Tom Watson: The man who first led Liverpool to league glory

Tom Watson spent 742 games – and just shy of 19 years – in charge of the club between 1896 and his death in 1915. In that time, he took them from hopefuls, to contenders, to winners.

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There were notable ups and downs within Tom Watson’s tenure as Liverpool manager, but ultimately he was the one who first ensured Liverpool climbed to the top.

He joined from Sunderland as secretary – which was effectively the role closest to ‘manager’, at the time – when he was just 37 years of age. The club, admittedly, was only four years-old itself back then but those on Merseyside had good reason to believe he could be a success at Anfield.

Already, he had three First Division titles to his name – having guided the Black Cats to top spot in 1892, 1893 and 1895.

That came after the Newcastle-born Watson had started his career as secretary at Newcastle East End and Newcastle West End – the two clubs that would effectively merge to create Newcastle United in 1892.


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The report in the Newcastle Journal which marked his death – at the age of 56 – referenced how, while at West End, “he headed a deputation which resulted in the Newcastle Freemen and the Newcastle Corporation granting permission for football to be played on the site now known as St. James’ Park, in the occupation of the Newcastle United Football Club.”

That, in itself, is quite the legacy. In reality, it represented one of the earliest signs of the positive force of nature that Watson could be, at his best.

The results at Sunderland, who he joined in 1889, reflected that. As did his influence at Anfield – on numerous fronts.

He took over from John McKenna – who stepped back into the boardroom after securing promotion from the Second Division – in the summer of 1896.

On lfchistory.net, it is described how he “implemented a strict diet and new coaching regime at Anfield that had served him so well at Sunderland”.

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“The players’ day started with half an hour stroll at 7.30am, breakfast at 8.30am ideally consisted of weak tea, chops, eggs, dry toast or stale bread. Butter, sugar, potatoes and milk were not held in high regard.

“Training was at 9.45am and again at 3.30pm. A glass of beer or claret was recommended at dinner and tobacco was to be “sparingly used”. The day finished with a one hour stroll at 7.30pm.”

Culture shifts and evolution may have had a slightly different look back then, but the impact of Watson’s work was palpable.

The Reds – as they were, following their switch from white and blue shirts in 1896 – reached two FA Cup semi-finals in the Geordie’s first three years in the job and agonisingly missed out on the First Division title on the final day of 1898/99, when fellow title chasers Aston Villa beat them at Villa Park.

The Anfield side would become English champions for the first time two years later, though, when they finished the 1900/01 season two points ahead of Sunderland – Watson’s previous employers, of course.

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There would, surprisingly, be a relegation to the Second Division in 1904 but, in the end, that actually cued another landmark achievement.

Liverpool gained promotion in 1904/05 and then preceded to win their second First Division title in 1905/06 – making them the first team to win the top two divisions back-to-back.

There would be another FA Cup semi-final defeat that year, however – this time to neighbours Everton. An agonising sixth last-four defeat in the competition for Watson.

League form was relatively erratic over Watson’s final nine seasons in charge, although those semi-final struggles were finally overcome in 1914 when the Reds beat Villa to reach the final, held at the Crystal Palace ground in London.

There, though, the Merseysiders were beaten 1-0 by Burnley, who were also playing in their first FA Cup final.

Liverpool would have to wait another 51 years for their first triumph in the competition. That 1965 victory remains understandably cherished.

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Watson sadly died just over a year after that final defeat.

He travelled to Newcastle to celebrate his 56th birthday in April 1915 but, just a few weeks later, he developed pneumonia, which would prove fatal, and he passed away in his Anfield home on May 6.

It was immensely sad that he was not able to contribute even more to the club and sport which he had already given so much.

There were clear signals of his legacy in the strong turnout at his funeral, where former players Alex Raisbeck, Ned Doig, Arthur Goddard, Charlie Wilson, Maurice Parry, George Fleming, Robbie Robinson, and club trainer William Connell carried his coffin.

44 years before Bill Shankly became manager, 70 before Kenny Dalglish, 83 before Gérard Houllier, 100 before Jürgen Klopp – this was a man who turned Liverpool FC into major prize winners.

There have, of course, been numerous fluctuations since – but winning is a welcome habit to develop. We’ve got a lot to thank him for.

Statistics and key dates from lfchistory.net.


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