THE ferment over the historical propriety of statues has dominated the headlines in the weeks since they began toppling like dominoes.

In Bristol, 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston was dumped in the River Avon; in Antwerp, King Leopold II, who carried out brutal killings in the Congo, was set on fire and, in the United States, more than a dozen monuments were removed, including those erected to celebrate Confederate heroes such as General Robert E. Lee.

Meanwhile, in Glasgow, the history of empire has also come under the microscope. It is a time when conflated issues have never been more prevalent.

But there is one tribute to a historical figure on the south side of the city that should bear no such negative response, one all fans of Scottish football should be able to unite behind.

Overlooking the Cathcart railway line, on the site of the first Hampden Park in Crosshill, Andrew Watson stares out impassively, arms folded, from a mural on the clubhouse of the Hampden Bowling Club. Designed by Glasgow artist Ashley Rawson, it was painted last year following donations from the local community as part of a series of initiatives, instigated by historian Ged O’Brien and Graeme Brown, aimed at marking and reinforcing the bowling club’s status as site of the first Hampden Park, home of Scottish football from 1873 until 1884.

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There is an element of controversy attached to Watson, but it pertains to the shameful burying of his legacy by those who do not wish to accept Scotland’s position as the pre-eminent nation in the promulgation of modern-day football and thus contend that Arthur Wharton holds the honour as the game’s first black professional.

The mural depicts Watson and Charles Campbell, a Scotland team-mate and fellow Scotch Professor, from a memorable 5-1 victory at the venue – the first purpose-built football stadium – in 1882.

“God bless, Arthur Wharton,” says O’Brien, who proved Watson’s status after discovering letters and pictures that confirmed his claim. “But our man Watson, because of the culture in which he was brought up – which was the Scottish logical, scientific culture – he’s the man who helped spread football around the world.”

Campbell was exceptional in his own right. Credited as the man who invented heading, he and Watson were signed by London amateur side Corinthians in one of many attempts by the English – fatigued and frustrated by regular defeats against their northern foes – to transport the Scottish style of football south.

O’Brien notes, it was the final hurrah for posh people trying to claim it was they – and not the Scotch Professors – who founded football.

Rawson, whose early work includes Glasgow Kiss a portrait of a Rangers and Celtic fan in loving embrace, says the mural’s aim was to provoke in a humorous manner but also to educate.

“Part of the thinking was to do something that would make people smile. If we were in America there would probably be a football museum there but because it’s here people think it’s not really that important,” he says. “I felt it did carry on my general theme through all of my artwork which tends to be a bit funny but also making a point while not taking itself too seriously.”

“The idea was boil it down into the simplest, most immediate image. With the mural I just looked for the most entertaining, in your face thing and that was the 5-1 scoreline. [Campbell and Watson] were the two standout characters.”

The selection of Watson, born in British Guyana in 1856, the son of a Scottish slave trader, did not occur through any pretensions to political correctness. He is an exceptional figure in football history, attending Glasgow University under Lord Kelvin then playing for and running the Parkgrove club, making him the first black administrator, before a move to Queen’s Park, then the biggest club in world football.

For O’Brien, history teacher, polymath and the man who founded the Scottish Football Museum, Watson was a historical figure worthy of nine years of his study. He believes a statue in his honour is necessary, arguing that if our post-colonial history is under review then space should be made to accommodate one of Scotland’s finest footballers, regardless of his colour.

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“This man stands above all. There is nobody in black football who has the influence that he has and almost nobody knows about him and if they are going to start taking statues down then Andrew Watson should be going on a plinth in George Square. We have no problem celebrating him because he was a peerless, international footballer. He was a supremely intelligent man both intellectually and athletically. In 20 years, I’m very optimistic that the whole thing will have moved on. Andrew Watson will be mentioned on everybody’s breath. He will be the Van Gogh, the Vermeer; I studied art history so I’m used to reading about people who were utterly unknown in their time and now we can’t get enough of them. Now is the time. I’m a teacher and I observe what’s been happening throughout the world this last few weeks and it is extraordinary.”

Aside from Campbell and Watson, there is a particular relevance to the international match selected to showcase the site due to the ideological significance of the result.

“Every single game of football ever played in the world and that ever will be played in the world goes back to that site. There were quite a few matches that we could have chosen,” says O’Brien. “[But] Scotland 5 England 1 is an extraordinary game. I always say it is the match that broke English hearts, a game where England finally realised ‘we’ve got to do something about this’.”

Rawson says there were originally concerns that the mural would be perceived as anti-English; his and O’Brien’s efforts could be dismissed as pro-nationalist propaganda were it not for the fact that both men are English.

The mural was subsequently defaced earlier this year but it was a random act by a graffiti artist rather than part of a concerted campaign by people offended by the scoreline.

Rawson, who was born in Burnley, does not view it as equatable with what has been going on across the world instead pointing to the positive elements of what the Watson and Campbell mural has brought to the Crosshill area.

“History has been in the news a lot recently. It’s a warts and all thing. There’s horrible bits of history but there are great bits of history. But some groups have suffered far more than others and that’s the sad thing. There is no element of the mural that glorifies anything negative or pushes a line that is negative. Every piece of the story was about celebrating and we put a smile on people’s but it was also about educating – it let people know about the area and things that had gone on.

“There was no funding for it, it wasn’t part of an initiative, it was literally a grassroots thing. It felt very community led. Every single bit of paint on that wall has been funded by someone in the local community.”

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There will be those who continue to refute Scotland’s claim as the birthplace of football, Watson’s status and that of the Scotch Professors as founding fathers of the game but O’Brien, born a 100 yards from Southampton’s old stadium The Dell, welcomes the challenge.

“I would be happy for people to write in and say ‘why did you interview Ged O’Brien? The man’s a moron.’ Brilliant. As long as five per cent of the people who read the stuff say I’m going to read up a bit on this Andrew Watson guy.

“Andrew Watson is one of the greatest Scotch Professors of all time and so is Diego Armando Maradona because he is Argentine and he learned his football off the Browns who had come from Edinburgh and Alexander Watson Hutton who had come from Glasgow. The Scots taught the Brazilians how to play football, and the Argentines and the Uruguayans and hordes of other countries. The DNA of football is Andrew Watson’s and we should be able to learn that, teach it to others and to celebrate it. It’s one of the greatest achievements in human history and nobody died.”