Discussions of pioneering black athletes almost inevitably descend into common tropes about breaking race barriers, facing racial slurs of unmentionable evil and overcoming professional prejudices. A complete absence of such experiences makes the life and times of Andrew Watson, Britain’s first black footballer, something of a mystery.

Predating Arthur Wharton, whom many credit as Britain’s first black footballer by over a decade, Watson was heralded as one of the greatest left-backs of the late 19th century and was so highly regarded that he captained Scotland to a 6-1 victory over England in 1881. All of this begs the question: who was Watson and why has his legacy been so muted? 

Born in 1857 to 51-year-old plantation manager and former slave owner Peter Miller Watson and a British Guianese woman named Anna, Watson’s formative years gave little indication of a sporting future to come. Indeed, had Andrew remained in British Guinea, it was likely a career on the plantation was destined for him.

Fate intervened, however, and in the early-1860s Peter took a young Andrew and his sister Annetta to England, a country undergoing nothing short of a football revolution. This period saw England’s first official football rulebook created alongside with establishment of the Football Association. Football, as we know it, was being born.

Unfortunately for Watson, much of this was oblivious to him at the time. The budding teenager spent his formative years in a succession of boarding schools with educators of varying empathy, following the death of his father in 1869. The silver lining of what was undoubtedly a lonely childhood was the rich inheritance of £35,000 his father had bequeathed him, the equivalent of several million pounds in 2016. Such riches allowed Watson to enrol at Glasgow University in 1875 where he intended to undertake a degree in Mathematics, Natural Philosophy and Civil Engineering. A wife and the opportunity to start an engineering apprenticeship saw Watson leave academia after just one year.

Free from the shackles of study, dusty libraries and uncomfortable lecture hall chairs, Watson took to playing football for his local side Maxwell FC in a bid to maintain his health. When your workday consists of several hours in a chair, physical exercise is often a necessity. Slotting in neatly at full-back, Watson’s remarkable pace and composure saw him signalled out as one of the regions most promising footballers. The result of such attention being that Watson was soon lured from Maxwell by Parkgrove FC. with the promise of better football and more responsibility.

Aside from commanding the wings at Parkgrove, Arthur also acted as the club’s match secretary, making him the first black administrator in football. Not shy about his abilities, Watson combined his time at Parkgrove with his love of athletics, regularly competing in football matches and athletics contests in the same weekend, showing a style of renaissance athleticism that no longer exists in professional sport.

Remarkably, Watson’s performances were enough to see the 23-year-old selected to represent Glasgow against Sheffield in 1880 at Bramall Lane. Coming at a time when Glasgow sported far more football clubs than today, Watson’s selection was even more impressive than seemed at first glance. Once more, Watson appeared undaunted by yet another move up the footballing ladder. Alongside his new teammates, he ensured the Glaswegians returned to Scotland with a 1-0 victory, playing an integral role in denying Sheffield any credible goal-scoring opportunities. That summer would see Watson selected for a tour to Canada, which was unfortunately cancelled following the death of William Dick, the Scottish FA secretary.

Nevertheless, 1880 marked the beginning of something special in Watson’s footballing career. That summer saw the young man invited to join Scotland’s elite club at that time, Queen’s Park. Once more becoming match secretary, Watson established himself on the pitch as one of Scotland’s most formidable footballers. Influential in Queen’s Park’s victory in the Glasgow Charity Cup 1880, Watson was called up to the Scottish side in 1881 to face England in London.

Emphasising the high esteem held for Watson by his teammates, Watson’s debut saw him captain the side to a 6-1 victory over the Auld Enemy. Having slain the English enemy, Watson captained the Scots again in a 5-1 win over Wales. Given his domestic and international performances at this time, it is little wonder that the 1880-1881 Scottish Football Association Annual described the Queen’s Park player as: ‘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.’

1882 would see one of Scotland’s “very best backs” win the Scottish Cup for a second time before deciding to move to London for work purposes. No longer eligible for the Scottish national side, which at the time only selected home-grown players, Watson nevertheless persisted with his passion for football. The next three seasons even saw him become the first black player to compete in the FA Cup when he lined out for London side Swifts. Although not as successful as his Queen’s Park days, the London side managed to reach the quarter-finals one year.

More significantly, Watson’s two years with Swifts eventually saw him invited to join the highly exclusive amateur club Corinthians. Although Corinthians refused to participate in competitive football at this time owing to their gentlemen ethos, they were still one of England’s formidable footballing sides, something that was evidenced during Watson’s second tour with the side, which included an 8-1 thrashing of FA Cup holders Blackburn Rovers in 1884. Interestingly, Watson’s time with Corinthians coincided with a brief return to Queen’s Park. Although initially only travelling from London to Glasgow for charity matches, he twice returned to Glasgow to help the side pick up a Scottish Cup in 1886 and again in February 1887.

Approaching 30, Watson was afforded one last footballing swansong when Bootle FC, a Liverpool-based side, approached the full-back about one last footballing adventure. Known for offering wages and signing on fees to players, there is at present no written evidence that Bootle offered Watson any monetary compensation for moving from Glasgow to Liverpool. Nevertheless, this has not prevented speculation that Bootle may have paid Watson for his participation which, if correct, makes Watson and not Arthur Wharton, the first black player to play professionally in England. Monetary issues aside, Watson’s brief spell with Bootle was somewhat successful in that he captained them to the fifth round of the FA Cup before an injury forced him to retire from the game.

Choosing to leave the game for good, Watson would spend the next 20 years plying his trade as a engineer in Liverpool before passing on to the other side in 1921. Gone but not forgotten, in 1926, nearly 40 years after Watson’s final game for Bootle FC, a sportswriter named ‘Tityrus’ labelled Andrew Watson as left-back in his all-time Scotland team for Athletic News magazine.

So why has one of Scotland’s greatest footballers, and one of football’s first pioneering players, largely been forgotten by the footballing community? The answer, perhaps unsatisfactorily, lies in the historical record.

For many decades historians have maintained that the first black footballer was Arthur Wharton, as opposed to Watson who pre-dated Wharton by 11 years. Confusion to this title arises primarily because historians considering black footballers have tended to concentrate on professionals and not amateurs such as Watson. Additionally, for many years, people were unsure about Watson’s final years on earth, believing that he died in Australia sometime in the 1910s. Such ambiguity has made personal accounts of Watson’s life remarkably difficult to obtain.

Finally, the fact that there are no known written records or match reports mentioning the colour of Watson’s skin have made it difficult to track him down. In fact the only existing match report, which distinguishes Watson from other footballers, centres on his decision to play in unusual brown boots rather than the customary black boots of his contemporaries. Thankfully, many of these problems are being addressed, firstly by the Scottish Hall of Fame, who inducted Watson in 2012 owing to his ability, and secondly by Andy Mitchell, a sporting historian who has dedicated a considerable amount of time publicising Watson’s story.

Although it has made the historians’ lives particularly difficult, the fact that Watson’s skin colour seemed to be of no significance to his peers or the Scottish Football Association is in many ways a cause of celebration.

While Arthur Wharton was faced with unspeakable racial slurs on and off the pitch, Watson was captaining his national side and playing for one of England’s most highly decorated footballing sides. While Wharton’s life reminds us that racism in football in not a new phenomenon, Watson’s reminds us that racism in sport is not a given, nor should it be accepted as one.

Watson’s career demonstrated that footballers should be judged on one thing and one thing only: their ability. If that alone is Watson’s legacy, few would dispute its merit.

By Conor Heffernan. Follow @PhysCstudy