Today, just 24-hours before the start of the historic Ashes test at Durham, nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner looks at the life of a very special adopted Wearsider.
THIS summer marks the 60th anniversary of Sunderland footballer Willie Watson’s call up as the saviour of England – playing cricket at the Ashes.
The talented wing-half made 223 appearances for the Roker Men, scoring 16 goals in a side which finished in the Top 10 of the First Division in four of his eight seasons.
But the sporting prowess of Yorkshire-born Willie did not end there. Indeed, he remains one of only 12 men in sporting history to play both football and cricket for England.
And, in the summer of 1953, he celebrated his greatest Test innings ever – holding off the Aussies for 257 minutes to save the Second Test in an Ashes series England eventually won.
“My Uncle Willie never really spoke about what he achieved in his sporting career. He just wasn’t one to talk about himself,” said Paul Shields, Willie’s great-nephew.
“I have probably learned more from reading biographies on Willie than from Willie himself, but I am extremely proud of what he achieved. He was an amazing sportsman.”
Willie, who was born at Bolton-on-Dearne in 1920, left school at 15 to train as an upholsterer – playing for Huddersfield Boys at football and Yorkshire Boys at cricket in his spare time.
At 16 he signed as an amateur with Huddersfield Town FC, turning professional the year after, but continued playing cricket as well – where his prowess with a bat came to the notice of Yorkshire.
A trial with the Second XI proved disappointing at first, with Willie scoring nothing in his first match. In his third outing, however, he made 63 – prompting his promotion to the first team in 1939.
“I can remember meeting him three or four times as a young boy, and he was a very quiet, very unassuming, man. A real gentleman,” said Paul, a chartered accountant from Fulwell.
“Although he didn’t talk about his sporting career, I knew he had been a footballer – just like my granddad Albert – Willie’s older brother. A love of football and cricket runs in the family.
“My great-grandfather, Bill, played for Huddersfield in his time, just as my grandfather and Uncle Willie did. But none of them were people who enjoyed talking about themselves.”
Willie’s sporting dreams had to be put on hold, however, following the outbreak of the Second World War – when all competitive sports matches and leagues were suspended.
After signing up for the army, he was stationed at Rhyl as physical training instructor. Although there was little opportunity for cricket, Willie was picked to play football for Western Command.
“It always seems a great shame to me that, just as my uncle’s sporting career was taking off, it had to be put on hold. But that happened to so many, many sportsmen during the war,” said Paul.
The end of the war saw Willie return to cricket in the summer of 1945, when he scored a century at Colwyn Bay against a side which included several of his former Yorkshire colleagues.
Twelve months later, after being demobbed, he joined Yorkshire as a first team regular – transferring to Sunderland AFC as an outside left at around the same time, for a then record fee of £8,000.
And, just three years later, he was capped to play football for the first time, in a match which saw England beat Ireland 9-2. Games against Italy, Wales and Yugoslavia soon followed.
But despite being picked for England’s World Cup Squad in 1950, Willie was never to play football for his country again. His international cricketing career, however, proved far more enduring.
“As a footballer, Watson was versatile and could play right-half or centre-forward, with most considering the former position as his best,” said Echo football writer Graeme Anderson.
“This allowed him to make the most of his ball-winning and distribution abilities and he was a regular in the team from 1946-54 – helping the team finish third in the 1949-50 campaign.
“But despite such a fine footballing career, his cricket record was even greater – playing for Yorkshire for a dozen seasons and making his first England appearance in 1951.”
Willie was chosen to take part in all five Test matches against South Africa in his first year, scoring 79 in one match and helping England to victory at Lord’s.
“He batted in every position between then and 1959, from opener down to number six, and played in Tests against India, Australia, West Indies and New Zealand,” added Graeme.
“But his greatest Test innings came in 1953, against the famous Australian pace attack of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller.
“With the Ashes in the balance, he and Trevor Bailey held off the Aussies for 257 minutes to save the Second Test – Watson eventually scoring 109.”
England found themselves 12 for 3 in the fourth innings of the game, chasing a target of 343. When England closed the fourth day on 20-3, the Test was seemingly lost.
Indeed, the odds against England getting a draw were 50-1. And, when Willie came in late on the fourth day to hold the fort with Denis Compton, hope had all but been lost.
“Compton was dismissed early on day five and England were 73-4 when Trevor Bailey came in and concentrated only on survival, rather than scoring,” said Graeme.
“England remained hugely up against it, but over after over passed with the free-scoring Watson and dug-in Bailey proving immovable.
“The Lord’s ground, empty at the start of the day, began filling up rapidly as news of Bailey and Watson’s resistance, beyond the new ball, spread.”
When Willie was finally knocked out, caught at slip after almost six hours of play, the crowd gave the adopted Wearsider a standing ovation all the way back to the pavilion. England went on to survive the final 40 minutes of the game, watching and waiting until the clock clicked on to 6.30pm – ending the day on 282-7.
Just over an hour later, as Willie was rushing to catch the 7.50pm to Taunton in Somerset, where he was playing for Yorkshire the next day, he told reporters:
“Not even playing football on my home ground at Roker Park gave me such a thrill as I had today.”
“The contest had captured the nation’s attention all day, but the partnership of Watson and Bailey was talked about for weeks. Such things deserve to be remembered,” said Graeme.
Despite his success on the cricket pitch, Willie remained dedicated to Sunderland AFC – even opening a local sports shop business with his brother Albert.
“At around the time Willie signed for Sunderland, my grandfather’s football career was coming to an end, so he moved up here too – playing local league cricket and coaching,” said Paul.
“Willie lived in Viewforth Terrace in Fulwell while he was playing for Sunderland, which was two minutes away from my granddad – who lived in Shotley Avenue at the time.
“My great-grandfather, Willie and Albert’s dad, also moved up here as well, opening The Traveller’s Rest pub at East Rainton. The whole family just seemed to adopt Sunderland.”
Willie finally left Sunderland to become player/manager of Halifax Town in 1954, later managing Bradford City and captaining Leicestershire at cricket before retiring in the 1960s.
But he was forever remembered as a local hero by Sunderland fans, and Graeme added: “Willie was a very important member of Sunderland’s Bank of England team in the 1950s.
“In fact, his signing kick-started the spend-spend-spend era. Watson gained 23 cricket caps and four for football, which suggests he was one of the greatest all-round sportsmen.”
Willie’s final move was to South Africa in 1968, where he served as manager of the Wanderers cricket club in Johannesburg. He died, aged 84, in the city.
“I don’t think my uncle had a particular preference for cricket or football; he loved them both. He played football in winter and cricket in summer – that’s just what you did,” said Paul. “People still talk about what a graceful footballer and cricketer he was. As one of only a very few to be capped for England at both football and cricket, he is an uncle to be very proud of.”