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“Another slice of cake, old chap?” The story of Sunderland’s double international, Willie Watson

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Willie Watson, who played 223 times for Sunderland, is widely regarded as the greatest double international - he played for England both at cricket and football - to have ever lived. Kelvin Beattie tells his fascinating story.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Tottenham Hotspur v Sunderland Photo by Barratts/PA Images via Getty Images

Its 4am and freezing. I am tip toeing downstairs so as not to wake the rest of the house. England are playing India in the first test - compulsive viewing nurtured by my Dad, who was blind from the time I was 12 years old.

Dad loved listening to the cricket on the radio, and though he moaned big time about Johnners, Blofeld and Trevor Bailey bantering about cake, secretly I think he loved all that guff. Anyhow - here I am at this ungodly hour, Dad will be snickering up in heaven at me creeping about encumbered by a passion he passed on.

I switch the TV on and there is Ben Stokes and Jos Butler. When England played India in 2018 they managed a record breaking stand of 269 - it was Butler’s maiden test century, and Stokes’ slowest ever half century, all to no avail sadly, as England lost that game. They did though break a record that day that had stood since 1953 - that record was held by a Sunderland football player called Willie Watson, and his story is a remarkable tale.

In the way that these things can come back to you in the witching hours of 4 am, I recall a debate with my Dad many years previous about Viv Richards and Ian Botham whom I was “bigging up” as cricket Internationalists and football players - Botham played for Scunthorpe, and Richards allegedly played for the Antigua & Barbuda national team in the World Cup qualifiers of 1974.

Dad pulled Willie Watson out of his sack, telling me “you will not beat that” - he was right.

Willie Watson Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Willie Watson was a very rare breed of sportsman. He was one of only 13 people (12 men and one lady) to be capped by England at both football and cricket.

Watson signed for Huddersfield Town in 1937 as an outside left. His father was reserve team coach at Town, having been a mainstay of the treble championship winning team of the 20’s. Willie’s older brother Albert was also a Town player, and went on to captain Oldham after the war. Football was in the Watson family DNA.

Willie played in 11 games for Huddersfield making his debut in 1938, before the war interrupted his career. During the war he played for the army team alongside Matt Busby, Tommy Lawton, Tom Finney, Joe Mercer and Frank Swift. He was not officially demobbed before he signed for Sunderland for £8,000 in 1946. Long time Sunderland manager Bill Murray saw a skilful young ball player who fitted the profile of the kind of player his team were trying to attract. The team that would come to be labelled the Team of All Talents.

Murray signed Watson to initially play inside left. Len Shackleton’s arrival halfway through the 47/48 season saw Murray convert Watson into a right half, and it was in this half back position that Willie was to grow in to and become such a cultured performer.

Willie Watson played for Sunderland from 1946 till 1954. He made 223 appearances for Sunderland over this period in cup and league games, scoring 16 goals.

He played six times for the England soccer team between 1949 and 1950, including two uncapped “Victory Games” and was unfortunate not to have played more often. Billy Wright, one of England’s greatest players and captain played in Watson’s position and hardly missed a game over his career, when he did it was Willie Watson who stood in at right half for him. He made his debut in the 1949 game at the Hawthorns against Ireland (NI and Eire played under one team at this time) which England won 9-2.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Sunderland Training Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

In 1950 he went to Brazil as part of England’s World Cup squad. This was the first time England had participated in the World Cup, and was to be remembered specifically for a 1-0 defeat by the USA. He did not play a game in that tournament, with the management team preferring a more defensive line up. When asked about this upon his return, rather than any bitterness he marvelled at the skills of the Latin American players whom he had been able to watch at close quarters.

One of Willie Watson’s six games for England was against Wales at Roker Park in 1950. The ground was packed with 59,000 fans who saw a cracking game as England won 4-2. Coincidently, Trevor Ford - who scored Wales two goals - had joined Sunderland and Watson just 13 days prior to this game. Ray (Bebe) Daniel played centre half for Wales that night and would later sign for Sunderland from Arsenal. Willie was reported to have prompted the England attack well all game. This was also Alf Ramsey’s first outing as England captain in the absence of Wright.

Making his debut for England that night was Leslie Compton who is the oldest player ever to debut for England at 38 years of age. Leslie was the brother of Dennis Compton who was to share the start of Willie Watsons record breaking innings against Australia in 1953, both the Compton brothers played first class cricket for Middlesex as well as playing for Arsenal.

All of Willie Watson’s six games for England were during his time at Sunderland, where he was playing in the “team of all talents” alongside players like Len Shackleton. Dickie Davis, Ivor Broadis and the goalkeeping legend Johnny Mapson.

Cricket - MCC Touring Party - England Photocall - London Airport
England and Surrey captain Peter May with other members of the MCC touring party on arrival at London Airport from the tour of Australia and New Zealand. (l-r) Freddie Truman, carrying a giant koala teddy bear; John Mortimore, Tom Graveney, Willie Watson and Peter May.
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Throughout all this period remarkably he was also playing first class county cricket for Yorkshire, for whom he made his debut in 1939. For all of his time at Sunderland he would miss the start of every season to finish the cricket season off with his County Club.

The Sunderland Daily Echo carries some illuminating reports of negotiations between Sunderland AFC and Yorkshire CCC, as they worked together to ensure Watson could play both games at the highest level. Its hard to imagine this kind of co-operation taking place in today’s modern game.

Willie was not the only Sunderland player to enjoy cricket - Raich Carter played a season for Derbyshire in 1946, Len Shackleton enjoyed his cricket at club level and more recently Dickie Ord was a more than handy club player. Willie was by far the most successful.

Willie played his last football match for England in 1950 in a friendly against Yugoslavia. After which he was dropped for being “too much of an attacker”. He appears to have responded to this by gaining his first cricket test cap for England against a strong South African team in 1951, where he made 79 at Trent Bridge.

He would play regularly for England from 1951 before losing form and his place in Len Hutton’s England team that retained the Ashes in 1954. He moved from Yorkshire to Leicestershire CC in 1954 where he became assistant secretary and captain. He won a recall to the England team in 1958 and toured Australia and New Zealand against whom he played his last test in 1959.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Tottenham Hotspur v Sunderland
Sunderland team group: (back row, l-r) Arthur Wright, Jack Hedley, Richard Davis, Len Shackleton, Willie Walsh, Ivor Broadis, Johnny Mapson, Jack Stelling; (front row, l-r) Tommy Wright, Willie Watson, Tom Reynolds
Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

We cannot leave his international test career without looking at his finest performance at the crease. The Aussies had bought a strong team to England in 1953 and were determined to retain the Ashes.

The test at Lords had seen a disastrous start by England who were 12 runs for 3 wickets when Watson joined Dennis Compton at the crease. There would probably have been a sense of unease for Willie as he joined Compton, of whom Trevor Bailey remarked “one has to regard Dennis calling for a run, as the start of negotiations if you wish to survive at the crease with him”. Compton was a dashing cricketer but had a reputation for getting partners run out. As things transpired it was Compton who was run out on 33 and England reached 116 for 4 at lunch. Trevor Bailey (nicknamed barnacle bill by the Aussies because of his dogged ability to carry his bat at the crease) had joined Watson out in the middle and was to share in the record-breaking performance. Bailey was something of a footballer himself, though only playing amateur football, he had played in the FA Amateur Cup at Wembley for Walthamstow Avenue and was a Cambridge soccer blue.

A slow slog ensued as Bailey and Watson contrived to save the game for England batting for over 4 hours, despite the Aussies being odds on favourites. They battled their way to 183 for 4 at tea. Watson gained his century after 315 minutes but was caught at slip on 109 with just 40 minutes to play. He had very fond memories of the roar of support and applause that a packed Lords gave him as he left the field. He reported later being in the bath when he heard another roar as Bailey was bowled, but England managed to play out to a draw, which not only saved the match but ultimately won the Ashes as the 5th test was won at the Oval. The first time since the bodyline series of 1933 that England had won the Ashes.

The day after their record breaking stand, the Daily Sketch (The Sun of its day) led its front page with the headline “Wonderful Willie Watson”.

Cricket - The Ashes - Second Test - Australia v England - Fourth Day Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Watson played County Cricket for over 25 years and finished his playing career with Leicestershire in 1964. He had a batting average of 25.86 test runs and scored two centuries and three fifties in his 23 tests for England. He scored over 14,000 first class runs for Yorkshire and 8,000 for Leicestershire. When he finished playing cricket, he became a test selector, before returning to football with Halifax and then Bradford as manager.

He opened a sports shop in Sunderland with his older brother Albert in the 60’s. In 1968 he received an offer to go to Johannesburg, where he worked as coach and administrator with the renowned Wanders Club. He and his family were to settle in South Africa. He regularly returned to England for tests at Headingly and was always a welcome visitor.

He played international cricket in a golden era of cricketers. Whilst his batting average was modest for England, his role in saving the Ashes with Trevor Bailey was a record-breaking memory for many cricket fans of that era.

Dickie Bird - a good friend and colleague at Yorkshire and Leicestershire - rated him only behind Wally Hammond and Len Hutton as a cricketer.

Willie Watson died in Johannesburg in 2004 at the age of 84. Derek Hodgson wrote an obituary in the Guardian and said “always courteous, his manner suggested a shyness that might be the key to his career. A man who enjoyed accomplishment and applause but who disliked the spotlight intensely. He is probably the greatest international footballer to play cricket for England”.

Of the 13 people who played international cricket and football for England, only Clare Taylor has come along since Willie Watson, to manage this feat of being a double internationalist.

Willie Watson was the last of his kind, a superb athlete and by all accounts gentleman to boot. An adventurous left footed half back who liked to attack, as well as an accomplished middle order left hand bat, who had a doggedness about his play when his country needed him. He deserves his place in the annals not only of Sunderland Football Club, but England’s Cricket and Football annals too.