By Andrew Mckay (TTT Subscriber orton992000).
It is usually better to get bad news out of the way first, so one thing needs to be understood about Liverpool FC’s first great manager, and first League title winner, Tom Watson. The man who won two league championships, bequeathed strong foundations and enjoyed a rapport with the public at the club Bill Shankly would later build in his own socialist image was middle-class. Worse, for those who like their history ideologically pure, his social status was essential to not only what he did at Anfield but also in all likelihood why he was appointed. Education, money and social climbing, none of which are common considerations with Liverpool managers, are integral to Watson’s story.
His father was a skilled manual worker who gave his son more opportunities by ensuring Tom went to schools in Newcastle and York. This was better than the rudimentary education received by many in Victorian England, as Watson later worked Biblical allusions, some casual French and Shakespearean references into an 1899 newspaper article he wrote about his scouting experiences. This led to possibly clerical and retail work before he became secretary of Newcastle West End at 26 in 1885. The duties needed more than basic literacy and numeracy, which excluded the poorly educated masses and handed these posts to middle-class men instead. Watson’s education therefore led to his career in football. Nor was he unique, as the first managers would evolve from these administrative positions. Billy Sudell, manager of Preston’s “Invincibles” of 1888/89, had been privately educated, while Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur employed trained accountants as managers during this era. This applied across both professional and amateur clubs, as surveys of the previous occupations of secretaries show more accountants, some clerks and even a few teachers.
Money played as important a part in Watson’s career progression as his education had in starting it. He was lured to Sunderland from his second club Newcastle East End by the promise of more money and later declined the chance to return to what was now Newcastle United because they did not offer enough of a financial incentive. He was attracted to Liverpool primarily by the £300 annual salary, double what he had been earning at Sunderland and thought to be the highest salary anywhere in the English game, because in career terms a move from frequent champions Sunderland to yo-yoing Liverpool was a definite step downwards. This salary sealed his improved social status, as he was now earning half as much again as the average business manager would be even a generation later. However, damning Watson as grasping would be unfair. There was no state provision for old age for most of his life, which added urgency to the need to earn as much as possible when working, while the difference in living standards between the working and middle class ensured those offered an escape from the former to the latter would have been foolish not to take it.
Fans today may nonetheless find something calculating and so distancing about a man for whom money was so important and compare him unfavourably with Shankly, Paisley and Fagan, who are popularly imagined to have been above such things. Even aside from how at least Shankly’s authorised biography shows this view is romanticised – he retired with a discontented feeling that the club had bought his services cheaply as he could not quite set his daughters up financially in the way he wanted, which in turn raises the interesting question of whether such beliefs say more about us than they do about him – it ignores the context of Watson’s time. Presenting himself as a man of the people would have got him nowhere in an age when class distinctions were so important, so he simply had to have some social standing or his managerial skills would have been wasted. What’s more, Liverpool benefited from Watson’s awareness of money.
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