BY LAURA BRADBURN
Real Madrid are, without doubt, a club with the most illustrious of histories in world football. Nothing confirms this more than the capturing of the long-coveted 10th European title in their history in 2014, lauded amongst Madridistas as ‘La Decima’. But, where do we come in all this? How can we savour just a small slice of this wonderful story for ourselves? Despite being the most Spanish of clubs, Los Blancos have had numerous British players litter their amazing history.
Ask any knowledgeable football fan to name some of those players and they will rightly list names including David Beckham, Michael Owen, Gareth Bale and, possibly, Laurie Cunningham. While there have been varying degrees of success amongst those who have left these shores, Bale – the most recent export – has had a prolific first season and a half at the Bernabeu, including scoring the decisive goal helping to secure La Decima in Lisbon in 2014.
However, ask those same fans to name the British pioneer who was the first to pull on that famous white shirt and they will no doubt struggle. For that, you need to look a little further north.
John Fox Watson, better known as Jack, was born in the Scottish town of Hamilton on Hogmanay in 1917. Hogmanay, for those less well versed in the intricacies of Scottish language, is New Year’s Eve. Having started his fledgling career with local sides Waterthistle and Douglas Juniors, Jack moved on to play for English side Bury. His spell at Bury was cut short when, as in so many other walks of life at the time, the Second World War took precedence.
Following the War, Watson joined Fulham, going on to make 71 appearances in midfield for the club over two seasons. However, soon after the appointment of former Fulham player Mike Keeping as manager of Real Madrid in January 1948, Watson was signed and took up a player/coach role in Spain. In doing so, he became the first British and still-only Scottish player ever to play for Real Madrid. It’s fair to say, however, that Watson’s spell in Spain was not a fruitful one. He made just a single appearance for the first team in his one season at the club, starting and playing the full 90 minutes in a 3-1 defeat to Celta Vigo.
Following this brief and unsuccessful time abroad, Watson returned to England to see out his career, making around sixty appearances for Crystal Palace, followed by a final stint at Canterbury City.
Perhaps understandably, you’ll find little mention of Jack Watson amongst the multitude of football history and statistics websites that pervade the internet. A man who should be a household name in the pantheon of British footballing history, he is, instead, a name only those with a near encyclopedic knowledge of the beautiful game will know. This begs the question – what happened in Madrid to cause this apparent trail blazer to become a forgotten man.
The answer, possibly, lies in the political and social history surrounding Real Madrid around the time of Watson’s signing. As well as the previously mentioned Second World War, Spain was in the midst of it’s own Civil War between 1936 and 1939. Spanish football was suspended during the battle for dominance between the Republicans and the Nationalists, led by General Franco. Following the conclusion of the war, Santiago Bernabeu Yeste was appointed president in 1945 and found a club practically in ruins from the fallout of the war. Watson, therefore, found himself at a club far removed from the reputation it had previously enjoyed and far from the success it would go on to enjoy in the future. Bernabeu had to essentially re-build the club from the ground up. This affected every facet of the club, from the stadium and training facilities, to the staff themselves. Many of the club’s pre-war and pre-Civil War administration had been killed as a result of the conflicts and major recruitment was required. It would be around a decade after Bernabeu’s election before Real would really return to the type of success with which they had previously been so familiar.
It would appear then, that Jack Watson’s lack of success at Real Madrid was simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He came to the club during one of the most tumultuous times in their history. There is, of course, the argument that Watson would never have been there at all if this hadn’t been the case. His transfer was, undoubtedly, inextricably linked to Mike Keeping’s appointment as manager who, himself, enjoyed a less than successful time in charge. No major trophies were won during his spell in charge.
What can’t be denied, however, is that the signing of Jack Watson was a defining moment in British footballing history. He paved the way for Brits to grace the European stage for years to come. Gareth Bale and Steve McManaman have, of course, won the Champions League with Real Madrid, while others have forged successful careers overseas. Mark Hughes, Gary Lineker and Steve Archibald, who all called the Nou Camp home while plying their trade at FC Barcelona, undoubtedly owe some form of debt to Jack Watson for the path he paved. And it’s a path that continues to forge a way through today’s game. Jack Harper, formerly of Barrhead in Scotland, has been honing his skills at La Fabrica, Real Madrid’s world famous youth academy, since signing a five-year deal there at age 16 in 2012. It seems, therefore, that there is somewhat of a full circle being created. Where one Scottish Jack started, so another may soon follow. Hopefully with better success this time round.
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