Manager: Tom Watson

Newcastle-born Tom Watson had been connected with a number of local clubs in and around his home town before he was appointed as manager of Sunderland Football Club in 1889. He made an immediate impact. Not elected to the Football League until the year after he arrived, Sunderland won the First Division championship 3 times in 4 seasons under Watson’s guidance (they were runners-up on the other occasion) as well as reaching the F.A. cup semi-final three times. More trophies would probably have followed but in the summer of 1896 John McKenna made him a financial offer he couldn’t refuse and he moved across the country from Wearside to Merseyside. Only 37 years old at the time of this move, Tom was still a relatively young man, certainly for a football manager.

Progress was almost as quick as it had been at his previous club. Two F.A. cup semi-finals were reached before the turn of the century but not many supporters realise that 90 years before the crucial final league match with Arsenal in 1989 Liverpool were also involved in a ‘œwinner takes all’ end to the season. Liverpool travelled to Birmingham to face Aston Villa on the last day of the season. A marginally superior goal-difference meant that a draw against their Midland rivals would be enough to secure the club’s first major title. But by the interval a team that had conceded only 28 goals in its previous 33 league matches that season had inexplicably let in another 5 and the match was over as a contest, as was Liverpool’s title dream.

Liverpool slipped to 10th the following season but recovered to mount a serious challenge for the championship in the first full season of the new century. Watson had already proved at Sunderland that he had a good eye for talented players and he continued to prove that for Liverpool. Numerous players that had a huge influence on the club’s early years ‘¦ and in particular their double-title success in the first decade of the 20th century ‘¦ were signed during Watson’s reign. Amongst them and in no particular order were Scotsman Alex Raisbeck, legendary goalkeepers Sam Hardy & Elisha Scott and prolific scorers Jack Parkinson & Sam Raybould. The 1901 championship was won by 2 points from ironically enough Watson’s former employees Sunderland and seemed to herald a new and exciting era. But rather surprisingly results took a turn for the worse and the club was relegated only three years after winning the League championship, only to bounce back at the first time of asking and follow that with their 2nd League title just 12 months later, the first club incidentally to achieve the ‘˜double’ feat of winning the 2nd & 1st Division championships in successive seasons.

In 1906 Watson suffered the disappointment for the 6th time of being the manager of a losing F.A. cup semi-finalist, this time to Liverpool’s Merseyside neighbours Everton who went on to lift the trophy by beating Newcastle. League results for the next few years were rather erratic and only in 1910 when finishing runners-up to Aston Villa did Liverpool become seriously close to taking another championship. In 1914 Watson at last managed to overcome his semi-final jinx as Liverpool progressed to the cup final at Villa’s expense but the big day at London’s Crystal Palace ground was to end in disappointment with a single-goal defeat to Burnley.

As the first World War broke out, Tom Watson was embarking on his 19th season in charge at Anfield. It was to be his last. He died in May 1915 aged 56. Watson had been a popular and successful manager and that was reflected in the turn-out for his funeral, where many of the players he signed acted as pall-bearers on his final journey. Few men take two different clubs to the biggest domestic prize, even in the sport’s early days. Even fewer win that championship as many as 5 times during their managerial lives. Tom Watson did and he was also the man responsible for Liverpool making the big breakthrough by taking them to their first two League titles in 1901 & 1906. The War interrupted competitive football in England but his was clearly going to be a hard act to follow when League fixtures re-commenced at the end of August, 1919.

Profile by Chris Wood, January 2005