Dennis Uphill, supporting star of the 1959-60 side, has a theory as to why a team, that managed to stumble into fourth place in the Fourth Division and win promotion, was so popular.
“It was not so much what we achieved but the fact that all those sides in Watford’s past, hadn’t achieved even that much,” he was to say.
Is that really why almost anyone, who witnessed that season, can instantly recite the team? Linton, Bell, Nicholas, Catleugh, McNeice, Chung, Benning, Holton, Uphill, Hartle, Bunce, seems to roll off the memory bank without hesitation.
Said Benning, who turned down a deal that would have taken him to Spurs and brought winger Terry Medwin to Watford: “l never realised how much people rated that campaign until years later. What surprised me is how clear the matches, the incidents and events are to them. Why is it our team seemed to capture the imagination so much? It never ceases to amaze me how special that season seems to have been.”
When pressed, Dennis Uphill admitted: “We played to the strength of English football, with two fast wingers.”
Benning was one of them, a home-grown product who remained a part-timer, cycling back from Odhams for a quick tea and then he would be pedalling along the roads with fans heading for the game.
A fitness fanatic, he remained eternally grateful to trainer Pat Molloy for the hours of work he put in on honing his ability to cross on the run.
On the other flank was scampering Freddie Bunce, a goalscoring winger with a bustling, busy style who was to carve out a subsequent football career in South Africa and Australia.
A product of Bushey, he was the first Watford player to receive England recognition at any level since Tiny Fayers in 1909.
Then there was Uphill, who had a Sunday-morning player’s physique and an awkward gait but proved to be a canny goalscorer, who had learnt his craft with Spurs’ championship-winning push-and-run side and was to win promotion again with Crystal Palace.
In any other season, this industrious forager would have been lauded to the skies, but his partner stole the limelight.
“There was never any jealousy between Cliff and me,” said Dennis. “We worked well together. We kept it simple but it was not a long-ball game. We didn’t just whack the ball forward.”
In support was a tireless worker, the largely unsung Barry Hartle, playing inside forward and providing creativity in the engine-room. At the end of the season, he became the first of several to migrate to Sheffield United and spent most of the remainder of his career on the wing, but he remembers Big Cliff as a “superb bloke and a great help from the moment I got into the team. There was never any edge to him.”
Barry happened to come down for a trial at the age of 17, “looking like a waif and stray”. Molloy took him under his wing and fed him steaks.
“A superb season, running about all the game and Dennis and Cliff just scoring goals. We started the whole Watford story,” Barry was to observe.
Towards the end of the season, with Bunce injured and then unable to regain his place, Tony Gregory, who played in the Cup Final with Luton the previous year, joined Watford and filled in, scoring four goals in 13 appearances that season before subsequently converting to wing half.
Another regular at the outset of the campaign was John Price, who joined Watford from Aldershot in exchange for former youth-football colleague Bill Shipwright.
However, after 22 games, that was the end of his Watford career, for Bobby Bell took over and never looked back. Bobby hailed from Ayr and his arrival at Watford, in 1957, was the result of one of manager Neil McBain’s shrewder moments.
He was to make over 300 appearances for the club in seven seasons as a determined, hard-working and enthusiastic player, one of several imports to settle and make a permanent home in the locality.
“We didn’t just hump it forward. Jimmy Linton would roll the ball out to the full backs and we would start from there. If we were under pressure, Cliff told us to hit it out to the flanks and either he or Dennis would be there,” recalled Bobby, who would bus into town and walk to the game with the supporters.
His best friend was the late George Catleugh, one of those tireless war-horses, a wholehearted player who gave the impression, being paid was a bonus. An industrious wing half he was besotted with the club and that era remained the happiest time of his life.
“That season was magic and it was like one, big, happy family,” he was to say, and his enthusiasm, even 30 years later, was infectious, underlining the extent of his commitment in his playing days.
Sammy Chung was another stalwart who was something of a utility man, playing in all three half-back positions, as well as centre forward and inside forward in his eight years but essentially a left half that season, striking up a good understanding with Ken Nicholas, a pre-season signing at left back.
A former England schools and youth international, the wise-cracking Ken came from Arsenal, a Holton recommendation, and settled in at left back for the next five years, taking part in the subsequent near-miss under Bill McGarry when Watford almost made it to Division 2. As with several of his former colleagues, that 1959-60 campaign remains close to his heart.
A steady player, he always looked capable of producing more. Like Chung and Hartle, he liked to play the ball around.
At the back was Jimmy Linton, a safe pair of hands, of whom Uphill once said: “The most casual player I ever played with. You felt if you shouted at him he would wake up.”
A modest, unassuming man, he received scant mention because the season was all about scoring goals at the other end.
“Watford people have always been very fair and kind.
There was never any doubt I would settle here,” said the Scot, who became a part-timer as he developed a successful carpentry business. He could kick the ball accurately.
“If Jimmy Linton kicked it to us in the centre circle he would actually try to pick us out, not give us something to chase,” said Dennis.
At the heart of the defence was another “star”, the cool, and collected Vince McNeice, who made up for what he lacked in inches with some classy play. In reality he was a sweeper before his time. He could play the ball-playing men superbly but sometimes he lost out to the more bust opponents.
He seemed destined for the top, a man in the Bobby Moore style, but he ended his Watford career on a surprisingly low- key note, given a free transfer.
There were others, of course, such as Johnny Fairbrother, who scored 40 reserve-team goals that season but such were the triumphs of the free-scoring, first-team duo, he made only one senior outing.
Local man Bill Barber, influential reserve Peter Gordon, full-back Jack Harrop (another to settle locally), former skipper and penalty-ace Johnny Meadows, the unrealised promise of Andy Porter, the individuality and perception of David Pygall and the busy Johnny Sanchez with the speciality for the overhead kick – all made contributions.
So too did Peter Walker, a local man whose performances could vary from the phenomenal to the inhibited, and often in the same game; Croxley keeper Keith Warn and that powerful striker of the ball, George Fleming, weighed in with appearances.
But, for the most part, their focus was limited to the impressively successful reserve side, which won the Combination Division 2 title, attracting four-figure attendances.
The era was full of enthusiasm and expectancy.
As for the 1959-60 side, the philosophy was to attack and if you took the lead, attack some more. As Molloy said: “You had Cliff and Dennis and Benning and Bunce. Either player was capable of lifting the side and the crowd in an instant.”
“It was,” said George Fleming, “entertaining football. It was always going forward, yet there was plenty of movement.” “The goalkeeper did not dribble the ball a third of the way up the field and whack it,” said Uphill, protectively. It was good, positive football, a mixture of short and long passes but always seeking to progress. Said Benning, that winger of remarkable stamina: “When I meet people and the fact I played for Watford comes up in conversation, I usually get asked when was that? “I say I played in the Holton-era. People usually nod because they seem to know exactly when that was.”