Tom Watson

Football's Pioneers: Tom Watson

As part of Leicester City's partnership with De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History and Culture, Dr. Neil Carter recalls, among others, Tom Watson, who was an early pioneer in the evolution of the role of football manager.

During the 19th century, secretaries ran football clubs on a day-to-day basis. The football manager, as we know them today, essentially evolved out of this role. Yet this was a slow and uneven process, which differed from club to club. For the period up to 1914, the secretary, or secretary-manager, was largely subordinate to the wishes of the directors, including on team matters.

There had been early exceptions. At Preston North End, William Sudell was the chairman but also ran the team like a modern manager while Blackburn Olympic effectively employed a player-manager, Jack Hunter. Yet there was no management model for football to follow and many clubs initially looked for men with administrative experience. 

In 1886, Aston Villa actually placed an advertisement in the Birmingham Daily Gazette, which stated: ‘WANTED, MANAGER FOR ASTON VILLA FOOTBALL CLUB’. The annual salary was £100. The post was filled by former player, George Ramsay. Originally a clerk, he was regarded as Villa’s secretary throughout his career. A feature of many secretaries during this period was their length of service to clubs. Ramsay himself was at Villa until 1926.

Other long-serving officials included Jack Addenbroke at Wolves (1885-1922), while John Nicholson was Sheffield United’s secretary-manager from 1899 to 1932 and, between 1902 and 1933, Swindon Town’s secretary-manager was Sam Allen. The longest serving was Fred Everiss, who spent 46 years as West Bromwich Albion’s secretary between 1902 and 1948.

It is difficult to attribute the impact these men had over team affairs because of the dominant role of the directors. Perhaps the most influential in terms of the evolution of the football manager’s role was Tom Watson, whose career spanned the amateur and professional eras.

Initially, he had been a prominent figure in the rapid growth of football on Tyneside during the 1880s. In 1889, he became secretary at Sunderland where he recruited the ‘Team of All the Talents’, which won the Football League three times. This success – and no doubt Watson’s input – attracted the attention of Liverpool and he joined the Anfield club in 1896. His annual salary was a then not inconsiderable £300.

Liverpool twice won the league under Watson, making him arguably the first managerial figure to win the Football League with two different clubs.

Because of this success, Watson became a model for later secretary-managers such as Ernest Mangnall at Manchester United (1903-12) and Manchester City (1912-24). While most directors were reluctant to relinquish the reins of powers, the role of the secretary-manager increased, as did their profile in the media. It helped to create the perception that the secretary-manager was an increasingly important figure in the football club.

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