He made history more than a century and a half ago!
According to the National Records of Scotland, Andrew Watson was the first Black soccer player to play at an international level. Born in 1856 in Georgetown, Guyana, Watson was the son of a wealthy Scottish sugar plantation owner named Peter Miller Watson and a Guyanese woman named Hannah Rose. Watson’s sister was named Annetta and both she and Watson, when they were quite young, joined their father on a voyage to start their new life in Britain, leaving their mother back in Guyana.
Because of the precarious situation of two Black children from an unmarried Black mother traveling with their white father, Watson was portrayed as an orphan when he arrived in Britain, enrolling in the English public school system where he attended schools in Staffordshire, Yorkshire and Wimbledon. While in school, he fell in love with team sports, specifically the fairly newer sport of Association Football, or as we call it in the states, soccer.
Watson’s father passed away in 1869 and he subsequently inherited about €35,000, the equivalent of more than €2 million pounds ($2,394,750 USD) today. The money was split between Watson, his sister Annetta, and a small amount for their mother in Guyana. The inheritance granted Watson financial independence and allowed him to spend most of his time playing soccer, an amateur sport at the time that didn’t gain professional recognition until about 1893.
When Watson was 19, he enrolled at the University of Glasgow where he studied Natural Philosophy, Mathematics, and Engineering. When he was 21, he made the decision to abandon his studies in favor of launching a wholesale warehouse business called Watson, Miller & Baird. In 1877, the same year, Watson married Jessie Nimmo Armour and the couple birthed two children, Rupert Andrew Watson and Agnes Maud. While Watson’s work title varies on a number of official documents of the time, from apprentice mechanical engineer to Warehouseman, his relevancy during that time was not in question.
Watson continued to grow his dry goods business while simultaneously nurturing his burgeoning soccer career. According to Google, he gained quite a reputation for his skills, signing to Glasgow’s Maxwell team before transferring to Queen’s Park FC, the biggest team in Britain, where he played as a full-back and served as match secretary. Watson eventually led the team to a Scottish football title, earning an opportunity to play for the international team. Watson made history as the first Black person to play soccer in Britain’s league, the first Black player to play in an English Cup match, and the first Black person to play at an international level. He captained his country, leading the team to multiple wins over England, including one 6-1 victory which still is the biggest home loss for England in the history of the sport.
His professional wins were still marked by unexpected tragedy, his wife Jessie passing away in 1882. Watson subsequently returned to Glasgow with his children, splitting his time between there and London, where he played soccer. As a result of him no longer living full-time in Scotland, he forfeited his ability to play for the international team again, cutting his international career short. Still, Watson won more Scottish championships with Queen’s Park in 1886 and 1887. He also remarried, in 1887, this time to Eliza Kate Tyler, and his success on an international level sparked the attention of some of the best clubs in Scotland and England.
That same year, he signed with Bootle FC in England. While the leagues were still amateur, these clubs in England and Scotland were some of the biggest and known as a haven for elite social crowds. Watson’s role as a star at these clubs and his ability to hold an admin title in both spoke volumes about his position in English society and, despite his race, there are no public records of him experiencing the racial discrimination prominent during the 19th century. Also, while amateur players still didn’t receive pay, Bootle was known for paying high-profile players. Watson possibly receiving pay for his work would technically make him the first Black soccer player ever.
Watson and his second wife gave birth to two more children, Henry in 1888 and Phyllis in 1891. Watson eventually focused on becoming a full-time maritime engineer, returning to London in retirement where he passed away at the age of 64 in 1921. Throughout his 14-year career, Watson became one of the most pioneering figures in the world of soccer, winning the Scottish Cup three times and leading the team to a win in all three matches against England.
Nearly 140 years since he played his first game, Watson’s illustrious career is still being uncovered, the soccer trailblazer recently being featured in a Google Doodle by London-based artist Selom Sunu. There is also a mural of Watson at The Hampden Bowling club in Glasgow where he serves as a constant reminder of what’s possible for Black soccer players.
While creating the Doodle, Sunu said he was inspired by Watson’s life story.
“It was really interesting to me that Watson came from a wealthy family and seemed to be an all-round good sportsman, not just football. I was also interested to learn that he not only stood out because of his skin colour but wore what were described as 'unique brown boots' — I'm assuming most people at the time wore black boots. More than anything though, I gained a new respect for Scottish people who allowed him to play for the National team back in the 1890s (I know it wasn't without its problems, but it's still surprising),” Sunu told Google.
In 2012, Watson’s contributions were officially acknowledged by the Scottish Football Association, who inducted him into their Hall of Fame.
May we continue to remember the contributions of Mr. Watson and all of those who paved the way. Because of them, we can.
Meet Andrew Watson, the first Black soccer player to play at an international level. Photo Courtesy of The Glasgow Story.