‘We looked identical’: one man’s discovery of slavery, family and football

Malik Al Nasir believed football would always be a part of his life. Born in Toxteth he supported Liverpool, regularly going to Anfield to see the great 70s side featuring Emlyn Hughes, John Toshack and Kevin Keegan. He loved being among fans in the Kop, and cannot recall seeing his team lose.

Al Nasir was driven from Anfield by racists in 1977 and has not seen a match there since but he has discovered a family football link that runs deeper than any stadium visit. The author, poet and Cambridge University PhD student has established that he is related to Andrew Watson, the world’s first black international footballer.

Watson, a son of a slave owner, was from Demerara, in what was then British Guiana and is now Guyana, and he captained Scotland in the 1880s. He also played for London Swifts, Corinthians, Park Grove and Queens Park, where he was the club secretary. The defender led Scotland to a 6-1 win over England in 1881.

A 2002 BBC documentary about black footballers by the Scottish football writer Stuart Cosgrove alerted Al Nasir, who changed his name from Mark Watson when he became a Muslim in 1992, to Andrew Watson’s existence.

“There were illustrations in the athletics journals in the 1880s and 1890s which showed pictures of Watson and early photographs,” Al Nasir says. “He looked identical to me. I thought: ‘We’ve got the same family name, we come from the same place in Demerara in Guyana, we have to be related.’”

Andrew Watson played for Scotland and for played for London Swifts, Corinthians, Park Grove and Queens Park. Photograph: History and Art Collection/Alamy

Al Nasir began about 18 years of research and the outcome has brought conflicting emotions.

“I managed to uncover not only that I was related to Andrew Watson but the connection through slavery. His father, Peter Miller Watson, ran a massive slave corporation which was based in Liverpool and Glasgow, a corporation called the Sandbach, Tinne & Company.

“Peter Miller Watson ran all their plantations in Demerara, filled up all their ships with all the proceeds from those plantations – sugar, rum, molasses, coffee – and received and sold the slaves that were being imported to work on the plantations from west Africa. He had a brother called William Robertson Watson, who was a plantation overseer in a province called Berbice in eastern British Guiana. I went there in 2008 to try and find anything I could find about Watson.

“I managed to track down my long lost family and my cousins were actually living on land passed directly down from Andrew Watson’s uncle: his father’s brother, William Robertson Watson. I was able to trace my ancestry right back to him. So that connected me not just to Andrew Watson but into the entire slave-owning conglomerate that his father belonged to, which was one of the biggest slave-trading mercantile operations of the 19th century.”

Andrew Watson, seated centre, with the Scotland team in 1881.
Andrew Watson, seated centre, with the Scotland team in 1881. Photograph: Scottish Football Museum

Al Nasir experienced racism from a young age, initially in the care system he was taken into aged nine in 1975 after his father had a stroke, and then at Anfield, where he went to games with a friend he met in care, Colin.

“I’d been institutionalised in some pretty rough and tortuous institutions, being locked in solitary confinement, being in places behind bars,” he says. Anfield was a release. “It was incredibly exciting. I’d been incarcerated all week in an institution where I had no family, I had no parents, no one showed any kindness or love or support for me. I was in a place that was pretty brutal. People who worked in that institution were incredibly hostile towards me being a black kid. I was one of only a handful of black kids in the institution.”

Paying 35p to enter Anfield’s Boys’ Pen, he and Colin navigated their way over railings and barbed wire to the Kop. Al Nasir loved going towards the front to watch one player in particular.

“Stevie Heighway used to go up the wing like lightning, and then he’d get the cross in. You knew that Kevin Keegan was somewhere in the middle and there’d be a goal. I’d never seen anyone with that kind of speed. The next time I saw someone with that kind of speed was Raheem Sterling.”

On 27 August 1977, when Liverpool hosted West Bromwich Albion, everything changed for Al Nasir. Unable to enter the full Boys’ Pen, he and Colin became separated in the Anfield Road end where fans stood unsegregated. Albion had Laurie Cunningham in their side and before the players emerged, fighting broke out on the terraces, with the chant: “The National Front is a white man’s front, join the National Front.”

Kenny Dalglish in action against West Brom in August 1977, the last game attended by Malik Al Nasir at Anfield.
Kenny Dalglish in action against West Brom in August 1977, the last game attended by Malik Al Nasir at Anfield. Photograph: Manchester Daily Express/SSPL/Getty Images

Al Nasir’s Welsh mum had warned him about the National Front. Fearing for his life he fled Anfield, crying all the way back to his mum’s house – which he was allowed to visit each weekend – and ripped up his Panini sticker album, vowing never to attend another match.

His only return to Anfield, in 2018, was for a charity dinner for the city’s and Britain’s first mosque. “All I could think of was laying eyes on the hallowed turf. I guess in a way I got some closure.”

Having left the care system as a semi-literate unqualified 18-year-old, he worked in the hospitality sector. In 1984 when the US artist and activist Gil Scott-Heron came to perform at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre, Al Nasir’s life changed forever.

A photographer friend got him backstage and he was mesmerised by Scott-Heron’s concert. The two met and Scott-Heron asked about the 1981 Toxteth riots.

“I took him around Toxteth and showed him what was going on. The following day he said: ‘Why don’t you come and see us, we’ve got a day off.’ I said: ‘OK, let me cook a meal for you guys.’ I cashed my Giro cheque, bought a load of food, borrowed my friend’s flat because I couldn’t host him in a homeless hostel and he brought his whole entourage back. There was about 17 people.” Snapper and mango juice were on the menu.

Gil Heron playing for Celtic in 1951.
Gil Heron playing for Celtic in 1951. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Al Nasir was asked to tour with the group. He helped to set up equipment, with merchandising, security and in any way he could. Scott-Heron took Al Nasir under his wing and what emerged was that his father Gil Heron was a Celtic forward who made five appearances and scored twice from 1951-52.

“Gil Heron senior was known as the black arrow and he was Celtic’s first black player. Gil [Scott-Heron] loved the Scottish fans, he had an absolute affinity to the Scottish fans and particularly when we went to Glasgow. It was hard for me to envisage what it must have been like for him because his father had actually left America when he was a kid and gone to Glasgow to play for Celtic. Whenever we got to Glasgow Gil would always make a point of telling the crowd that his father used to play for Celtic.”

Gil Scott-Heron died in 2011. “I miss him terribly. He was mentoring me all those years that I was developing from that semi-literate kid that he met at the Royal Court Theatre to the man I am today where I’m studying for a PhD at Cambridge University about the history of my ancestry back through slavery.”