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Opinion

The greatest ever Newcastle United manager?

3 months ago
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Being Newcastle United manager is one of the biggest challenges in English football.

With an extremely passionate support, who can make or break the man in charge, it can be the best job in the world when things are going well…but it can be one of the worst jobs in the world when things aren’t working.

The managers who enjoy success write themselves into club folklore. The managers who actually win something find themselves granted legendary status. Unfortunately, they are few and far between.

The first recognised Newcastle United manager of the club was undoubtedly its most successful. Known as ‘the man who made Newcastle United’, Frank Watt was appointed to the role of club secretary in December 1895, and would oversee a period of unprecedented success in the history of Newcastle United that is unlikely to be matched.

In the early days of Newcastle United’s history the traditional role of the manager, as we know it in the modern day, didn’t exist. Newcastle, like many other English sides at that time, were run by a committee. Watt was in charge of that committee.

Born in Scotland, it was the country of Watt’s birth that would provide the backbone of that era of success at the club.

Watt undoubtedly had an eye for a player, signing the likes of Hughie Gallacher, Stan Seymour and goalkeeper Jimmy Lawrence, who still holds the record for most number of appearances for the club with 492.

Watt’s stated ambition upon taking the job was to make Newcastle United the best club in the country and he soon set about doing so.

Under his stewardship, he would lead the club to four league titles, the last of which was also the club’s last in 1926-27.

That first championship arrived in 1904-05 with Watt’s side overcoming a close challenge from Everton and Manchester City. Playing 34 games that season, Newcastle won 23 of them, drew two and lost nine to finish with a points tally of 48 at a time when a victory was worth two points. They finished a point clear of Everton and two clear of Manchester City. Watt’s side came agonisingly close to doing the double, but lost in the FA Cup final to Aston Villa. Newcastle’s top scorer that season was Scotsman Jimmy Howie, one of Watt’s many inspired signings from north of the border, who would bag 18 goals that season, and would go on to score 83 goals in 237 games for the club.

After finishing fourth the following season, and losing another FA Cup final, Watt’s team would find themselves back at the top of the Football League in 1906-07, this time finishing three points clear of Bristol City in second place. Watt’s side were poor on their travels that season, winning only four games on the road, while there were six draws and nine defeats. They owed their league victory to their formidable home form, winning 18 and drawing one of their 19 fixtures at St James Park. The club’s star turn that season was Willie Appleyard, a heavyweight centre forward who had previously been a fisherman. Appleyard scored 18 goals that season and would go on to score 87 goals in 145 appearances in the black and white shirt.

Just as during their previous title defence, Newcastle would finish the following season in fourth place. They were also starting to wonder if they were cursed never to win the FA Cup, losing in the final for the third time in four seasons, this time to second division Wolverhampton Wanderers, 3-1.

Frank Watt reacted to that disappointment with an inspired piece of transfer business, signing Albert Shepherd, who had impressed in a five season spell with Bolton Wanderers, scoring 85 goals in 115 appearances for the club.

Shepherd would play for Newcastle for six years, writing himself into history as one of the greatest players to ever pull on the famous black and white shirt. Joining the club for the princely sum of £800, as a replacement for Willie Appleyard who had been forced to retire through injury, there was an immediate return on Watt’s shrewd investment, with 15 goals from Shepherd leading the club to their third league title in five seasons. This would be the most impressive of the league title wins to date with Newcastle finishing seven points clear of second placed Everton.

For the third time in a row Newcastle were unable to defend their title, despite 31 goals from Shepherd, once again finishing in fourth place. However that disappointment was to be shortlived as the club finally got its hands on the famous FA Cup trophy, with Shepherd bagging both goals in a 2-0 victory in a game played at Goodison Park, after the first match had ended in a 1-1 draw. The team would also win the first and only Charity Shield in the club’s history in 1909, beating Northampton Town 2-0.

However that would be the last piece of silverware that Newcastle would win for some time. That was partly due to a four year break due to the First World War, but in truth Watt’s side never really came close to adding to the trophy collection. The club’s league form tailed off significantly while they never progressed past the quarter finals of the FA Cup for 14 years.

Recognising that something needed to change, Watt once again found himself looking north of the border for the answer. Neil Harris was signed for £3,300 from Partick Thistle, and over the course of the next five seasons would score a goal every other game. However it was his exploits in the FA Cup in the 1923-24 season for which he would be best remembered.

Harris simply loved playing in the FA Cup, scoring a total of 14 goals in 20 appearances for Newcastle in the competition. However, the most important one came in the final in 1924, with Harris opening the scoring in the 83rd minute, with Stan Seymour adding a second a couple of minutes later to beat Aston Villa 2-0.

However, despite his extraordinary knack for signing a great player, Watt still had one more rabbit to pull out of his hat, and it was undoubtedly the best piece of business he ever did.

That player was Hughie Gallacher.

A prolific four year spell in Scotland was enough to persuade Watt to part with £6,500 to sign the diminutive front man, who would go on to establish himself as arguably the greatest centre forward in the history of Newcastle United, finishing as the club’s top scorer in the next five seasons as he bagged a total of 143 goals in just 174 games.

However, the 1926-27 season would be his crowning achievement. Gallacher scored 39 goals in 41 matches as he captained Newcastle to what would be their fourth, and so far last, top flight league title.

This would also prove to be the last trophy won by Frank Watt. Although he continued in his role as club secretary until his death at the age of 77 in 1932, he handed over his main responsibilities with the team to Andy Cunningham who was the first official Newcastle United manager in the role as we know it now.

Overall, Watt oversaw a remarkable 1,264 games, winning 575 of them and claiming four league titles and two FA Cup victories.

It was a remarkable period of success for the club, which has never come close to being matched since.

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