‘He’s a hard-working boy and hates losing.’ United manager Bill Leivers hit the nail on the head when he secured the signing of 23-year-old midfielder Graham ‘Willie’ Watson from Doncaster in September 1972.
Bill knew what exactly what and who he was taking on – the 15-year-old Willie had been his first signing when he was boss at Belle Vue – and his judgement would be proved spot on over the course of nearly 250 United matches.
Willie, whose nickname stemmed from a cricketer-footballer of a previous era, adorned the midfield as the U’s won promotion to Division Three in his first season, and continued to feature prominently over the next six seasons.
Even after a brief excursion to Lincoln City in 1978, he couldn’t resist a return to the place where he, and United fans, felt he belonged. He stayed until the 1970s ticked over into the 80s.
Always clocking up the match miles, always probing and, too often for his opponents’ liking, slicing defences open with a killer pass, Willie scored 30 goals and provided countless others. No wonder fellow Hall of Famer Alan Biley describes him as ‘the man who made me’.
Ron Atkinson, the manager who succeeded Leivers, noted approvingly that when Willie played well the team did likewise; it was an observation that was shared on the terraces.
It seemed natural that, when he left the Abbey, he should stay in the Cambridge area and swap football stories with the customers of his pubs.