Les Simmons, the former groundsman at Vicarage Road, was a friend of Jimmy Bowie and we had attended his 70th birthday party together and met up with a number of those early 1950s contemporaries, all of whom knew Les. Very few of them knew me because I came on the scene somewhat hesitatingly in 1960, cutting my teeth on junior and reserve-team football.

Jimmy Bowie was a rascal as well as an extremely talented footballer, back in the days when having a few bevies the night before a match was not frowned upon, as it would be 20 years later.

I was taking my 11-plus when Jimmy signed for Watford but I soon absorbed the folklore of his era.

Born in 1926, the former groundsman would have been in his early 20s when he joined Jimmy and Les’s football idol, Frank Mitchell, on their pub crawls around Watford.

I believe it was Dave Bewley who was something of a rarity among professional footballers in those Division Three South days: he owned a car.

Dave was the chauffeur on many of those outings, often going to the pub by the canal down near the current Two Bridges, which was a favourite watering hole of Bowie and company.

Reg Saphin was another who turned up at Bowie’s birthday bash in Southend. He was a goalkeeper and later was the ‘manager’ of Watford Juniors when I started to cover them. One day I reached Vicarage Road just as the coach was pulling out.

Reg was on board and saw me coming down Occupation Road but he instructed the driver to keep going. The coach left without me.

Apparently I had written something Reg did not like – I started early doing that, it would seem – and, as punishment, I had to follow the coach to Brisbane Road or some such. It was not until years later that Reg revealed he had opted not to stop for me – probably at the Bowie party.

We had a laugh over bygone days but I sat transfixed by the stories they recalled that night, with Les egging them on. Jimmy and Co hitching a lift off a milk float in the middle of the cross-country run or hiding behind the ancient Rookery stand (not the more modern one erected at the end of the 1950s) and then joining the rest of the players as they lapped round the greyhound track as part of the fitness training.

Then there was the player who was faced with paternity payments and was in arrears. He advised the collector to come to Vicarage Road just before the kick-off threatening arrest.

The scenario worked out as planned and the shocked chairman, T Rigby Taylor, duly paid up the arrears, so one of his star players could take the field.

“He knew that would happen,” chortled Les.

In those days professional football lacked the professionalism that became the hallmark in subsequent years. The only thing truly professional about many players was that they were paid for their services whereas amateurs were not – or at least were not supposed to be.

Some of the game’s biggest names, such as Len Shackleton, Sunderland’s Crown Prince of Soccer, were less than professional by modern standards. He enjoyed playing football but did not believe he had to be covered in sweat to play it. Even the Geordies’ biggest idol ‘Wor Jackie Milburn, smoked like a trooper and died from lung cancer.

He was exceptionally quick but just how quick would he have been had he not smoked or been serving a Saturday morning shift down the pits on a matchday. Imagine that.

Jackie was dedicated; Shack’ lacked his former teammate’s dedication. I met them both in my time in press boxes.

Shack’ told me that in the end football would “end up like chess and who watches chess”.

That comment resonates with me still when I watch the ball being played around the back from full back to centre-half to full-back and then back again.

Of course Stanley Matthews was different class. He worked diligently. He was not the fastest player over 25 yards but he made sure he was the fastest over five – that was all he needed.

Johnny Paton, who played with and managed some of the 1950s characters at Vicarage Road, trained with Matthews during their spell in the forces. He learnt a lot off Stanley but when training was finished, the Wizard of Dribble as he was known, stayed behind to work on his own routine.

“He would not let me stay with him and see it. Whatever it was, I think it was key to his acceleration over those five yards,” Johnny told me.

Of course not all players down the years at Vicarage Road were into beer, smoking and wenching but there were quite a few.

There was Ginger Horsman, back in the early 1920s who took the field red in the face and then sweated off the beer from his previous excesses, in the first half.

One player collected his P45 in the late 1960s and climbed out of the ground on the Shrodells side because the husband of a woman with whom he had been consorting, was waiting outside the main entrance.

Ken Furphy told me that the wife of one of his players had asked for an appointment. She was concerned that her husband was sleeping with so many other women, it would be best for the team and the marriage if Ken put an end to it.

The manager had to explain that he could not supervise players during their leisure time, only stress the need to keep clear of alcohol two nights before a game.