THE first of Scotland’s great football triumphs against England took place on March 12, 1881, when the Scots swept all before them to beat the Auld Enemy 6-1.

This fixture had started up in 1870, long before any other two nations in the world could have organised a football match. There were not even enough dedicated football grounds. Scotland and England played at what had started off as a cricket ground, The Oval. The superior facilities available in leafy south London also suited the as yet posh profile of the fans for the new game.

Other features foreshadowed the future. Football stars were there from the start, along with devoted fans to follow them. The hero of the Scots side that day at The Oval was John Smith, a student at Edinburgh University. He got the game going with a goal after 10 minutes, and scored two more before the final whistle. He was one of several youngsters brought on by their captain, Andrew Watson, a dominant figure in Scottish football at the time.

In those days there was not yet a strict division between management and team. Watson was a versatile enthusiast and himself managed Scotland in matches against England and Wales. One level down, he was not only the captain but also the secretary of the biggest club side in Britain, Queen’s Park in Glasgow, founded in 1867 and twice Scottish champions, too.

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Watson was black. He had been born in 1857 at Georgetown, capital of the colony of British Guiana (now Guyana). He was the son of Peter Watson of Dingwall, a lawyer for the Marquess of Zetland, of a family with big estates in the Northern Isles and many imperial interests besides (one of them became secretary of state for India). Under this paternalist regime it was easy for the sons of loyal servants to get jobs out in the empire. Watson was a lawyer by profession, and set himself up to run plantations in Guyana as well.

While there were many Scotsmen in business in the colonies, few Scotswomen took their chances with the unhealthy tropical climate. After their arrival, the men usually settled down with a local black girl, who in the previous generation would have been a slave. But slavery was abolished in 1833, and now the children of these unions grew up free. After his arrival in Georgetown, Peter Watson looked for his ideal partner. He settled down with Hannah Rose and one of their children was Andrew.

For many generations these interracial partnerships had been so commonplace in the Caribbean colonies that they now contained populations of mixed race. When the planters at the end of their working lives got ready to go home to the UK with fortunes in their pockets, they had two choices: either to leave their half-caste families behind, where they would eventually blend into the local population; or else to take them along and try to give them a chance in a white homeland. Different fathers made different choices according to their own feelings or calculations.

The Watsons stuck together until 1869. Then father Peter died, a man rich enough to have given his children an expensive education of his own choice. The school had no other black pupils, and deflected awkward questions by defining young Andrew as an orphan. As he grew up, he seemed at ease explaining his status away. The main worry for the schoolboy was that it should never stop him playing football.

At the age of 19, Watson enrolled at the University of Glasgow to study engineering, natural philosophy (physics) and mathematics. Thanks to his inheritance, he could afford to be taught by the best academics, including Lord Kelvin.

Like many Scottish students, he never took a degree. He wanted to get on in the world and in 1877, as a man of independent means, he set up a wholesale warehouse business in Glasgow – Watson, Miller and Baird. He went on to specialise in marine engineering and in that role crossed the Atlantic Ocean dozens of times.

Watson combined business with a glittering football career. In 1874 he signed for the Glasgow-based club Maxwell FC before moving to the Govan-based Parkgrove FC. He won a reputation as one of the most stylish, pacy and composed full-backs in the Scottish game. He became the first black man not only to play football in Britain, but also to hold a management role within a British team.

This was a career not yet open to sons of the proletariat. It reflected his position as a successful local businessman with the education and manners of a gentleman.

In 1880, Watson was invited to join the leading Scottish club of the era, Queen’s Park, where he also fulfilled the role of match secretary. Not only was it one of the most successful clubs, it also had a reputation as being the club of choice for the social elite. Watson’s connections with it are strong indicators of his status in Scottish society.

His success on an international scale brought him to the attention of leading figures in English football, too. A move south followed. Among Watson’s many admirers was all-round sportsman, Nicholas Lane Jackson, committee member of the Football Association and founding member of the Lawn Tennis Association.

Jackson went on to form the prestigious amateur club Corinthian FC. Its short passing games and organised interplay were modelled on Watson’s Scottish style. The usual practice in England had been for the player to hang on to the ball and only pass it when he had to, which made for a game slower and more static. When Watson himself went on to Corinthians, he was probably reinforcing a change in the English style of play already well under way.

It is striking how effortlessly Watson moved within the highest echelons of the footballing establishment in both England and Scotland, playing in matches while also taking on vital roles in the management at some of the most prestigious amateur clubs.

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Nobody ever seems to have found anything odd about a Scot doing all this for English football. But then Watson’s education, wealth and status in Victorian society would anyway have saved him embarrassment of that kind.

The remarkable fact in any case was that one man in the 1880s should have achieved so much: first black captain of an international team, first black player to win a major footballing competition, first black player to appear in the English FA Cup. The list of firsts makes Watson a significant figure, not only in the Scottish game but also in global football.

At home in Scotland things did not change so fast. With some brief exceptions, such as Jamaican-born Gil Heron at Celtic, Walter Tull signing for Rangers and John Walker at Hearts, Black players largely disappeared from Scottish football for the next 100 years until the arrival of Mark Walter at Rangers in 1988.

The Scotland national team did not call up a second player of black heritage until Nigel Quashie, who had a Ghanaian father and a Scottish grandfather, made his debut against Estonia in 2004.