Tom Watson: Sunderland’s Greatest Ever Manager?


Debates have gone on for many years throughout the world and at countless clubs as to who is their greatest manager. Sunderland is no different. Some would opt for Bob Stokoe, some for Peter Reid and some for others. Few, however, will mention Tom Watson. And he may well be Sunderland’s greatest ever manager.

Tom Watson: Sunderland’s Greatest Ever Manager?

Many will be surprised to know that Watson was born in Newcastle, Sunderland’s fierce rivals. However, in football, where you are born means little as long as you give your all for the club you are at. Sunderland’s other legendary manager, Bob Stokoe, who has a statue outside of the Stadium of Light, proves this; as will many players and managers throughout time.

It all began for Watson while he worked as a local tobacconist in Sunderland as well as being a secretary at East End Football Club, a club that would eventually become Newcastle United. Whatever the Sunderland board saw in Watson proved they had an eye for a talented man. An offer of £100 per year and a new suit was what it took to persuade Watson. It would prove to be money very well spent. Sunderland’s gain would soon be proved as Newcastle’s loss. Maybe their biggest of all time.

Sunderland Manager

Watson took charge in 1889, and aged just 30, he assembled a team that became known as the ‘Team of all Talents’. The team went on to win the Durham Association Challenge Cup and was now deemed strong enough to compete with the best clubs in England. At the end of the season, Sunderland was admitted to the recently formed Football League. Watson had begun well but this was just the beginning.

The new season brought stiffer challenges than the team had come across before. However, Watson and his side held their own and finished the 1890-91 season in a respectable mid-table position. They also reached the semi-finals if the FA Cup, eventually losing to Notts County after a replay. Even in defeat, the signs for the future looked good.


Sunderland began their second league season worryingly with three defeats in four games. However, Watson and his players quickly turned things around. Just two more league defeats were endured during the rest of the season and they won every home game. The ‘team of all talents’ had risen to the very top and were deservedly crowned League Champions. After just two seasons the Watson and his team had become the best in England. And, there was more to come.

Championship Retained

Watson and especially his team were a big attraction in this era. Wherever they went, a big crowd would turn up to watch. During this championship winning season, on top of winning the league by 11 points, Sunderland was the first team to score 100 goals in a season, a record that would stand for almost 20 years. The club can also claim to be the first side to be crowned First Division Champions as this was the first season where there were two divisions.

Runners-up and Champions Once More

In 1883-84, it was almost a hat-trick of Championships. However, they had to make do with second place. Aston Villa winning the league by six points. Runners-up position is not something to be ashamed of but Sunderland was getting used to being champions. It made them even more determined to succeed. And succeed they did by winning their third title in four years. On the back of this title win, Scottish champions Hearts issued a challenge.

Champions of the World

As the English and Scottish leagues were thought of as the best in the world, Watson took his champions north of the border for a match billed as the ‘Championship of the World’. The fans in attendance saw a thriller which saw eight goals scored, Sunderland running out 5-3 winners. Watson and his team were declared ‘Champions of the World’.

Time to Depart

After finishing, by their standards, a lowly 5th during the 1995-96 season, Watson decided to leave Sunderland. He finished his time at the club by leading them into the Football League and winning the Durham Association Challenge Cup and three League Championships in four seasons. He also led the team to two FA Cup semi-final’s and saw them crowned ‘Champions of the World’. Not bad, no matter what the era

The game in those days was obviously different to the game we know now, but you can only defeat the teams in front of you and win the trophies on offer. Watson almost win everything whilst on Wearside, only the FA Cup eluded him and his team of all talents

A New Challenge

Watson, then just 37 years old, moved to Merseyside where he went on to become a Liverpool legend and is still their longest-serving manager ever. He managed the club until his death in 1915, aged just 56. He won the league on a further two occasions, the first in Liverpool’s history. In doing so, he became the first manager to win the league with two different clubs. Only three other men since Watson have achieved this. He also led them to their first FA Cup final. However, just like at Sunderland, he failed to lift the famous trophy; the only problem on an otherwise faultless CV.

As for Sunderland, after Watson departed, the club experienced a dip in form. It was into the next decade when they would win the Championship once again.

Main Photo

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