Willie Watson

Sportsman capped by England at cricket and football

Willie Watson, cricketer and footballer: born Bolton upon Dearne, South Yorkshire 7 March 1920; married (one son, one daughter); died Johannesburg, South Africa 23 April 2004.

Very few cricketers ever command the front page, especially of a downmarket tabloid. Such was Willie Watson's fame, after a nerve-racking day spent defying Australia at Lord's in 1953, with most of the nation tuned in to the BBC's Test Match Special, that his picture and an 84-point headline, "Wonderful Willie Watson", decorated the front page of the old Daily Sketch. For something like 18 months, Watson was a prince of England and then, in fairly characteristic fashion, as if shy of all the attention, he slipped away into the outfield.

Watson and the Essex all-rounder Trevor Bailey raised 163 for the fifth wicket, Watson hanging on for 345 minutes for his 109. The stand saved the match and enabled England to recover the Ashes with a victory at the Oval after four drawn games.

Willie Watson was so called on his birth certificate, in order to differentiate him from his father, the then very famous Billy Watson of Huddersfield Town, a member of the League Championship team of 1927, 1928 and 1929. Young Willie inherited his father's genes so generously that he went on to become, with Denis Compton and Arthur Milton, one of those few mortals to be capped by England at cricket and football.

Moreover slim, fair-haired Willie - who remained Billy in the dressing room -was such a stylish performer at both sports that he always caught the eye even if, mysteriously, he never reached the heights of public adulation reached by say, Compton. "The most graceful mover in the game," was Playfair's description in 1954. "Watson, in the deep, was a white blur," was praise from the Daily Express.

Like his father, Watson reached fame as a wing-half, or midfielder in the current term, reaching his peak as a player with Sunderland, then known as the "Bank of England Team" because of their prodigious spending on transfers around 1950. Left-handed and left-footed, Watson emerged through Paddock, the Huddersfield League club, and Huddersfield Boys football team, declining a place at grammar school because of restrictions on football.

Leaving school at 14 meant he had to find a job, sweeping the yard at an upholsterers' for seven shillings a week, but the boy was determined upon a professional sporting career and a year later he was signed as an amateur by Huddersfield Town where his father was in charge of the "A" team.

He had reached Paddock's first team before he left school and a score of 122 in a tense cup-tie against Lascelles Hall brought him to Yorkshire's attention. At 17 he became a football professional and a year later (1938) made his début for Yorkshire II at Barnsley and made nought. Chosen for the next match, against Lancashire, he added two more ducks to his career. To his surprise he was given a third chance, Yorkshire's Secretary John Nash, not a man given to easy emotion, adding a written "good luck" to the standard printed selection card. Watson scored 60 and kept his place.

He was first chosen for Huddersfield Town, at outside-left, in the 1938-39 season and was a reserve for the Town team that lost an FA Cup semi-final to Portsmouth the following year. Yorkshire called on Watson four times in that last pre-war summer and he would recall the mysteries posed by Leicestershire's Australian spinner Jack Walsh and the sheer speed of Ken Farnes of Essex, killed in the war.

Watson was conscripted into the Army where his burgeoning talents soon won him a place in the Army team, along with Matt Busby, Tommy Lawton, Tom Finney, Frank Swift and Joe Mercer, exposure and experience that was invaluable. His rising status was recognised when he was chosen to play inside-left for England in a "Victory international" - no caps were awarded - against Wales at West Bromwich.

He wasn't happy playing on the wing and when he returned to Town, then at their Leeds Road ground, Watson asked to be switched to inside-forward. His discontent was noted and in May 1946, a month before being demobilised, he was transferred to Sunderland. He did not expect to hear from Yorkshire again, but a century in a festival match at Colwyn Bay, watched, unknown to Watson, by the Yorkshire and England players Herbert Sutcliffe and Abe Waddington, ensured that his name was not forgotten at Headingley.

After two seasons for Watson at Roker Park, Sunderland's manager Bill Murray persuaded him to convert to right-half (right midfield) and his first performance in that position, against the Manchester United and England inside-left Stan Pearson, was so successful that his place in football history had been found.

Yorkshire meanwhile saw Watson as a regular in their 1946 rebuilding and he was chosen for a Test trial at Canterbury, scoring a half-century, but he did not shine in a damp summer in which Yorkshire's pre-war survivors contrived a Championship win. The following year, Watson represented the advance guard of the new generation and had a long spell as Len Hutton's opening partner, before dropping down to what became his established place at number five where he scored his first first-class century, against Surrey at the Oval, a second following against Worcestershire.

By 1949-50 Watson had become an international footballer, playing right-half in victories over Ireland (then one nation in football), Italy, Scotland and Wales. He was a member of the all-star, all-fail England team knocked out of the World Cup ignominiously by the USA in 1950, the goal heard round the world. He returned home to play in two more winning internationals against Wales and Yugoslavia before being dropped, the critics concluding that he was too much of an attacker. He took it philosophically, because by 1951 he had become an England cricketer.

He made 57 against a strong South African team at Trent Bridge, 79 at Lord's, 21 at Old Trafford and 32 at Leeds, 31 at the Oval, a reasonable start in vastly different batting conditions. Against much easier opposition the following year, India, he was chosen only for the Oval, making 18 not out.

Then as now, England were obsessed with finding an all-rounder and Watson's place was always in danger, principally from Glamorgan's bowler-batsman and brilliant fielder Alan Watkins. Thus, in 1953, with England, then as now, despairing of recovering the Ashes, Watson did not appear until the second Test, where Alec Bedser restrained Lindsay Hassett's team to 346. England managed a lead of 57 (Hutton 145) and were eventually left to score 343 to win in seven hours.

At the close of the fourth day, England were 20-3. "I couldn't sit and watch the game for long," admitted Watson. "I had to read a book or a newspaper to get my mind off the cricket."

Watson was batting, with Compton, at 12-3 and the media wrote off the team and the series, but the fourth-wicket pair were careful and hopes were rising until, at 73, Compton was run out. Watson was joined by Bailey, nicknamed "The Barnacle" by the Australians for his adhesive qualities. Cricket history unfolded over the afternoon, more and more Brits tuning in their radios as news filtered through that Australia were being held. For perhaps the only time, England that day resembled Port of Spain, or Bombay or Karachi, where shop radios broadcast the Test match continuously.

At lunch, England were 116-4, at tea 183-4. Bailey's 50, in 210 minutes, was greeted with an enormous cheer. Watson's 100 took 315 minutes, caught at slip with 40 minutes' play remaining. "I undressed and got into the bath and heard another great roar. Trevor was out. I was scared enough to dry myself and rush back to see the rest of play." Freddie Brown and Godfrey Evans batted out time, 282-7, and England was jubilant. The third Test, at Old Trafford, was doomed to a draw by the weather, the fourth Test at Leeds left Australia 30 short of victory with six wickets standing and when England did win, at the Oval, Watson had been dropped. He did get a mention in Time magazine.

He had a successful England tour of West Indies, scoring 116 in the first Test, 161 against Jamaica and 257 against British Guiana (now Guyana) but his place in the Test order was never safe. His days as a top-class footballer were also shortening. He became player-manager of Halifax/Town, then in the Third Division. Loss of form in the second half of the 1954 summer cost him a place in Hutton's team that retained the Ashes in 1953-54.

A perceptive Yorkshire committee might have offered him the captaincy after Norman Yardley and Hutton retired but they were still wedded to an amateur appointment and Watson went off to Leicestershire where he had an Indian summer as assistant secretary and captain, winning a recall by England in Australia in 1958-59. In all, he scored 25,670 runs at an average of 39.8 and played in 23 Tests, where his disappointing average of 25.85 hardy reflected his true class.

Dickie Bird, a colleague at both Yorkshire and Leicestershire, recalled: "Willie persuaded me to leave Yorkshire and we had a few partnerships together for Leicestershire. He was a good friend who became a good captain and as a bad-wicket player I would rate him only behind Wally Hammond and Len Hutton."

In 1968 Watson was appointed coach to the Wanderers' club in Johannesburg and he and his family settled in South Africa, visiting England regularly for the Lord's and Headingley Test matches. Although he was always courteous, his manner did suggest a shyness that might be the key to his career; a man who enjoyed the accomplishment and applause but disliked, intensely, the spotlight.

Derek Hodgson

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