Looking Back At: Graham Watson

Graham Watson

Date of birth: 3.8.49

Born: Doncaster

Height: 5ft 10in

Position: Midfield

City appearances:

League: 43, goals: 2

FA Cup: 2

League Cup: 2

Total: 47, goals:2

Graham Sidney Watson, usually known either by his first name or the nickname ‘Willie’, after Willie Watson, one of the last players to appear for England at both cricket and football, was born in Doncaster and began his footballing career with his home-town club Doncaster Rovers as an apprentice at the age of 15 after appearing for Yorkshire Schoolboys, writes Malcolm Johnson.

Watson turned professional in November 1966, and with Doncaster relegated to Division Four at the end of that season he had made a total of 48 appearances in Football League games, scoring 11 goals by the time of his transfer to Rotherham United in February 1968.

A Second Division side at the time, Rotherham were managed by the flamboyant former Chelsea and later Manchester United manager Tommy Docherty who had spotted some promise in Watson and his fellow Doncaster youngster and later Imps colleague Dennis Leigh. A transfer deal was struck with the two 18-year-olds moving to Rotherham in exchange for regular first team players Harold Wilcockson, Colin Clish and Chris Rabjohn plus £8,000. It has to be said Doncaster got the better of this deal as the Millers were relegated three months later while Doncaster went on to win promotion the following season. In fact, after just 13 league appearances and one goal for Rotherham Graham Watson was back at Doncaster the following January – for the sum of £8,000 which had been part of the earlier transfer deal.

Managed by Lawrie McMenemy, Doncaster were challenging for promotion at the time and Watson was put straight into the team in place of leading scorer Alick Jeffrey who was dropped to the subs bench. The following Monday Jeffrey left Rovers for Lincoln City following an approach from Imps manager Ron Gray.

Doncaster went on to win the Fourth Division championship with Watson playing regularly, but the following season a leg injury restricted his appearances to just 17 with 3 three goals scored.

In the 1970/71 season he made a total of 41 league and cup appearances, scoring 5 goals as Doncaster were relegated back to the Fourth Division again, while the following season in a mid-table finish, he played a total of 34 league and cup games with a season’s best 8 goals.

At the start of 1972/73 Watson had played 4 games for Doncaster, scoring 1 goal, when Bill Leivers who had signed him as an apprentice for Doncaster paid £5,000 for the now 23-year-old to take him to Cambridge United who were in just their third season in the Football League. Watson went on to enjoy the best years of his career with Cambridge and played 39 times for them in the remainder of the season, scoring 4 goals, one of them in a 2-1 home win over Lincoln as the U’s won promotion in third place. However, they came straight back down again the following season, Watson missing only two games in the league and one in the League Cup, scoring 5 goals.

Midway through the 1974/75 season Cambridge were in the lower half of the Fourth Division table when they gave the 35-year-old Ron Atkinson his first managerial job in the Football League. Under the mercurial Atkinson, Cambridge climbed the table to finish in sixth place, three points behind the Imps who missed promotion on goal average, Watson playing in a total of 43 league and cup games, scoring 5 goals.

In the 1975/76 season, with City carrying all before them to win the championship, Cambridge could do no better than finish mid-table, Watson playing in just 24 games, scoring 2 goals, one of which was a penalty. The following season, however, Graham Watson won a second Fourth Division championship medal as Cambridge held top spot from early January until the end of the season, his contribution being 33 league and cup games and 6 goals including two more penalties.

The 1977/78 season saw Cambridge climb straight through the Third Division to finish in second place, with new manager John Docherty building on the foundations laid by Ron Atkinson who departed to First Division West Bromwich Albion halfway through the season. Watson undoubtedly had the best season of his career, pulling the strings in midfield and providing plenty of chances for top scorer Alan Biley who finished with 25 goals. ‘It seems that when Willie is playing well, we always appear to be playing well,’ said Atkinson during the season. Watson himself chipped in with 6 goals from 35 league and 5 cup games.


Into the second tier for the first time since he was a teenager, Watson however found himself unable to get into the side, playing in one League Cup game during which he sustained an injury and making a solitary appearance as substitute a week before commanding the highest transfer fee of his career as Willie Bell paid £15,000 to bring the 29-year-old to Lincoln City in mid-September 1978.

With only one win in the season so far and defeats in seven out of their last eight games City were struggling at the bottom of Division Three. The midfield pairing that had done so much to help City avoid relegation the previous season was not currently available to Bell due to Phil Hubbard being out with an injury and Phil Neale frozen out by the manager who did not approve of his summer cricketing activities. With former members of the championship winning side Alan Harding and John Fleming, and Bell signing David Hughes in and out of the side due to injuries and loss of form the manager had already brought in former Scottish international Jim McCalliog to bolster the midfield. The board now backed him financially with what was the second-highest-ever transfer fee paid out by the club – although this was to be put into third place just a few days later with the signing of striker Tommy Tynan for £33,000.


Joining City reunited him on the pitch with his former Doncaster team mate from his teenage years Dennis Leigh, the two also being lifelong friends and having been Best Man at each other’s weddings. He made his Imps debut three days after signing in a Friday night home game with Walsall in place of the injured Alan Harding and created a good impression with a hard-working performance. Maurice Burton in his Echo match report described him as “A man who can play on either side of the field, and is partial to strong runs forward in search of goals”. It was from one of these runs forward that he fired in a shot too powerful for the Walsall keeper to hold allowing John Ward to slot in the rebound and salvage a point for City. Watson gave another lively display in a full-strength City line-up that were beaten 2-0 by Boston United in the Lincolnshire Senior Cup Final and also featured in the next two games which were typical of City at the time – a 2-0 defeat at Blackpool and a 0-0 home draw with Colchester. Hamstring trouble kept him out of a 4-2 defeat at Gillingham but he was back for what was described a ‘shameful performance’ by City in a 3-0 home defeat by Swindon Town. This proved to be the last straw for manager Willie Bell and he departed for America to take up a new career in religious circles.

As City searched for a new manager player-coach Jim McCalliog was put in charge of the team, but the defeats continued with a 2-0 loss at Southend and a 1-0 defeat by Mansfield at Sincil Bank despite hard-working performances by Watson in both games.

The new manager turned out to be one-time Derby County boss Colin Murphy, and he started with a 0-0 draw with Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough to put an end to a run of nine away defeats, with Watson close to grabbing a late winner with a chip just over the bar.

A four-month win-less run for City finally came to an end on Boxing Day as Watson’s first City goal, scored from a free kick was enough to beat Peterborough United at London Road.

The next game, a 3-2 defeat at Exeter, saw Watson suffer a concussion injury and he had to miss two further defeats, at Carlisle and Watford before the weather intervened with no games possible for a month. When the games resumed towards the end of February Watson was still unfit as the side suffered a third consecutive 2-0 away defeat at Colchester, and still missing from something of a makeshift line-up,  could not be blamed as City suffered their heaviest defeat for 11 years, going down 6-0 at Swindon. However, things were little better with a 5-1 defeat at Chester with Watson back in the side. After a home draw with Southend and another heavy away defeat, by 4-1 at Walsall he was then left out of the side as Colin Murphy adopted ultra-defensive tactics with five at the back, this producing a run of three wins and two draws. Watson had been on the subs’ bench for the last two of these games and he returned to the starting line-up in place of the injured Brendan Guest for a 0-0 home draw with Chester. However, he was left out for the return to the side of Phil Neale, fit again after a long injury absence as the unbeaten run came to an end with a 1-0 home defeat by Peterborough. After a good away win at Chesterfield results then took a downturn again, and with Neale allowed to resume his cricketing duties with Worcestershire Watson was back in the side for the visit of Gillingham, but although giving a man of the match performance City went down by 4-2 with two further defeats following as relegation became a certainty. The last bright moment – and last win – of the season then came in a 4-2 win over Hull City at Sincil Bank, with Watson opening the scoring. He was kept out of the next two games (both lost) due to hamstring trouble but was back for the final game and final defeat at Mansfield and finished with a total of 22 league and cup appearances for City during the season, scoring two goals.

With City long-doomed to relegation Colin Murphy had begun his rebuilding of the squad before the end of the season, including the departure of Watson’s old friend Dennis Leigh. Other than midfielder David Hughes who had missed the majority of the previous season due to injury Watson was the only other player brought to the club by Willie Bell to remain on the books and it would have surprised nobody if he had also been released. However, at the age of 30 he was now the oldest player at the club and it may be that Colin Murphy saw the value of a bit of a experience among the mainly young side that he was putting together despite the player as Maurice Burton put it, now becoming rather one-paced compared to his earlier days.


Now appointed team captain for the start of the 1979/80 season, Watson formed part of an effective midfield three with Glenn Cockerill and new signing David Carr that saw City make a good start to life back in Division Four holding down a place just outside the top four. Watson gave a man of the match performance in a 3-0 win over Crewe at Sincil Bank in mid-October. Things began to slip though, with a disappointing 2-1 defeat at Wigan, although Watson starred again in a 1-0 home win against Stockport which proved to be the only victory in what stretched to be a run of eleven games.  Changes began to be made both in defence and midfield towards the end of November starting with the sale of Glenn Cockerill to Third Division Swindon for a club record £110,000. Following a 1-0 defeat at Halifax Watson was absent from the side for the next game which due to postponements took place three weeks later and saw a 1-1 home draw with York put City down well down into mid-table. Meanwhile, moves to bring new midfield players into the club were being reported and by the time of what proved to be Graham Watson’s last appearance for the club in a 3-2 defeat at Huddersfield a total of around £50,000 had been agreed for the transfers of two midfield players – the experienced Nolan Keeley from Scunthorpe and young Southampton reserve George Shipley.

Despite having been one of City’s better players at Huddersfield it seemed that Watson would be one of the players to make way for the new signings, and with David Carr dropping back into defence City had a new-look midfield for the rest of the season.  Watson was an unused substitute for the next game at home to Torquay before being confined to the reserves. With David Hughes returning to full fitness and 17-year-old youth product Phil Turner knocking on the door of the first team it was clear Watson’s days as first team player were numbered, and towards the end of February it was announced that along with striker David Sunley and full back Brendan Guest he was being placed on the transfer list. A couple of weeks later he re-joined Cambridge United to act as squad cover for the Second Division club who were undergoing something of an injury crisis. In the event he made just one substitute appearance for Cambridge in a home defeat to Notts County to wind up his Football League career at the age of 30.

Watson made a total of 25 league and cup appearances for the Imps during the 1979/80 season. His games for the club, with an overall total of 47 with 2 goals scored, were basically spread over the second half of one season and the first half of the next, and while it can’t really be said the club got great value for its outlay of £15,000 he was perhaps the victim of the ambitions of Colin Murphy along with the manager’s policy of developing younger players.

After spending a further season with Cambridge without making the first team Watson, evidently having developed an affinity with the area where had spent the best years of his playing career remained there, going on to play for the Eastern Counties League clubs Soham Town Rangers and Histon and running the Three Horseshoes pub in the village of Comberton just outside Cambridge.

Graham Watson made a total of 423 appearances in the Football League, scoring 60 goals.



Photo credits:

Watson with Cambridge and Graham Watson at Cambridge FPA – from www.100yearsofcoconuts.co.uk

Watson back at Doncaster 1969 – from www.intotheemptynet.com