After narrowly missing out on a League and FA Cup double in 1986, Howard Kendall set to strengthen Everton’s defence, where injuries and suspensions had ultimately proved devastating during the previous campaign. For a club record fee of £900,000 he signed Norwich City’s centre back and captain, Dave Watson, bringing the sometime England international back to his native city. Norwich’s manager Ken Brown likened losing Watson to having his right arm cut off. Considered managerial hyperbole at the time, after Watson gave fifteen years service to Everton, spanning more than 500 appearances, Evertonians came to understand just what Brown meant.
Watson started his career with Liverpool, but in November 1980 left to join Norwich City for £50,000 without making an appearance. Later in the decade Watson’s younger brother, Alex, also a centre half, played a handful of games for Liverpool before forging a successful lower league career.
At Carrow Road, Watson’s career finally picked up and he emerged as one of the most outstanding young players outside the top flight. He was part of the team that won promotion back to the First Division in 1982, where they remained until 1985. In June 1984, when Watson was 22, he made his England debut against Brazil in the Maracana, on the same day that John Barnes scored his famous solo goal. Watson was made Norwich captain, in 1985 lifting the Milk Cup. A year later he captained them to the Second Division Championship – his final act as Norwich skipper.
Still aged only 24 when he became an Everton player, Watson possessed a wealth of experience. And yet in his early days at Goodison, there was a sense of naievity as he struggled to adapt from man-marking to the zonal marking system that had been the hallmark of the club’s defensive solidity through the mid-1980s. Some of his early appearances in a blue shirt were wracked with hesitantcy and errors that later seemed wholly uncharecteristic of the player. The start of his Goodison career was made more difficult by a section of the support baying for the return of their hero Derek Mountfield, the man who Watson had replaced.
Howard Kendall kept faith in his record signing, and slowly Watson began to justify his hefty fee. ‘The fans gave me some stick because I wasn't playing well,’ Watson would recall of the most turbulent time of his Goodison career, ‘But I don't just think it was me. If anyone is playing badly, they are likely to get on his back, but I must say that Evertonians are as quick to praise you.’ As the season progressed Watson got to grips with his new role and the campaign ended with Everton crowned League Champions for the ninth time.
From thereon, Watson never looked back. The 1987/88 season was one of collective disappointment as Everton finished the season fourth. But having conceded just 27 goals all season, it marked the meanest defensive campaign in the club’s history. Watson’s role in this was acknowledged when he was voted Supporters Player of the Year and selected as part of England’s 1988 European Championship squad.
Like his contemporaries, Tony Adams and Terry Butcher, Watson was very much the archetypal English centre half. Commanding in the air, hard and crisp in the tackle, there was nothing glossy or complicated about his style. But he was always consistent, always committed and always did his best when he pulled on an Everton shirt. Never the quickest of players, Watson made up for this defiency – which, with the onset of his thirties, became more pronounced– with supreme reading of the game. He relished physical battle, but his disciplinary record was exemplary, and he was sent off just once in more than 500 Everton appearances.
In 1991 he suceeded Kevin Ratcliffe as captain and as Everton went into their early-1990s decline, Watson, along with Neville Southall, was one of the few constants in a succession of failing sides. Everton went into sharp decline after Watson’s succesful central defensive partnership with Martin Keown was broken up in February 1993. He continued to marshal a mixture of young players – such as David Unsworth and Mathew Jackson – and those not quite up to the task – Paul Holmes and Kenny Sansom – as best he could. But fifteen months later, Everton only avoided relegation only by the skin of their teeth.
The start of the 1994/95 season was disastrous, with Everton only recording their first league win at the start November. Mike Walker was sacked as manager soon after, and Joe Royle, whom Waston was first acquainted with as a Norwich City youngster, suceeded him. Much was made of Royle’s midfield ‘dogs of war’ and how they steered the club clear of another relegation scare, but the new boss also handed responsibillity for rectifying Everton’s abysmal position to the senior squad members – Barry Horne, Paul Rideout, Southall and Watson. It was a challenge to which the captain responded magnificently – not least in Everton’s FA Cup success.
Watson was never as prolific a goalscorer as Derek Mountfield, but throughout his Everton career he was a regular on the scoresheet and weighed in with a number of crucial goals, such as that which finally saw off Liverpool after their epic FA Cup tussle in 1991. But no goal he scored was more invaluable than that which saw off Newcastle in the 1995 FA Cup quater final. With Everton still in a relegation battle, high flying Newcastle were strong favourites for the tie and only a string of outstanding first half saves from Southall denied them the lead. In the sixty-sixth minute, a long free kick from David Unsworth found the head of Duncan Ferguson; his header was only half cleared into the air, and Watson rose majestically to power the ball into the Newcastle goal from close range for the game’s only goal. Two months later Watson lifted the FA Cup, his outstanding marshalling of the defence and man marking of Mark Hughes sealing a man-of-the-match winning performance. With typical modesty, Watson would always play down his role in the final. ‘There was no ‘special ingredient’ or ‘secret’ from our team in that game,’ he said in 2008. ‘It was just 11 players performing to their maximum level on the day. We had it then and were able to beat Manchester United.’
Now in the veteren stage of his career, Royle sought a long term successor to Watson, earmarking Craig Short and, later, Slaven Bilic for the role. But both men would ultimately fall short of what it took to fill his boots, and while the likes of David Weir and Alan Stubbs would prove fine centre backs, not until the signing of Phil Jagielka in 2007 would there a be a worthy successor to his shirt.
In the mean time he continued to provide staunch service as captain and centre back, his diminishing pace compensated by astute reading of the game. Injuries started to trouble him, but Watson never let it show. In many ways, he was a throwback to an era in which football was a man’s – not an athlete’s – game. ‘Dave Watson was brilliant and what he put out, game after game, was beyond the call of duty,’ Jimmy Gabriel told the author Becky Tallentire. ‘He would go out and play with injuries and he never let anyone know about it. We knew because we were on the staff, but he just got on with it because he was a fine man. So if you want to talk about somebody as hard as nails then Dave Watson was that man and what a great servant to Everton.’
In March 1997, Watson’s duty suddenly extended beyond the pitch when he was made caretaker manager after Joe Royle’s unexpected departure. Everton again found themselves in the relegation mire, but with his customary level-headedness he calmed the storm engulfing Goodison. Three draws and a win in seven games were enough to bring Everton clear of the trailing pack and at the end of the season he returned to playing duties.
Sensing that Watson was nearing the end of his playing days, Howard Kendall, now in his third spell as manager, made Gary Speed captain for the 1997/98 season, giving Watson a place on his coaching team. Still he played on and after Speed’s departure in January 1998 became club captain to Duncan Ferguson’s team captain. It was a position he retained for the rest of his playing days.
He made 22 appearances through the 1998/99 season under Walter Smith’s management – the sixth managerial reign he had eexperienced as an Everton player. The following campaign he famoulsy formed a brief central defensive partnership with Richard Gough – combined age 75 – but injuries and age had started to impair his involvement. His last game came in January 2000 against Tottenham Hotspur, and although he remained an Everton player for another year, he was not seen in a royal blue shirt again.
In summer 2001 Watson was appointed Tranmere Rovers manager, but the move was ill-fated and he was sacked after a year having failed to win promotion to Division One. There followed spells in schoolboy coaching, and in 2008 he was reunited with his former Norwich defensive partner, Steve Bruce, who appointed him Wigan Athletic youth team manager, a position he subsequently took up with Newcastle United. It was a return to the level his talents and experience meritted.