In the first of a new series profiling footballers who also played professionally in other sports, an Ashes hero who was also a member of England’s 1950 World Cup squad.
To cricket historians, Willie Watson is remembered for an epic rearguard innings that played a crucial part in England regaining the Ashes in 1953, for the first time since 1932/3 – a latter-day 2005, if you will. Although not an integral part of England’s summer national side, Watson did enough to earn 23 caps alongside legends such as Hutton, Cowdrey, May and Compton. He was also an important member of the Yorkshire team in county cricket, and was reknowned as an outstanding fielder.
Before those 1953 heroics, however, Watson was equally well known as a footballer, had won 4 caps for England in 1949/50 and was a non-playing member of England’s squad for the ill-fated 1950 World Cup campaign in Brazil.
Watson was born in 1920 and his father, also a footballer, was a member of Herbert Chapman’s successful Huddersfield Town side before the great manager revolutionised football at Arsenal.
At the age of 17 he signed his first professional contract, also with Huddersfield, but the onset of the 2nd World War limited his appearances to just 11 as an inside forward.
After his release from the armed forces in 1946, he was transferred to Sunderland for the sum of £8,000, a reasonable transfer fee for the period. The Rokerites certainly weren’t shy of spending money at that time, and would spend £18,000 on Carlisle’s Ivor Broadis in 1949.
The club had been league champions in 1935/6 and FA Cup winners in 1936/7, and could boast the legendary Len Shackleton amongst their ranks. With such attacking talent already at inside forward, Watson was moved to play at wing half, and it was in this position that he made his name over the following couple of seasons. With his apprenticeship at inside forward, Watson never lost his attacking instincts when most wing-halves were more defensively minded.
Thus it was that, in 1949, England came calling. This was in the days when the national team was selected by committee, manager Walter Winterbottom being given an XI and expected to fashion it into a team of worldbeaters. Watson’s debut came in a match against Ireland at Maine Road in November.
This match doubled as part of the Home Championship and as a World Cup qualifier. To say it was a dream debut is perhaps an understatement: 4-0 ahead at half time, England went on to win 9-2, with Manchester United’s Jack Rowley scoring four of the goals.
Two weeks later, Watson played again in a 2-0 friendly win over Italy at White Hart Lane, and he was selected to be a part of England’s squad for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.
It was, of course, England’s first World Cup, the FA having snobbishly declined to enter the pre-war tournaments. Three years before Puskas & Co tore England apart at Wembley and dislodged English football’s rose-tinted specs, the nation fully expected the World Cup to be won.
Having beaten Chile 2-0 in their first group match, England then were sensationally beaten 1-0 by the United States and then by the same scoreline against Spain. And that was that, eliminated at the group stage. Watson may have been relieved not to have taken part in the humiliation against USA.
He went on to gain further caps against Wales and Yugoslavia before the end of 1950, but that marked the end of his international football career. By now in his 30s, Watson played a further three seasons for Sunderland, ending with a total of 223 League and FA Cup appearances and 17 goals. A 3rd place finish in 1949/50 was the high point, but Sunderland were mostly a mid-table club during Watson’s time there.
In 1954, Watson moved to Halifax Town to take up the post of player-manager, where he made a further 33 appearances. After his departure in 1956, cricket commitments pushed football into second place but, upon his retirement from cricket he returned to Halifax in 1964 for a further two year spell as manager, and then moved on to Bradford City for a short spell during a turbulent period for the Bantams.