Andrew Watson: the first black international footballer

Andrew Watson: the first black international footballer

Even in 2018, racism is shamefully present in football and players from minority backgrounds still have to suffer it from the terraces, the media and beyond. The game is not always the smiley, hand-holding party FIFA and credit card adverts would have us all believe and it would be ignorant, at best, to assume otherwise.

Fortunately, each passing year sees football move in the right direction, even if in just small shuffle steps at a time. We’ve now had black players involved in international level football for 137 years and that’s because of Andrew Watson, a pioneer who travelled all the way from British Guiana to the Scotland national team.

Watson was born before the English and Scottish Football Associations had even been founded in Georgetown, in what was then British Guiana and is now Guyana. While his exact date of birth is uncertain, what is known is that he was born around 1857 to Scottish sugar plantation manager Peter Miller Watson and a local woman named Anna Rose.

The boy who would go on to become one of the most important figures in football history left the Caribbean with his father at a young age and arrived in Guildford, England, where he spent most of his childhood at boarding schools. His father died in 1869 but left a large inheritance, which allowed Watson to complete his schooling and to go on to enrol at Glasgow University in 1875. There he studied mathematics, natural philosophy and civil engineering but left before to pursue an engineering career, to become a partner in a wholesale warehouse business named Watson, Miller and Baird, and to start a family.

Original Series  |  The Pioneers

At the same time, Watson’s love for the beautiful game was born. He’d mostly played rugby at boarding school in England, but football won his heart in Glasgow. There’s something in the water in that city. Of course, the sport remained amateur at this time but the footballing neophyte was one of the very best in his position of full-back and, in 1880, his performances for Maxwell Football Club and then Parkgrove Football Club earned him a move to Queen’s Park and a call-up for the national team, the two highest honours at the time for a Scottish player.

The Scotland fixtures in Canada scheduled for the summer of 1880 never took place, cancelled following the death of Scottish FA secretary William Dick. However, his history-making cap would finally arrive the following spring. On 12 March 1881, the full-back made his debut to become the first black player to play an international fixture – and he was even Scotland’s captain on that day. The happy ending became happier still, as Watson’s Scotland side defeated England 6-1 in London, before they won 5-1 against Wales in Wrexham two days later.

The year of 1882 brought further success and recognition for Watson, who earned a third cap for Scotland on 11 March, once again beating the English, this time 5-1. That proved to be his final appearance for the national team, and the final one for a non-white player until Paul Wilson in 1975.

Watson continued to play football for various clubs in the UK and eventually hung up his boots at some point in the 1890s with a number of honours to his name, most of them earned with Queen’s Park. Most impressively, he won the Scottish Cup three times, in 1881, 1882 and 1886. Most romantically, he was invited to take part in the first game at the second version of Hampden Park when the stadium was inaugurated in 1884.

His Queen’s Park story wasn’t confined to the pitch, though, as Watson was also made a secretary of the southern Glasgow club in 1881, making him the first black administrator in football too. He may even have been the first black professional player too, as it is believed that he was paid during his time at Merseyside club Bootle. Arthur Wharton is often named as the first black professional, becoming one in 1889, but it is possible that Watson was earning money from the game even earlier.

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All in all, from his business acumen to his sporting success, which even included high school prizes in the high jump, Watson lived an extraordinary life. His name lived on through his four children, two of whom he had with Jessie Nimmo Armour, in 1878 and 1880, and two of whom he had with Eliza Kate Tyler, who he married after his first wife’s death, in 1888 and 1891. 

Despite regularly being away, for football and for business, his sizable wealth made it possible to travel up and down the country and to be present for his children’s upbringing. After retiring from football, Watson moved to London to live with his family on a full-time basis and it was there that he died in 1921, being buried in Richmond Cemetery.

For a long time, it was believed he’d moved to Sydney and passed away there but historian Andy Mitchell discovered the true ending to the Watson story as recently as 2013, a year after he was inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame.

Upliftingly, Watson’s race was hardly mentioned at the time of his historic appearances with Queen’s Park and Scotland. A few match reports mentioned his skin colour in passing, but this was rare and, interestingly, one report was more concerned about the fact that he was spotted wearing brown boots instead of traditional black ones.

This should serve to bring thoughts back to the present day and force us to contemplate the current attitudes towards black and minority players in football. If Andrew Watson could go about his business without his race being frequently brought up as far back as the 19th century, then surely racism should have been completely kicked out of football by now. This remains the game’s duty moving forward.

By Euan McTear @emctear

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