An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Notts County on Saturday, 11 August 2018.
‘It’s the man who made me!’ yelped Alan Biley excitedly as Graham ‘Willie’ Watson joined the merry throng assembled in the Abbey Lounge for a Cambridge United Former Players’ Association gathering.
It was a big build-up but one that was wholly merited. There’s no counting the number of goals that Willie laid on a plate for United’s will-o’-the-wisp striker, who reaped further reward by going on to play at the top level of the English game.
But while Alan became a legend at the likes of Derby County, Portsmouth and Brighton, Willie’s only subsequent foray outside his adopted Cambridgeshire home came when he joined Lincoln City for a while. He ended up making 233 U’s appearances, contributing 28 goals for the cause.
And he’s still around. Gone are the days when he turned out for Soham Town Rangers and Histon and kept the Three Horseshoes in Comberton, but he’s never too far from the Abbey.
When Bill Leivers lured him south in 1972, he knew what he was laying out £5,000 for – the 15-year-old Willie had been his first signing at Doncaster.
The young apprentice-turned pro had already played 48 times for Rovers (and 13 for Rotherham) after being introduced to first-team football as a 17-year-old. He also knew what winning a league was all about: he had done that at Belle Vue in 1969.
Nicknamed after a fellow Yorkshire sportsman – the first Willie Watson was a post-war England international at both football and cricket – he made his United debut in a 2-0 Division Four win at Newport County on September 16. His first goal came a fortnight later at Northampton as he set about his business: pulling the midfield strings and occasionally getting on the scoresheet.
There was no more committed or more talented footballer around. Willie allied a solid work ethic to terrific ability with the ball, yet his contribution to the U’s has often been undervalued.
Even at the time, for inexplicable reasons, he was sometimes the target of ill-informed terrace criticism.
His teammates would have none of it, and quite rightly so. Striker Nigel Cassidy declared: ‘Willie’s vision is fantastic … the crowd gives him so much stick it is embarrassing, but he has got real talent …’
Ron Atkinson, who succeeded Leivers as manager at United, appreciated what he brought to the side. ‘It seems that when Willie is playing well, we always appear to be playing well,’ he said at one point in 1977/78. ‘I have a feeling all our best performances come when he is having a good time.’
That season was memorable for a brilliant Watson goal at Exeter: running on to a Tom Finney ball, he left his marker flailing with a delicious body swerve and slotted home from 15 yards.
Willie was in the form of his life as the U’s ended the season by winning promotion to the old Division Two. Sadly, new gaffer John Docherty sold him to Lincoln City for £15,000 before he could have much of a bash at the higher level. But he was back in 1980, explaining to the Cambridge Evening News: ‘I feel more at home here than I do at Doncaster, so when the chance came to return to United I jumped at it.’ Cambridgeshire welcomed him back with open arms.
From top: Tony Willson and Derek Haylock listen as Willie Watson spins a yarn at a Cambridge United Former Players' Association gathering; Watson grounded (photo Cambridge Evening News); getting a perm at Reeds Hairdressers with Lindsay Smith (left) and Gordon Sweetzer (photo Cambridge Evening News); shooting for goal; with Chris Turner (centre) and Phil Chapple at a fans' forum; in familiar pose.