Race in football is a topic that is in the news more than ever. Youngsters might be led to think racist chanting and commentary is a modern phenomenon, but looking back over the history of black football players in the British leagues, this is unfortunately wholly inaccurate. In actual fact, and perhaps unsurprisingly, black footballers have reported racist events well into the history books. One early recorded incident involved Dixie Dean who was insulted as he left the pitch in the 1930s and reacted by punching the abuser as he passed him on his way to the players' tunnel. According to reports, the police took no action against Dean.
Incidences of racism continued as football seasons went by and by the 1980s, such slurs were sadly commonplace around the field of play. With the arrival of the Premiership in 1992, the number of offences had subsided somewhat as football became more mainstream and commonplace, making recent events in the 21st Century all the more depressing as the game seems to backtrack on progress made, with the arrival of the internet making it simple for the simple-minded to aim vitriol at athletes they could never hope to emulate.
What may be surprising to some, however, is that black footballers have been present in the game in both England and Scotland since the Victorian era. On the world stage, the first black international footballer is widely thought to be Andrew Watson - an amateur who played for Scotland three times in the 1880s.
Watson had a fascinating life. His father had made a problematic fortune as a sugar planter, benefitting directly from the slave trade and was married to Hannah Rose, a British-Guayanese woman with whom he had a daughter and a son. Peter Miller Watson, Andrew’s father, passed away in 1869 and left him and his sister the modern equivalent of millions of pounds in his will. Well-off as a legacy of the slave trade and also well-educated having attended Heath Grammar School where he mingled with the elite, the young Watson attended Glasgow University and found his passion in the beautiful game whilst studying mathematics on campus.
After one year, Watson left University and signed for Glasgow-based Parkgrove FC. He later got himself on the books for Queen’s Park FC and with this club he was decorated with many trophies. At both teams he served as match secretary in addition to playing as a versatile full back on the pitch, combining his athleticism with a sharp mind for figures. Eventually he moved south to play for a number of English clubs and forged a respectable and successful amateur career. He saw out the end of his time as an amateur player at Bootle FC between 1887 and 1892. All the while, he took full time pay working on ships in the position of Marine Engineer.
Despite an interesting career and backstory, Watson will be undoubtedly be primarily noted in history for the fact that he was the first black international footballer on record. He also had a remarkable record in his time playing for the Scottish team. His first game for Scotland took place in London against England in 1881 - a game in which the home side lost by a record margin, sliding to an astonishing 6-1 defeat at the Oval against a side captained by Watson. The success continued shortly after when he marshalled Scotland against Wales, once again thrashing the opposition, this time by a 5-1 margin. His third and final game saw Scotland once again pummel England, this time 5-1, making Watson’s international record a laudable three victories in three.
Despite his high society financial status, Watson wasn’t immune to racially motivated attacks from fans. In fact, the Scottish Athletic Journal reported in 1885 that 'although on more than one occasion [he was] subjected to vulgar insults by splenetic, ill-tempered players, he uniformly preserved that gentlemanly demeanour.' It seems that, whilst vile slurs from the terraces (transposed more recently into the tiers of social media) have not gone away, neither has the astonishing value brought to the game by footballers of black heritage. Whilst we ought to hope the former will be stamped out, long may the latter continue.