Tom Watson

Who is Tom Watson one might well ask, but he is probably Sunderland's most successful manager of all time and Liverpool's first managerial great - as well as their longest ever serving manager.

It all began for Tom Watson in his tobacconist's shop in Sunderland , when he took over Sunderland , managing them for 6 seasons, before being enticed to Liverpool . Tom Watson was unquestionably one of the great figures of the early days of the Football League, and was a tremendous catch for Liverpool.

He continued his winning ways taking the League Championship to Anfield, twice and Liverpool to their first ever FA Cup final.

For all Tom Watson’s on-field success with Sunderland and Liverpool, his strongest legacy at both clubs is that of an affable man who generated a great deal of respect and admiration in all who knew him.

Watson was talented and enjoyed success – the team he built on Wearside saw him become the first manager in the football league to be ‘poached’ by another club and his 19- year spell at Anfield means he remains the club’s longest-serving manager. He was held in such high regard by his players that when he died in 1915, aged 56, members of his Liverpool squad were his pallbearers.

For a man born in Newcastle it might seem odd that Watson’s first job was with local rivals Sunderland. Prior to taking the job, Watson had been secretary at East End – the club that would go on to become Newcastle United – and it took the offer of £100 a year and a new suit to see him take the reins at Sunderland. He spent six years in charge at the club, leading them from relative obscurity into the football league, and winning three league titles (1892, 1893 and 1895). He remains the club’s most successful manager of all time.

Upon securing the title for the first time in 1892 – a 7-2 demolition of Aston Villa rounding off the job – William McGregor, the founder of the football league, deemed Watson’s team to be “the team of all talents”. The Liverpool Echo’s Victor Hall was similarly effusive in his praise for the title-winning side: “They were nothing particular to look at either, that wonderful Sunderland team of ‘all the talents’. As men, they were not by any means a big team, just middleweights, the forwards rather on the light side, the halves middling, the backs sturdy, the goal, Eddie Doig! But they knit well, they played in perfect combination, they shot hard and often, and they were never ‘beat’. When they got a goal or two, they didn't ease off, they went at it twice as hard. They were trained well, not mollycoddled, they were not overpaid, and they had Tom Watson as guide, philosopher and friend.”

Another thing that attracted Watson to the Sunderland job was the relative strength of the club’s finances, and he used the money he had to great effect. He brought players in from north of the border who would go on to form the backbone of his title-winning side - players like Renton’s John Campbell and Third Lanark’s John Auld.

So successful was Watson’s time at Sunderland that Liverpool chairman John McKenna was moved to approach his employers with a financial offer in the hope of acquiring his talents. ‘Poaching’ is in common parlance in football today, with managers often the subject of compensatory offers from other clubs, but Watson was the first of his kind. The Sunderland board couldn’t turn it down and after six years and three titles the former tobacconist swapped Wearside for Merseyside.

At just 37, Watson was young to be in the Anfield dug-out, especially given the nature of his move from Sunderland, but he didn’t waste any time making his mark. In his first season he led the club, which had just been promoted from the second division, to fifth in the league and before the end of the 19th century two FA Cup semi-finals had been reached. In 1901, in just his fifth year at the club, Liverpool won the league. The success was notable for a number of reasons, but on a personal level the trophy ensured Watson became the first manager ever to win the league with two different sides. To this day there have only been four others.

As at Sunderland, Watson’s success was based partly on some shrewd acquisitions. He brought in the likes of Alex Raisbeck, Sam Hardy, Sam Raybould and Elisha Scott – players who would go on to become legends at Anfield – but it wasn’t just his success in the transfer market that made Watson stand out, he also introduced new methods that would become commonplace in the game. He was keen to control the players’ diets and, while he wasn’t strict – wine and beer were actively encouraged – he did demonstrate a level of thoroughness that hadn’t yet been embraced. He even made sure his players undertook a certain amount of walking each day to maintain their peak physical condition.

While his thinking was modern in terms of exercise, his old-school approach to alcohol – which included the use of scotch to keep his players warm on the side-line and possibly accounted for his popularity to some degree – was matched by a similarly open attitude to the press. Watson’s famed affability stretched to those in the media – he was happy to allow them access and to answer questions. He was also a man with a savvy business mind, prone to advertising upcoming fixtures by painting the details on the walls outside the ground himself.

Watson’s approach is hard to sum up as stereotypically one way or another; he embraced elements of football before their time, but also engendered a great esprit de corps that came from old-fashioned camaraderie. Either way, his methods worked. His first league title with Liverpool, in 1901, was followed by a second five years later. He also took the team on a number of FA Cup runs, establishing the frustrating habit of falling at the semi-final hurdle, but in 1914, in front of the King, he took his team all the way to Crystal Palace (the last final at the venue) only to see Burnley defeat his side 1-0.

Five years later, having presided over a relegation and, subsequently, a return to the top flight, the country found itself on the brink of war and Liverpool found themselves without a manager as Watson, aged just 56, passed away.

Victor Bee, who regularly extolled the virtues of Watson’s talented Sunderland side, wrote of him in the Liverpool Echo: “Poor old Tom! There was no hope from the start. He could not resist pneumonia and pleurisy. His constitution was not too strong. He had a heart of gold. All round the country one hears expressions of deepest sorrow at the sudden death of our friend, and the funeral at Anfield will show in some measure in what respect Tom was held. Bluff, hearty, jovial, fond of a joke and always prepared to listen to one, Tom was a favourite all over the country.”

Watson’s name isn’t one immediately linked to Liverpool – those after him served with such fame and distinction that he can be all too easily forgotten – but on the field he led the club with distinction to glory, while off it he led the community and the city with his charm and love of life.

Trophies Won
Division 1 Champions 1892, 1893, 1895 ( Sunderland ) 1901, 1906 ( Liverpool )
Division 2 Champions 1905 ( Liverpool )

Key Players
Alex Raisbeck, Teddy Doig, Goddard, Wilson, Parry, Fleming, Robinson.

Honours (6)
  • league-titles
    • Liverpool:
      • Football League Division One Champions, (1905-01-01)
      • Football League Division Two Champions, (1904-01-01)
      • Football League Division One Champions, (1900-01-01)
    • Sunderland:
      • Football League Division One Champions, (1894-01-01)
      • Football League Division One Champions, (1892-01-01)
      • Football League Division One Champions, (1891-01-01)
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