Cables Greats: Bill Watkinson

‘He returned to Hope Street in August 1956 in time to play a highly significant role in the winning of the Combination championship, netting no fewer than 65 goals, the all-time club record.’

Neville Walker

In April 1956 Prescot Cables played an away match against Accrington Stanley Reserves. The team bus included not only players and officials but one special guest. It was former Cables centre-forward from the immediate post-war era Bill Watkinson, at the time playing for Halifax Town in League Division Three (North) after spells with Liverpool and, indeed, Accrington Stanley. It seems likely that the journeys to and from Accrington included time spent by trainer-coach Harry Topping sitting next to Bill trying to persuade him to return to Hope Street. Topping had good reason to feel optimistic about his team’s prospects. Thanks to his managerial skills and a clutch of good signings made in August 1954 (Frank Phillips, Freddie Crampton and Alex Muir in particular), the team had dragged itself out of Lancashire Combination Division Two and were holding their own in Division One. They finished the season in eighth position. Respectable but not good enough for Topping and Cables’ many fans. It is clear that Topping considered Bill Watkinson the trump card in his strategy to capture the championship. By the time the bus arrived back in Prescot, Watkinson had agreed to sign for his old club.

William Wainwright (‘Bill’ or ‘Billy’) Watkinson was born in Paradise Lane, Whiston on 16 March 1922. He was the second of three children born to Jonathan Watkinson and his wife Annie née Jones. The other two were his elder brother Jonathan and younger sister Ellen. We know very little about his mother and father except that Jonathan was disabled and often seen in his wheelchair at Cable’ home matches. According to unpublished notes for Neville Walker’s From Slacky Brow to Hope Street, Jonathan died during his son’s time at Accrington Stanley (1951-54). Within a year or two of completing his studies at Whiston Central School in the mid-1930s, World War Two broke out. Bill was probably called up in 1941 and went on to serve with the 48th Royal Marine Commando Unit. He was wounded in action in France in the latter part of the conflict.

Bill’s football career started at Prescot Rangers during the no-doubt chaotic 1939-40 season. He scored 85 goals. Without details of Bill’s wartime football (though as a prolific young striker he must have made an impact), the story moves to Hope Street five years later when Bill, still serving as a Royal Marine Commando and according to Neville Walker stationed in Devon, played in a trial match in August 1945 ‘and was signed immediately’. He made his debut in a match against Netherfield on 25 August and went on to score 38 goals in 22 matches, including several hat-tricks and four in a friendly against Southport Reserves. (The 1945-46 season, by the way, still featured the regional war leagues at the top flight while the Lancashire Combination was reduced to twelve teams. Cables finished tenth with 17 points and a tally of 57 goals. Chorley were champions with 32 points.) Watkinson had signed professional forms by December 1945 and according to Neville Walker there was much speculation that he would soon be ‘entering First Division football’. The speculation was correct. On 18 February 1946 Bill was registered as a professional at Liverpool and played his first match in the reserve team soon after. The opponents were Manchester United Reserves and Bill, playing no doubt at centre-forward, scored two goals.

‘A strong type of player, possessing a good shot.’

Liverpool FC Handbook, 1949

Bill’s ‘unofficial’ debut in the first team came on 11 March 1946 in a 3-1 victory against Bolton Wanderers at Anfield. It was his only league appearance of 1945-46, though he did play in seven Lancashire Cup matches (scoring two goals) and one match in the Liverpool Senior Cup (one goal).  His official first team debut, in the fully-revived Football League Division One, arrived on 26 April 1947 when, standing in for the injured Cyril Done at outside-right, he scored a goal from open play after nine minutes in an away fixture at Aston Villa. Liverpool won 2-1 and Bill’s contribution was no doubt much appreciated by the Liverpool contingency in the 35,429 crowd. In any normal season a match so late in April would have heralded a swift end to the season. But the early months of 1947 witnessed the most severe winter in living memory. In some places overnight temperatures in late January plummeted to -21 degrees Celsius and remained there for most of February. When the snow fell again in March drifts of up to nearly seven feet were recorded in County Durham. To add insult to injury, a rise in temperature in mid-March led to widespread flooding. Inevitably, many football matches were postponed and the season extended to mid-June. Bill Watkinson played in all of Liverpool’s five matches in May. These included a home win against championship contenders Manchester United on 3 May: a draw at Brentford on the 17th and three vital away wins against Charlton (10 May), Arsenal (24 May) and Wolverhampton Wanderers (31 May). Bill’s six-game tenure earned his team eleven out of twelve points, and by the final whistle on the last day of May Liverpool topped the Division One table with 57 points. But because of postponed fixtures they had to wait two weeks while challengers Stoke City completed their season. If Stoke was able to beat Sheffield United at Bramall Lane on 14 June the championship would go to the Victoria Ground rather than Anfield. As it turned out, Liverpool faced Everton in the final of the Liverpool Senior Cup at Anfield on the same night. The match in Sheffield kicked off fifteen minutes later than the cup final and the events at both matches were described by Billy Liddell in his autobiographical My Soccer Story:

Though our minds were more on what was taking place at Bramall Lane than at Anfield, we defeated Everton 2-1. But the last ten minutes were a mere formality, for the news had been given over the loud-speakers that Stoke had been defeated and the title was ours. The crowd didn’t care two straws what happened after that. All they wanted was the final whistle, so that they could come swarming over the ground from the Kop and Kemlyn Road and carry us off the field. It was a scene of amazing enthusiasm.

Bill Watkinson was included in Liverpool’s first-team line-up for the opening seven league matches of the ensuing season. In football’s post-war golden age of league attendances he helped to entertain, among other large crowds, 53,610 spectators at Old Trafford on 27 August 1947 and 56,074 against Burnley at home on 6 September. Unfortunately, Liverpool won only two of the seven matches in question and Bill must have been disappointed when he was replaced by Bob Priday for the match against Charlton on 17 September. It must be understood, however, that he never played for Liverpool in his natural position of centre-forward. How could he? Liverpool had their established inside-forward and captain Jack Balmer and new-boy centre-forward Albert Stubbins banging in the goals – 56 league and cup goals between them in the championship season. In all, Bill played in just eleven matches in 1947-48: one more in September, one in October, one in January and one in February. For four matches in February and April 1948 he was replaced at outside-right by his eventual Cables team-mate Alex Muir (see programme for 11 October 2014) – and when manager George Kay couldn’t choose between them he gave the more talented and versatile Liddell the No.7 shirt. Watkinson made just six league appearances in 1948-49, scoring his only other goal for the first team in a home match against Sunderland on 28 August 1948. He fared better playing centre-forward for Liverpool Reserves, of course, scoring 43 goals in 101 Central League appearances. This included a hat-trick against Derby County Reserves on 15 November 1947, a performance which must have come as a breath of fresh air, albeit modest, amid the drawn and lost matches in the first team. He played his final first-team match for Liverpool against Portsmouth on 22 April 1950.

By the time his Liverpool contract expired on 20 January 1951 Bill had signed for Division  Three (North) and Football League founder members Accrington Stanley. He was the club’s record signing to date, costing £3000 according to the lfchistory website. Playing as a centre forward he ‘scored within 6 minutes of the start of his debut’ (Walker, unpublished notes) and went on to score 48 goals in 109 matches. For a transfer fee of £2,500 he moved to Halifax Town (in the same division) in September 1954, staying there for two seasons and scoring 25 goals in 64 league and FA Cup matches.

‘Bustling, aggressive, no-nonsense style of play.’

Neville Walker

Bill joined Cables in April 1956 on a loan agreement from Halifax. According to Neville Walker ‘he was the main driving force in a 3-2 win’ at Fleetwood on 18 August 1956 and two days later gave the Hope Street crowd what it had waited ten years to savour: a goal from ‘Wocky’ in a 5-0 win against Marine. As John Hayes’ Cables programme collection reveals, Watkinson had netted 14 goals by the time the team played Skelmersdale United at home on 1 December, 25 by the Horwich RMI match on 12 January and no less than 41 by the fixture against Lancaster on 16 March. Cables were firing on all cylinders, their centre forward invoking memories of the 1930s and the great Jack Roscoe (see Cables programmes for 15 and 22 March 2014). He notched up his 50th goal on 1 April. Cables clinched the Lancashire Combination championship for the first and, as it turned out, only time on 29 April 1957 ‘when the biggest crowd of the season saw Darwen beaten 6-0’ (Walker). They had amassed 57 points from 38 games (beating second-place New Brighton by three points) and scored 123 goals – nearly 53% of them from star striker ‘Wocky’. Bill scored a hat-trick in the Darwen match, making his total for the season 63 – one goal short of Roscoe’s 1931 club record. Enter statistician stage right. It transpired that Roscoe’s 64 goals for the 1930-31 season had included five for the reserves – and Watkinson was subsequently credited with two more goals for the 1956-57 season. Result: Roscoe 59 goals, Watkinson 65 – a new club record, indeed!

Despite their perennial mid-table position in Division Three (North) and Watkinson’s dazzling success in the Lancashire Combination, Halifax showed little interest in recalling him to The Shay. In fact, the Yorkshire club imposed a £3,000 transfer fee on any Football League club wanting to secure his services. Little or no interest seems to have been shown and, as a result, Bill agreed to stay on at Cables and succeeded the departing Alex Muir as captain. Though it never reached the dizzy heights of the previous season, 1957-58 was relatively successful. The team finished runners-up to Horwich RMI in the Lancashire Combination and, with Bill a ‘vital factor’, reached the first round proper of the FA Cup. This was achieved via one of those many Hope Street matches remembered for decades by those who witnessed it: a 3-0 qualifying round victory at home to Morecambe on 2 November 1957 in front of a noisy and partisan 3,500 crowd. The team went on to lose at Hartlepool. Watkinson finished the season with 36 goals, making the total for his three seasons at Cables (two in the 1950s and that partial season immediately after the war) an impressive 139 goals. Bill was not retained for 1958-59, ‘a strange decision, even though he had lost some of his sparkle’ according to Neville Walker. Interest in signing him was shown by Lancaster, South Liverpool and Rossendale but in the end he opted for Skelmersdale United, where he stayed for just one season and played alongside his nephew Bob. The highlight of the season was probably the match at Hope Street on 11 April 1959 when Bill scored the winning goal against his old team. As Walker comments, it was ‘a game that ended Cables unbeaten record for that season and severely dented their championship aspirations’. Cables finished runners-up, four points behind champions New Brighton. Though Skelmersdale won nothing during their season with Watkinson up front, they did experience a marked improvement in their position in the Lancashire Combination – fourth place, compared with 14th in 1957, 17th in 1958, 19th in 1960 and 15th in 1961. As with Jack Roscoe, Dixie Dean and so many other outstanding strikers, success follows hard on the heels of players capable of putting the ball in the onion bag again and again and again!

Bill had married Mary Hughes in Prescot on 17 July 1948. They went on to have two children: a son named Stephen William (born in 1952), who married Lynne Morgan in 1974, and a daughter called Susan (born 1962), who married Kevin McDonnell in 1985. Stephen and Susan’s two families presented Bill with five grandchildren: Mark, Sarah and Rachel (Stephen and Lynne’s children) and Laura and Rebecca (Susan and Kevin’s). Nobody would have been prouder than Bill to know that there are now two great-grandchildren (Max and Jessica) as well.

‘Dad was great! He spent a lot of time with my brother Stephen and me. He kept himself fit, healthy and young-at-heart – a real Peter Pan figure!’ (Susan Burns).

After Skelmersdale Bill turned out regularly for the BICC works team. Operating as captain, he continued to score goals a-plenty but according to Neville Walker was forced to retire in 1962 ‘on medical advice’. BICC was also where he worked – as a fitter’s mate in the factory’s maintenance department. Away from football and the daily toils of earning a living and bringing up his family, he lived in Gregson Road and was a regular communicant at St Paul’s Church, Prescot, where he served as chorister, sides-man and churchwarden. Stephen Watkinson tells me that he was also an active volunteer at the Church Shop next to St Mary’s, Prescot, in which capacity he must have known my mother Martha Williams. He died in Prescot aged 78 on 13 February 2001, Mary following him a year later in 2002. Though his time actually playing for Cables was relatively fleeting, the 65 goals he scored during the finest hours of 1956-57 will be remembered wherever Prescot men and women gather and reminisce about the good old days at Hope Street.

I am indebted to Bill’s daughter Susan Burns and son Stephen Watkinson for sharing memories of their father; Neville Walker for access to unpublished notes for his book From Slacky Brow to Hope Street; John Hayes for access to his collection of Cables’ programmes from the 1950s; Jonny Stokkeland and Eric Doig for access to the Liverpool FC Official Archives; and John Williams for assistance with public records.  

Glyn Williams