For lower league football fans, the name Steve Watts is sure to raise a smile or two. Watts made headlines in 2001 when he won a competition in a tabloid newspaper to earn a contract at Leyton Orient. It might have been the first headline he grabbed, but since then, his life has been anything but conventional.
Many assumed Watts came from nowhere to earn his Orient deal, but the truth was somewhat different. Born in Peckham, the Millwall fan came through the ranks at his favourite club only to be released. He then turned up at Tottenham Hotspur for a season, still only a youth, but again was released and ended up at Fisher Athletic via a short detour at Dulwich Hamlet. When he entered the national competition run by Orient in conjunction with a red top newspaper, he finally earned his first professional deal.
His record at Orient was modest; he scored six in his first season, nine in his second and finished with 12 goals from 36 appearances in the 2001/02 campaign. That run included three in two games against Lincoln City for whom he signed on loan the following season. He was offered a permanent deal at Sincil Bank, which Orient accepted, but Watts turned down calculating, incorrectly, that Orient would finish higher than Lincoln. The following year Orient boss Paul Brush released him, claiming Watts’ modelling career was beginning to impact his on-field performances.
He was offered a deal at Shrewsbury who were playing in the division above Orient and had recently beaten Everton in the FA Cup. Again, he calculated that it would be a good move for him, but one goal and 15 games later, the Shrews were relegated. His playing career tailed off after that; he moved to Dagenham, scoring three in 12 then drifted between St Albans, Fisher, Bromley, Eastleigh and finally Sutton United before retirement in 2011 at the age of 35.
That might have been all anyone ever heard from Watts, but since then his life has been rather remarkable in several ways. The most prominent of his post-career ventures has been his poker endeavours. It turns out he was better at calculating poker odds than football moves, as he became a big success around the felt. He started playing poker during a spell out injured with Fisher and went on to win the WPT Marbella.
“The first time I played poker was at a place called Gus’s, which was probably the best poker school ever,” he said. “Praz Bansi, Chaz and Sunny Chattha, Martins Adeniya, and James Akenhead, they used to do a Sit n Go for £100, and there’d be about 30 people, and we’d play cash games after. You can imagine the talent there. James went and won a couple of million quid in a year. I thought if I play with these guys, they’re the best in the UK.”
He certainly succeeded in his later career, eventually heading to Vegas and taking part in the World Series of Poker. He is placed 155 in the England all-time money list with Hendon Mob, with winnings estimated at $849,671 (£620,230). However, that isn’t where the odd story of Steve Watts ends.
In 2015, along with his wife Kate, he managed singer Louisa Johnson, who many may recall as the winner of the TV talent show X-Factor. Johnson was just 17 at the time and reached number nine with her single Forever Young. She was part of the Artists for Grenfell collaborative that reached number one in 2017 with Bridge Over Troubled Water. In 2018, she released a poker-themed video for her single Yes, a tribute to her manager. His calculations in the music business were as good as those he made around the poker table.
Not only did Watts dabble in poker and music management after his playing career finished, but he even turned to inventions! He appeared on the Sky Pick show Make Me a Millionaire Inventor with his creation, the Rotsol360. “I went to Tenerife with my missus, and we went to the beach,” Watts said at the time. “To hire a bed, it was €10 (£8.56), then €5 (£4.28) for a parasol and another €5 (£4.28) for a locker. Our product is a lot more affordable, and you can lock your valuables inside the actual bed, making it a much better alternative.”
Looking for alternatives seems to have been Steve Watts’ mantra ever since he kicked a ball. He found an alternative way into the professional game, and whilst he played, he modelled. Since finishing, he’s been a poker player, music manager and inventor to name but three pastimes. There’s little doubt he must be one of the most unique footballers you have probably never heard of.
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy some of our other unique content, such as the story of The Smiths and football in Manchester.