Book Review: Andrew Watson, a Straggling Life: The Story of the World’s First Black International Footballer by Llew Walker

The first question that many people will ask in first picking up this book is, ‘who is Andrew Watson?’ Author Llew Walker addresses this in the Preface to this well researched and diverse read, with the following:

Andrew Watson is a sporting and cultural icon: a black footballer who succeeded despite the conventions and morals of Victorian society. He was a footballing pioneer when the love affair with the beautiful game was taking its first few steps. Yet, at the end of his career, when he fell from the public gaze, he disappeared and eventually became lost to history.

To describe Watson as a sporting icon may seem a very bold claim, but when you look at his list of accomplishments (verified by research undertaken by the Scottish Football Museum), then the statement is more than justified. This sees full-back Watson acknowledged as the first black player to:

  • Represent a British football team internationally
  • Captain an international football team
  • Play for the Scottish national team
  • Captain the Scottish national team
  • Win a major cup competition
  • Play in the English FA Cup
  • Hold the role of a football club administrator

So the question is then why did Watson and indeed his contemporaries vanish from the pages of football history? The author believes that it was essentially down to two main things, firstly, until recently, research into football was not seen as legitimate territory for scholarly research and secondly, Watson and his generation were all amateurs and as professionalism took over the game, so their code, their memory faded, and by 1975 The FA removed the word ‘amateur’ from their rule book.

Given this it is all the more remarkable that Walker is actually able to tell Andrew Watson’s story, but the author does acknowledge that, some interpretations have been made on the available facts. However, ultimately Walker hopes that, this book will inspire further research and discussion…and perhaps one day we will know all there is to know about the world’s first black international player. For now though, readers must content themselves with this book which does explore not only Andrew Watson’s life story, but also is a piece of social history.

In terms of format, following the Preface, there are eight chapters, with the book rounded off by Appendices which include Watson’s family tree and details of his playing record. The first two chapters, A Man of Colour and The Game, give an understanding of the climate in which Watson grew up in terms of the attitudes towards those of colour and the early years of Victorian Football and the rules that governed it. The remaining six chapters then focus on Watson, titled Origins, Education, Estate, Footballer, Mariner and Gentleman. These as their titles infer provide a look across Watson’s life in a wider sense, and not simply as a footballer.

Therefore, within Origins, readers get an insight into the Watson Family and his relatives, before moving onto a chapter focusing on his education and Watson’s progression to Glasgow University. Estate sees the twenty-one year old Watson receive his inheritance and invest in a wholesale warehouse business and latterly into Parkgrove Football Club, where his football story really begins and leads into the chapter aptly named Footballer.

This chapter covers ninety pages, the largest of the book, and follows his career and the clubs he played for in Scotland and England, including, Parkgrove, Maxwell, Queen’s Park, Bootle and Corinthians, with details also of his three appearances for Scotland, when his first against England in 1881 saw Watson captain the team. Author Walker is able to establish through press reports the skill and regard that Watson was held in as a player, both in Scotland and England. Indeed, the Scots were the innovators of the playing style of the time, and this saw the influx of players such as Fergus Suter (portrayed in the 2020 TV series The English Game) cross the border to change the way the game was played in England and contribute to the process of the ‘professionalisation’ of the game.

After ending his playing career at Bootle in 1888 Watson, having completed the required studies, took up a career as an engineer aboard various merchant ships, which necessitated long stretches of time away from his family. This part of Watson’s life is detailed in the chapter Mariner which surmised that he retired around 1905 in Liverpool. The final chapter Gentlemen, muses as to why Watson decided after retirement to move away from family and friends down to Kew in London, where he died in 1921. Walker also ponders in these final pages how Watson in being an absent father had affected the lives of his children, who themselves did not have any offspring with the family line seemingly coming to an end in 1975 with the death of Henry Tyler Watson.

Finally, there remains the question of the curious phrase, a straggling life, included in the title of the book. In the Preface Walker details how a newspaper article of 1888, reacting to Watson’s playing retirement had used the phrase, possibly with the implication that Watson had wasted his talents, but for Walker it was instead the inspiration for this accomplished book, as it suggested there was much more to the world’s first black footballer.

(Pith Publishing. February 2021. Hardback 256 pages)


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