The Medical Marvel - Walter Lees
Richard White talks to Walter Lees who played 253 times for the Hornets during the sixties and seventies.
Fittingly described as a ‘rugged, dependable Scot’ during his time at the club, Walter Lees forged a role as Watford’s starting centre-half for eight seasons between 1968 and 1976, under three different managers. He helped Watford achieve its highest-ever league placings in the pre-Graham Taylor era, whilst also making a first-ever FA Cup semi-final appearance, and he then played through the difficult years as the club regressed without the investment needed to maintain its status. With 253 league and cup appearances, Walter sits within the top 40 all-time Watford appearance-makers.
Born in 1947, Walter was brought up in the Gorbals, an area of Glasgow then notorious for its tough streets and gang culture. Some of his earliest memories are of looking out of the window of his family’s tenement flat in the aptly named Hospital Street, watching men fighting outside the pub below. “There were few cars about in those days, and men would sometimes play football in the street, using lamp posts and suchlike as goal posts. Often these games resulted in damage to windows and property, so the police would come and break them up, with the first person they could catch being nicked. Usually it was the poor goalkeeper, as he’d be the nearest!”
Despite challenges including the early death of his father when Walter was 12, leaving his mum to bring up Walter and his sister alone, his obvious football talent stood out in the school team. As a commanding centre-half, he was chosen to play for the Glasgow Boys Guild Select XI in matches against sides such as Manchester Schools and the Celtic Third XI. This led to St Roch, a team playing in the Scottish Junior League, signing him up as a young teenager. “Despite its name, the Scottish Junior League had many players in their thirties who were towards the end of their career and loved nothing more than to give us youngsters a hard time during matches!” says Walter. Having spotted Walter’s potential, Celtic then signed him on provisional contract terms, leaving him playing for St Roch to continue the process of ‘toughening up’. “I did get to train at Celtic with some of the players that would go on to win the European Cup in 1967”, Walter recalls.
Walter ensured he could keep his career options open by working as a glazier’s apprentice in parallel with his football after leaving school at the age of 15. “It’s what you did in those days. The best thing was that I got paid for both jobs, which came in very handy!” In order to improve his fitness, Walter attended a boxing gym and found its intensive training sessions worked wonders on his stamina. “I made a couple of modifications to their training circuit to suit my football needs, including hanging a medicine ball from the rafters which I had to jump and head to strengthen my neck muscles!”
When Jock Stein took over as Celtic manager in March 1965 he overhauled the club and cancelled all the provisional signings, including Walter, without even watching them play. After being released by Celtic, Walter received offers to join several Scottish League clubs, but as none were on a full-time basis he decided to sign as captain for Kilsyth Rangers, another Junior League team, where he was promised the possibility of playing junior International football. Walter’s outstanding performances for ‘The Wee Rangers’ meant he did indeed captain the Scotland Junior XI in matches against Wales and Ireland and says “I still have the cap they gave me”.
Walter’s performances for Kilsyth Rangers brought him to the attention of a Watford scout north of the border, and he was invited down to train with the Watford team at Lilleshall for a week in the build-up to the FA Cup game against Sheffield United in January 1968. Nothing more was heard after that, so Walter assumed it was the end of Watford’s interest. However, Watford manager Ken Furphy made one further trip north to watch Walter playing in a match at Port Glasgow, on the banks of the Clyde. Despite appalling weather conditions which led to Furphy holding a nine-foot length of corrugated iron sheeting over his head to keep the torrential rain off, he saw enough to sign Walter prior to the 1968/69 season promotion push.
By now 21, with plenty of football experience and a fully-qualified glazier, Walter says he was ready for the new challenge of being a full-time footballer. Strangely his debut for Watford away at Bristol Rovers on the opening day of the 1968/69 season came at centre-forward in place of Terry Garbett, who had been injured in pre-season. It wasn’t a great success. “If they had knocked the ball up to my head a bit more I could have made something of it”. Walter was substituted at half-time in the 1-1 draw and had to wait for another chance in the team.
Walter was then lined up by Furphy to make his full debut against Brentford in the FA Cup second round on 7 December 1968, in his normal centre-half role, replacing the suspended Brian Garvey. However things took a nasty turn after training on the Thursday before the game when Walter was sent home with a nasty virus that saw a big red lump rise on his leg, “And there was talk about removing my leg at one stage, as it was potentially threatening my life”. It was thought the virus could have been picked up from the greyhounds being raced at Vicarage Road, and it took Walter several weeks to overcome the illness and resume full training.
His next first-team appearance didn’t come until 8 February 1969, but what an impact he made! Brought on as a substitute, Walter scored two goals in a 5-1 home win against Rotherham on a snowy weekend when Watford’s was the only Football League match played in the south of England. Dozens of young Watford fans had answered the manager’s appeal to arrive at the ground on the Saturday morning to clear the pitch and terraces of protective straw and snow to enable the game to go ahead.
Watford were mounting a serious promotion challenge and setting new defensive records in the process, so it was proving hard for Walter to get a permanent place in the side. But his chance came soon afterwards when injury to centre-half Brian Garvey allowed Walter to step in with some solid performances. So good in fact that he held his place for 14 games in the run-in, as Watford secured the Third Division championship ahead of close rivals Swindon Town. The 1-0 win at Swindon’s County Ground in front of 29,000 fans in late March was crucial, with Furphy saying that Walter had a “great game” with the “complete snuffing-out of goalscorer Noble”. Walter has fond memories of standing on the outside balcony of the Town Hall with his fellow players at the end-of-season civic reception, holding up the Third Division trophy to the Hornets fans gathered below.
It had come to the manager’s attention that Walter was an extremely capable man-marker. As Watford fought to gain points in the newly-attained Second Division the following season, he would often be given the task of marking the opposition’s most dangerous player, whilst Keith Eddy and Brian Garvey held down the centre-back partnership. This defensive approach was not uncommon in the days of just two points for a win, when a 0-0 draw was considered a good result by club management, if not so enthusiastically welcomed by the fans.
“I was not the tallest of centre-halves, but given a short run-up I could beat anyone in the air” says Walter (photographs confirm his spring-heeled leap). “I also believe that to mark somebody, you have to be within touching distance of them. If I had to mark a quick player such as Malcolm Macdonald I would stay close enough to grab a small piece of his shirt out of sight of the referee. Then I could immediately sense when he started to turn to make a run. I’d let go of the shirt and be one step ahead of him. I could also tackle equally well with both feet, which some defenders struggle with”.
Keith Eddy, who played over 100 games alongside Walter in their time at Watford, recently said, “I liked Walter. He was a very quiet, shy guy. I got on with him very well. He did a decent job”. Walter himself remembers that his best friends at the club were goalkeepers Micky Walker and Andy Rankin, alongside Mike Packer, who was Walter’s best man when he married wife Pat.
Walter’s consistent performances saw him replace Brian Garvey as Watford’s starting centre-half during the 1969/70 season, and he retained that position, barring injury absences, for the next six years, regularly picking up ‘Man-of-the-match’ awards. He played in all the 1969/70 FA Cup matches, earning huge press plaudits in the fourth-round 1-0 victory against First Division Stoke, where he had a ‘magnificent game’, keeping John Ritchie, the big Stoke striker, ‘in his pocket from the start… until (Stoke manager) Waddington called him off and sent on substitute Skeels’. “To be honest” Walter says, “the main focus at the club was to stay in the Second Division and the cup run was seen as a bit of a distraction, but a good one”.
In the semi-final against Chelsea, on a White Hart Lane pitch ankle-deep in mud and sand, Walter was given the task of marking Peter Osgood, and in the TV highlights programme commentator Brian Moore remarked, “What a superb game he had against Osgood”. The player recalls things were not so harmonious in the Watford changing-room after the 5-1 defeat. “I was given a rollocking by Ken Furphy over a couple of the goals, including the one Osgood scored. Furphy later apologised to me, after I pointed out that I had actually followed his instructions regarding my positioning”.
At the end of the 1969/70 season Watford went into their final game away at Norwich City needing a point to be sure of avoiding relegation. Walter was selected to play despite the imminent birth of his first child, and Watford duly earned a 1-1 draw through a Stewart Scullion equaliser. After the game the news filtered through that Walter had become father to a baby girl, Kirsty, born just after Norwich had scored their goal. “On the way back home Ken told the team-coach driver to stop at a pub, and made me buy a round of drinks for everyone on board. That was a lot of money out of the wage packet in those days!”
The progress achieved by the Watford team up to that time could not be sustained, evidently due to the lack of investment in new players by the board, and Ken Furphy left the club in July 1971, to be replaced by new manager George Kirby. Relegation from the Second Division followed in the next season and the team continued to struggle afterwards in the Third Division. “Kirby decided to bring us in for extra training sessions in the afternoons. Mike Keen led a players’ petition to the board to say this was unnecessary and counter-productive. I refused to sign his petition, as I quite enjoyed the additional training, and Mike wasn’t too happy about that”.
Walter was witness to some of the stranger happenings towards the end of Watford chairman Jim Bonser’s reign. When Watford bought experienced centre-half David ‘Duggie’ Woodfield from Wolves for a club-record fee of £28,000 in September 1971, he recalls, “The club did not give Woodfield a full medical before signing him. I could see in training that he had a slight limp, and in his first game for Watford he collapsed in a heap when his knee gave way”. Woodfield missed the remainder of the season, and only made a few more appearances over the next couple of years before becoming a coach under Mike Keen. To add insult to injury, Watford had not insured Woodfield, and so received no compensation for the loss of his services.
The Watford board had fallen out with club doctors Vernon Edwards and Brian Black, so on match days the players had to rely on trainer Pat Molloy, a genial but tough ex-boxer and professional footballer, for their medical needs. Walter still has some of the scars.
“On one occasion a tall centre-forward deliberately brought his elbow down on my head and opened up a large gash. I was taken off for treatment and Pat Molloy, who by then had very poor eyesight, put in some stitches and sent me back out on the pitch to finish the game. I had to go to the hospital after the match to get them redone”.
“Another time I broke my wrist in training and went to hospital, where they put a full plaster cast on my forearm and hand to keep the wrist in position. I was picked for the next game but we weren’t permitted to play wearing plaster casts, so Pat Molloy wrapped the cast in a bandage, saying the ref would just think I had a bandage on. Unfortunately, when the ref came into the dressing-room before the game he spotted the large bandage and prodded it. He immediately realised I had a plaster cast underneath and told me I couldn’t play. After he left, Pat got out a big pair of scissors, cut the plaster cast off, re-bandaged my wrist and said, “You can play now”. That’s how it remained until the end of the season, when I had to go to hospital to have the wrist reset and pinned”.
Walter’s injuries reflect the brave commitment he gave to the cause in each game, in the days when referees were more lenient towards physical contact. “There was one game where we were up against a top-class right-winger, and Johnny Williams, our left-back, was substituted early in the match. I moved to left-back to mark this guy, but as I made a slide tackle he deliberately jumped hard on my right leg. It hurt like hell, but Pat came on with the magic sponge and said ‘Can you wriggle your toes?’ I said ‘yes’, and Pat said ‘Fine, nothing broken, you can play on’.
“I was normally very slow to anger”, continues Walter, “and I can only recall being booked a couple of times in my career, and never sent off. But on this occasion I made sure that every time I tackled the winger after that I followed through and clattered him, which you were allowed to do in those days provided you won the ball. Their manager was going loopy on the bench. The winger later got substituted for his own protection”. After the injury he received in that match Walter’s leg turned dark blue from his calf down to his toes, and remains that colour to this day.
As Oliver Phillips wrote about Walter, “His catalogue of injuries sustained during his 253 determined appearances rendered him something of a medical marvel”.
It wasn’t all work and no play. Walter remembers a club trip to Malta in the summer of 1969, as a reward for promotion, where he scored a headed goal in a friendly game against Valetta, and the team being taken out for a meal in Watford by Elton John in the early days of his association with the club; “The guy who ran the place was going mad with excitement at having Elton John in his restaurant”.
When Ross Jenkins joined the club in November 1972, Walter was astonished when the new striker kept shouting at everyone to ‘play it to my feet’. “Here we had this giant centre-forward who should have been winning the ball in the air and flicking it on to other players as was the norm in those days, and all he wanted was the ball to his feet. I passed it to him once when I ran forward during a match, but the ball flew back behind me off his shin!” remembers Walter. Of course Ross Jenkins would later go on to blossom at the club, alongside another player who used to clean Walter’s boots as an apprentice – Luther Blissett. “We used to give the apprentices a couple of quid for cleaning our boots – I might ask for a couple of quid back if I see Luther again!”
After Mike Keen became player-manager replacing Kirby in June 1973, he continued to select Walter as his centre-half alongside himself, and later Ken Goodeve. Finally, in the middle of the 1975/76 season a recurring back injury forced Walter into a difficult decision. “I went for X-rays, and they told me I had a disc problem which needed an operation. When Dr. Edwards told me the risks associated with operating on my spine I declined to go ahead, and effectively said goodbye to full-time football at the age of 29”.
At the end of the 1975/76 season Walter signed for Barnet, then a non-League side with Dave Underwood as chairman, and kept playing with the help of back exercises to build supporting muscles. “We won the league in my first season, with plenty of ex-Football League players in the team, including Jimmy Greaves playing in midfield and John Fairbrother (ex-Watford) up front. When Barry Fry became manager I decided it was time to move on, and I played for Hayes for a while. Meanwhile I joined Bridgwater Glass in Watford to progress things outside of football”.
Walter’s subsequent career off the pitch has reflected his friendly and effective ability to deal with the general public, seemingly at odds with the warrior who gave his all on the pitch for the Hornets. Still living in North Watford, Walter watches football on TV but doesn’t attend matches. “I’ve always been a terrible spectator, I’d much rather be out there playing!” he smiles. But his family connection with the Hornets continues through daughter Kirsty and grandson Sam, who are both season ticket holders in the Rookery end. Coincidentally, Watford are now scheduled to play Norwich City on 18 April 2020 – exactly 50 years to the day since Kirsty was born while Walter was playing against the same team!
Graham Taylor once said that pound-for-pound, Ian Bolton was the best-value signing he ever made for Watford, and few would disagree. But looking back over the full period since Walter joined the Hornets for £500 in 1968, the ‘rugged, dependable Scot’ would surely be a contender in the ‘best-value’ category too.