Forgotten hero: Football’s first black international

12 Mar 2021
  • Andrew Watson (back row, centre) was the first black international footballer

  • He captained Scotland to a 6-1 victory over England 140 years ago today

  • Biographer Llew Walker tells us about one of football’s lost legends

Tucked away on Glasgow’s south side, just a couple of miles from Hampden Park, lies a graffiti-daubed alley bearing murals of two black footballers.

One of them, Pele, is the most famous player in history. The other is a largely unknown and forgotten figure, even in his native Scotland.

Yet in terms of historical significance, Andrew Watson stands comparison with football’s giants – even its Brazilian king.

Mural of Andrew Watson.

His place in the sport’s annals was assured 140 years ago today, when he became the first person of colour to compete at international level. And Watson didn’t just play; he was named captain and led Scotland to a 6-1 victory in London that, to this day, ranks as England’s heaviest home defeat.

But that landmark feat, while remarkable in itself, merely scratches the surface of his many achievements.

“He should be so much better known than he is,” said historian Llew Walker, who has written a new biography of Watson and is raising funds to erect a memorial. “Of all the early black players who’ve been ‘rediscovered’ and rightly celebrated over recent years – the Arthur Whartons, the Walter Tulls – Watson is the most influential and important.

“It’s not just that he was the first black international and the first black player to captain his country, although those facts are of huge historical importance in themselves. He was also the first black man to win a major cup competition and the first black man to both play and officiate in England’s FA Cup (twice serving as a linesman in the competition). He was also the first black man to serve as a football administrator, and earned huge respect in all of those roles.

“Beyond that, those Scotland teams he was a part of helped change football forever. That’s because the 6-1 defeat, and another 5-1 thrashing the Scots gave them the following year, forced England to sit up, take notice and make really important changes.”

So impressed were the English by Watson that he was lured south in the months that followed the second of those crushing reverses. The full-back, born in Guyana to a Scottish sugar planter father and a Guyanese mother, duly led a group of ‘Scotch professors’ who taught their southern neighbours a new concept of the beautiful game.

As Walker explained: “Those ‘professors’ introduced combination play – passing, positions, tactics and teamwork – that Scotland had been much quicker to adopt. It totally changed English football, which had stayed much closer to its rugby roots until then. And because of the influence of Brits in spreading the game globally, it changed football around the world too.”

Walker is himself English, and stumbled upon Watson's story through his involvement with Corinthians-Casuals – the famous amateur team that numbered among the Scot's clubs. What shocked him, beyond the scale of this pioneering player's achievements and the lack of recognition they had received, was the extent to which he had survived, thrived and become a beloved figure in the late 19th century.

For while the taking of a knee at football matches is a painful reminder that racism has still to be stamped out, Watson lived through an era in which it was endemic.

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - JUNE 20: Cheikhou Kouyate of Crystal Palace takes a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement prior to the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Crystal Palace at Vitality Stadium on June 20, 2020 in Bournemouth, England. Football Stadiums around Europe remain empty due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in all fixtures being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

“Racism and racist views were hugely common in Britain at that time,” Walker explained. “But Watson seems to have almost transcended race, and he managed that by being very, very good at what he did.

“He was the first proper example of diversity in sport; the principle of it not mattering what colour you are, but how you good you are. What comes across in everything I read is just how hugely popular he was, and that was the case everywhere he went. It was astonishing.

“There’s a wonderful story when he came down to England and played so well in one game, at Charterhouse School, that he was carried from the pitch by the pupils. Now, Charterhouse is a bastion of white Englishness, producing prime ministers and so on, so for this black man to have been lauded in such a way - especially in that era - is just astonishing. It shows how good he must have been that he earned that kind of respect and adulation.”

The pity, of course, is that the passing decades allowed that acclaim to fade, and led to Watson’s story being forgotten. But with Walker and others returning it to prominence, the tale of football’s first black international seems sure to emerge from the dark alley of history.