New manger hunts in the 1880s were a little less refined than the data driven searches we get to see now. Nevertheless, Sunderland overcame to obstacles of the time and towards the end of the decade made an appointment that would help establish the club as one of the early giants of the game.
Up until this point in 1889 decisions and team selections were made via a committee, but with the club having turned professional a year before they were now looking to put a more practical operation into place. A major influence throughout Sunderland AFC’s formative years, John Grayston had been responsible for many of the secretarial duties up to this point and he was the man tasked with identifying a suitable candidate.
Grayston had stuck with SAFC when several others chose to move over to Sunderland Albion with James Allen. His place in Black Cats history already secured long before that episode, he further cemented his reputation by tracking down Byker born Tom Watson and lining him up for the new job. Initially finding him in a pub in Newcastle, where his target had built a strong reputation in football already having helped form a club and then ran both Newcastle West End and Newcastle East End at various points, Grayston approached Watson and as well as apparently gifting him a suit he offered him a handsome salary before presenting his choice to the rest of the group.
The directors agreed that Watson was the perfect fit and he took up his position on this day. Although initially thought to be receiving £150 a year, it was later shown that he was instead receiving the much smaller wage of 35 shillings a week, although the club did also provide Watson with a house in which he could live too. It quickly proved to be a very shrewd investment, and with the boss given permission to start scouting and bringing in top talent he spearheaded a phenomenal period of growth and glory.
With their season made up primarily of benefit and exhibition fixtures, Sunderland won a whopping 40 games during 1889-90, putting ten past both Hurlford and Halliwell whilst also winning the Durham Challenge Cup for the fourth time. The progress being made under Watson was apparent to all when the Lads pushed would be winners Blackburn Rovers hard in the FA Cup too, and once elected to the Football League the following season they kicked on again.
After guiding Sunderland to their first league championship in 1892 he was reportedly approached by a Yorkshire based club but instead chose to remain on Wearside and continue building his legacy. He brought two further titles and in addition to reaching the cup semi-final on three occasions saw his side become ‘world champions’ in 1895 – a fine record that means Watson remains the most successful boss in our history. In the 191 senior games he took charge of he enjoyed a winning percentage of over 60%, a hugely impressive statistic that would have been even higher if the friendlies and other games were to be taken into consideration.
The property Watson had been given was in Warwick Street, which is barely a minute from the Stadium of Light and was even closer to the club’s then home of the Newcastle Road ground. In addition to his role at SAFC he owned a tobacconists opposite Monkwearmouth Station, now itself home to the Fans Museum but back then a busy transport hub that gave indication of his shrewdness.
Watson confided in Grayston when considering whether to leave for Liverpool FC in 1896 and after making the switch continued to reach great heights, and he will always be remembered on Sunderland.
8 April 1859
First game in charge of SAFC:
Sunderland 1 (Campbell 46’)
Blackburn Rovers 0
Friendly: Newcastle Road, 2 September 1889
Final game in charge of SAFC:
Newcastle United 3 (Thompson, Collins, Aitken)
Sunderland 3 (Campbell, Gibson, Hartley)
Friendly: St. James’ Park, 30 April 1896
Stats whilst in charge of SAFC (major competitions only):
Won 119, Drawn 28, Lost 44 (191 games in total)