinthians and Old Etonians.
Players like of Fergie Suter and James Love were both making headway at Blackburn, turning them into a real force to contend for the FA Cup, and Watson wanted in on the action.
He became the first black player to feature in the English Cup in 1882 when he joined the Swifts FC, a team based in Slough.
Watson’s career continued to rise when he was invited to play for the Corinthians in 1883, the leading amateur side in England.
Watson featured in the team that later beat, then FA Cup holders Blackburn Rovers 8-1.
Watson continued to play for amateur English clubs around London including Caledonians, Brentwood, and Pilgrims, while working in the trade industry before returning to Queen’s Park for two seasons.
In 1886 and 1887, Bootle FC began advertising for Scottish players, hoping to transform the fortunes of their team.
Several Scots were enticed to make the move south and play for the Merseyside team including Tom Veitch, Frank Woods, and Billy Hastings.
In 1887, Watson made the move North, settling in Liverpool where he found work on the docks and sat exams to qualify as a marine engineer.
He also signed for Bootle FC that same year which is when, it is believed, that he was paid for his services, becoming the first black footballer to play football professionally.
Watson was Bootle’s star signing at the time, a real coup for a club that, though relatively small and insignificant, had managed to attract a player so internationally renowned as Watson.
There are no concrete records of how much Watson was receiving but it was bound to be similar, if not more, than another of Bootle’s Scottish international players, Frank Calderwood, who received 26 shillings a week.
Paying players in England was now legal (following an FA rule change in 1885) although the practice was strictly regulated and clubs were only allowed to pay players provided that they had either been born or had lived for two years within a six-mile radius of the ground.
Watson, along with all the other Scottish migrants at Bootle, did not meet this criteria and it caused problems for Bootle later on.
The Liverpool side faced Great Bridge Unity FC in 1887 but the club got wind of the fact that Robert Anderson and Watson were both being paid.
Bootle won 2-1 and Unity duly complained to the FA who found the club guilty of illegal activity. Thankfully for Bootle they were let off with a mere caution.
However, the likes of John Weir, Robert Izatt, and Watson, were all deemed as professional players and had their registrations suspended by the F.A.
The following season, The Bootle Times newspaper took several swipes at their local club, openly investigating their finances and criticising the team for its reliance on Scottish players.
The constant question asked by the newspaper of Bootle FC was “Where does the surplus go?” it was common knowledge that players were being paid illegally the paper just couldn’t prove it outright.
Watson continued to represent Bootle until 1892 when he left the sport for good.
Watson eventually retired from his normal working life while living in London in 1910 and died 11 years later, succumbing to a bought of pneumonia while living at his home in Kew.
In 1926, the editor of the Athletic News, J. A. H. Catton, named Andrew Watson as left-back in his all-time Scotland team.