A Day In The Sun

‘I wish I’d been told it was just a normal game’

This is the story of Watford’s FA Cup in 1984 from the book Enjoy the Game.
Part one covers the run to the semi-final.
This chapter covers the build-up to the final and the match against Everton.

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by Lionel Birnie

The tunnel at Wembley Stadium sloped slightly upwards. It was also eerily quiet and cool. The red-hot atmosphere and scorching sunshine that waited outside made the effect uniquely disconcerting. The two teams lined up alongside each other knowing that for the next ninety minutes they must be enemies. However, as they stood and waited that interminable wait, the two opposing sides were bound together as tightly as the knots of nerves in their stomachs. All that interrupted the hush was the anxious clack of studded boots on the concrete floor and the occasional shout of encouragement.

Outside, in the bright afternoon sun, it was all noise and fidgety anticipation. Wembley Stadium’s roof only just managed to keep a lid on the hundred thousand hopes that rested on the shoulders of these twenty two men.

For Watford, it was the culmination of an incredible journey, and although history records the names of the eleven who made the final step onto the Wembley turf, they represented everyone who had played a part along the way.

On the players’ chests, the neatly embroidered lettering under the badge on the shirt was a reminder of how far the club had come. It read: F.A. Cup Final Wembley 1984. Six years earlier, Watford’s supporters had celebrated winning the Fourth Division championship, now they were taking part in a match that would be watched all around the world. This was the cup final, the culmination of the English season, a day when even those with only a passing interest in football sat down to watch the match. It is easy to forget how much the cup final meant in those days before blanket television coverage, Super Sundays, and the over-blown race for fourth place. It was the day when supporters of every club in the country, even the league champions, looked on with a touch of envy, wishing they were in the spotlight instead.

However much the players tried to convince themselves this was just an ordinary match, all the pomp and ceremony said otherwise. Before they even reached Wembley’s lush grass, they had to make their way slowly up the tunnel and across the desert of sandy perimeter track.

Forget the match, this was the moment that would determine who was ready for the occasion and who would wilt. While every sinew implored them to run onto the pitch, as was the usual fashion then, they had to walk, slowly and deliberately, into the arena.

The roar as the spectators got their first glimpse of the two teams was overwhelming. It buffeted the players with the force of opening an aircraft door mid-flight and it was enough to cause them to recoil slightly. The terraces were a mass of colourful flags and banners and the scale of the sight before them was awe-inspiring. How could you possibly declare yourself ready for this?

All the players wanted to do was get on with the match but cup final protocol meant the kick-off took an age to arrive. The players waited to be introduced to the Duke of York and the officials from the Football Association, Ted Croker, Bert Millichip and Lionel Smart. All of a sudden there was time for the significance of the surroundings to sink in. Mouths went dry and the clammy handshakes and incongruous small talk did nothing to quell the fluttering butterflies.

Finally the stadium stood for the national anthem, another stirring reminder that this was a showpiece event, a day that would live with them for the rest of their lives, and the realisation of every boy’s dream.

Graham Taylor had urged Watford’s supporters to be in good voice for the national anthem and the traditional cup final hymn, Abide With Me, in order to restore some of the old values that had perhaps slipped in the game in recent years. Both sets of fans responded magnificently, setting the tone for an afternoon that was to be dubbed the ‘friendly cup final’.

Everyone who was there will recall the moment that caused a lump to form in the throat and a tear to well in the corner of the eye. For Elton John it was hearing Abide With Me. He could not hold back his emotions any longer and he wept. That hymn had long held a special significance for him and he knew it was pointless trying to hold the tears at bay.

With so many thoughts swirling wildly, it was easy to overlook that there was a football match to be played. The next ninety minutes would create heroes and break hearts and by five o’clock Wembley’s famous twin towers would have another story to tell. Down in the centre circle, the two captains Kevin Ratcliffe and Les Taylor completed the final formalities, becoming suddenly aware of how strongly the sun was beating down. This was going to be a draining afternoon physically as well as emotionally.

Taylor’s heart skipped a beat and his cheeks flushed as he realised he had left Watford’s pennant behind in the dressing room. ‘When you see the pictures of me shaking hands with Kevin, there’s no Watford pennant,’ he says. This was a minor oversight but it was also a poignant demonstration that events like this were not second nature to Watford’s players. As well prepared as they were, the FA Cup final did not come with a checklist. For a fleeting moment, Taylor felt like a child arriving at his school’s swimming gala without any trunks but he quickly pushed it to the back of his mind.

Up in the directors’ box, Elton’s tears were still drying on his cheek. The ball was placed on the centre spot. This was it. The whistle blew.

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* * *

Soon after Watford had beaten Plymouth Argyle to reach Wembley, the directors met to make plans for the biggest day in the club’s history. There was a lot to discuss but, before they started, Elton wanted to make one thing clear. ‘Someone will ask what I’m going to do for a cup final song,’ he told the board. ‘So I just want you to know that’s not me at all. It’s not my scene and I’m not going to get involved with anything like that.’ It wasn’t that Elton was a killjoy but as a serious musician he knew that cup final records were almost always terrible. The tabloids would also expect him to do something and that was reason enough not to. Yes, he’d once invited the squad to sing some backing harmonies for one of his albums but this was completely different. The idea of going on Top of the Pops to play a novelty football record while his players, wearing tracksuits of course, mouthed along to the words, nodded their heads and tried not to look too embarrassed, was a complete non-starter.

When tickets for the final went on sale, the queues snaked down Occupation Road and back again and the town was festooned with red, yellow and black ribbons. Shop windows had been invaded by papier-mâché hornets and decorated with cardboard FA Cups covered in tin foil. Children went to school with Watford scarves round their necks, despite the fact it was a pleasantly warm spring. Hats, scarves and flags were sold as quickly as the club could get them in from the suppliers and Benskins brewed a commemorative FA Cup final ale. Unfortunately, its after-taste was akin to being elbowed in the throat by a Scotsman. Funny that.

Graham Taylor was determined to ensure the build-up to the match followed the normal routine but that was to prove difficult. For a start, they had to find an alternative training ground because the contract with the owners of their usual base in Honeypot Lane, Stanmore, expired the Friday before the final league game of the season and would not resume until July. Watford had tried to negotiate a week’s extension but the ground had already been booked for something else. ‘It sounds incredible now but they couldn’t give us another week, they just couldn’t do it, so I had to find another training ground,’ says Taylor.

Eventually the club managed to rent a sports pitch owned by Wimpey, the construction company, on the A41 near Stanmore but it was far from ideal. ‘We had somewhere to train but sometimes there wasn’t hot water,’ says Taylor. More than once, the players had to drive back to Vicarage Road for a shower after training.

Many of the players were completely unaware the change of venue had been forced upon them, they assumed that Taylor had wanted to mix things up a bit to keep everyone on their toes before the final. A change of surroundings might sharpen the focus and keep the media at arm’s length, perhaps, but it didn’t quite work like that. ‘I hadn’t realised that the change would be so unsettling,’ Taylor says. ‘The routine was different and we had to get used to that. ‘Then we had a lot of journalists and photographers who wanted interviews and all that had to be fitted in. All in all, it wasn’t a good week’s approach to the game and, as the manager, I take responsibility for that.’

Each of the players responded differently. Some allowed it all to wash over them, others revelled in the attention from the television crews but some wanted to stick to their usual way of doing things. ‘We’re just like animals, really, footballers. We’re creatures of habit,’ says Steve Sherwood. ‘I liked the routine we had but it all changed in the week before the cup final.’ By the standards of the day, the media spotlight was intense. Every newspaper sought to find a different angle and, with Elton out of the country on tour, the youngsters in the team became the story. Taylor tried to steer the attention away from his young defenders but the press had already worked out that the line-up of Lee Sinnott, who was 18, David Bardsley, 19, Neil Price, 20, and Steve Terry, 21, would be the youngest cup final back four in history. Such stories are manna from heaven for the media in the build-up to a big game.

George Reilly and Maurice Johnston co-operated with one of the tabloids and the story was full of the usual red-top bluster. Elton’s rocket men to melt Toffees, that sort of thing. ‘We were supposed to get £500 each,’ says Reilly. ‘But the guy from the paper sent a cheque for a grand to Maurice and I didn’t see any of it, so tell him he owes me £500, plus 25 years’ worth of interest.’

Jimmy Greaves, the former Tottenham and Chelsea striker, who was now a television pundit, joined the team at the training ground one day to film a piece for ITV’s build-up. ‘It was fun having Greavesie down at training,’ says Nigel Callaghan. ‘But it was strange. On one hand it took our minds off the match but on the other we knew he was only there because we had a cup final coming up.’

Cup final captain, Les Taylor.

Cup final captain, Les Taylor.

Having already named the team a week in advance, hoping to put young minds at rest, Taylor was, to an extent, straitjacketed. Even though a lot of the players would have been pretty sure of their places anyway, knowing for certain they were in the side took some of the edge off the week’s work, Taylor felt. Perhaps one or two were a little too relaxed. ‘I think I was wrong to name it seven days before,’ says Taylor. ‘I saw one or two things but it was too late to do anything about it. I should have waited a bit longer and followed a similar routine to any other match.’ Taylor couldn’t afford to dwell on the decision. It had been made and although he realised his mistake within hours, he also knew there was no way he could go back on it. How could you tell someone they were playing in the cup final one day and then snatch it all away the next? Taylor felt he simply couldn’t.

With Wilf Rostron suspended, the job of naming a captain had been straightforward and Les Taylor knew a couple of weeks before the game that he’d be leading the team out at Wembley, regardless of whether Steve Sims or Pat Rice were selected. ‘It wasn’t too much of a shock, to be honest,’ says the stand-in captain, who had skippered the side before. ‘There wasn’t too much experience in the team. There was really only Steve Sherwood and myself and I don’t think Graham would have been one to have a goalkeeper as captain. Sherwood was a very quiet, softly-spoken guy, so he wasn’t going to be your captain.’

* * *

As the match approached, Les Taylor allowed himself to dream and pondered what he might do if Watford won. ‘You can’t help your mind wandering,’ he says. ‘You’re obviously thinking about going up those steps to lift the cup. It crossed my mind, should I get Wilf to go up and get it? Would they even let him, seeing as he was suspended, I don’t know? I wondered whether to get Elton to lift it. Or Graham? I knew I was the captain by default, really. If Wilf hadn’t been sent off, he’d have been the captain. Of course we’ll never know what I’d have done because we didn’t win but all these things were going round in my head the week before the game.’

As the excitement built, the players tried not to be too boisterous when Rostron was around. They were acutely aware that their captain would not be with them during the match. Some tried not to mention Wembley in Rostron’s presence but the last thing he wanted was the rest of the lads tip-toeing around him. They would be playing in the biggest game of their lives and had to prepare for it and embrace it. Rostron was the one who had to come to terms with the thought of missing out which he did, slowly. ‘It was awkward to be around to a degree,’ Rostron says. ‘Not hard, but awkward, particularly when they were planning for the actual match and I wasn’t a part of it. But by then I’d decided I would go to the game, so I thought the best thing I could do was to encourage them and try to be some help.’

On Monday, May 14, five days before the final, Everton played their last match of the league season, at Upton Park against West Ham United. It offered Taylor one last chance to see his opponents in action. But it was also his oldest daughter Joanne’s 18th birthday and he had no intention of missing the party. There was no way he’d spend the evening jotting down notes about a team he already knew well instead of marking a milestone in his daughter’s life. Family came first, even in cup final week. Besides, he wouldn’t learn anything worthwhile watching Everton soft-pedal through a game so close to the final.

It’s funny how little coincidences in life occur. Exactly 18 years earlier, to the day, Taylor had rushed home from the hospital shortly after his daughter’s birth, to watch Everton beat Sheffield Wednesday 3-2 in the FA Cup final. Now here he was, his daughter almost an adult, and he was preparing his own team for a cup final. And the opponents were Everton.

Taylor was happy with his preparation and he knew it was more important to concentrate on what his players would be doing for the match but he also knew that family superseded all of that. A daughter’s 18th birthday only comes round once. The party that evening, celebrating with his family, was a brief hiatus from all talk of Wembley.

Watford’s supporters approached the match feeling they had a very good chance of beating Everton. They were a good team but facing them was certainly not as daunting a prospect as facing Liverpool would have been. When Watford had played at Goodison Park the previous October, Everton had been in disarray. They were a brittle, unimaginative bunch, a far cry from the technically-precise teams that had earned the club a nickname of which they were proud. The School of Science.

Howard Kendall, their manager, had teetered on the brink of the sack for weeks but two cup runs had earned him one stay of execution after another. They held Liverpool to a goalless draw in the Milk Cup final at Wembley, only to lose 1-0 in the replay at Maine Road, Manchester City’s stadium. Kevin Richardson, a 21-year-old Geordie who played on the left side of Everton’s midfield in Manchester that night, remembers the sickening feeling of hearing their victorious opponents celebrating in the dressing room down the corridor after the match. ‘I felt so drained, completely empty,’ he says. ‘I remember looking round and everyone was just staring at their feet and all you could hear was them singing. It was horrible. We’d played at Wembley a few days earlier and done well but when you lose a cup final you completely forget all the good moments you had along the way, you just feel numb.’

Everton’s central defender, Derek Mountfield, says defeat spurred the team on in the FA Cup. ‘I was very low after that game because we felt we should have beaten Liverpool first time round. It took a little while to get over it but our captain Kevin Ratcliffe said to me “Look, we’ve got another chance in the FA Cup so stop moping.” Once we’d reached the final he said to me: “Remember how you felt after the Milk Cup final? Well, imagine what it’d be like to feel that all summer, so let’s go and win this one.” That thought stuck with me through the build-up to the Watford game.’

David Bardsley was declared fit and the team was confirmed. All that remained was to decide who should sit on the bench. Paul Atkinson had not bowled over the supporters over since his recovery from an ankle injury but he was versatile, so he got the edge over the other leading candidate for the role, Richard Jobson.

Two days before the final, the squad travelled to Wembley Stadium for a training session on the pitch. ‘I don’t know how he [Taylor] did it,’ says Neil Price. ‘I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the thing teams usually did before a cup final, so maybe he bunged someone a few quid to let us on the pitch, I don’t know.’

This was a golden opportunity to become familiar with the stadium. It might, perhaps, take the edge off things on match day. After a warm-up and a few drills, the first team faced the reserves in a short practice match, twenty minutes each way. For those who knew they wouldn’t be playing in the final, it was nevertheless an exciting opportunity. For Charlie Palmer, who had played in the Uefa Cup earlier in the season but wasn’t in the cup final squad, it was a day trip he remembers less fondly. ‘What stung me was that we had this practice match and I had assumed I’d be right-back for the reserves. I thought I’d at least get to play on the Wembley pitch but the manager named the two teams and I wasn’t in either of them. So I had to sit on the bench while they all played this game. I remember thinking to myself, “One day I’ll come back and I will play here.” And I did.’ Palmer played – and won – at Wembley for Notts County in a play-off final.

No one could ever accuse the manager of failing to prepare his team thoroughly. No stone was left unturned and Price felt there was a downside to Taylor’s desire to plan for every eventuality. ‘He sat us down and said that if we went two goals behind, he would take me off, put Atkinson on the left of midfield, move Kenny [Jackett] to the back and put Barnesy behind the strikers,’ says Price. ‘That was how methodical he was, he thought about everything. I can understand that he needed to have it all sorted in his own head and perhaps he needed to run through that in training so he knew everyone was comfortable with it, but for me, as a young kid, I didn’t need to know that. It didn’t help me to know I’d be coming off if we went 2-0 down even if I was playing well. He could have kept that to himself and that did affect me.’

[Editor’s note: Taylor remembers this differently. After the book came out he said he had never told a team about any pre-planned substitutions and did not do so before the cup final.]

* * *

Watford spent the second half of the week in the Ladbroke Hotel, on Elton Way, away from their families and out of the reach of the media. For some of them, it increased the feeling that this was a special match. For others it felt like there was a lot of time spent kicking their heels.

‘There was nothing to do there,’ says Price. ‘We were stuck in the hotel and it did seem like a long time although it was probably only two or three nights. Once we were in there it felt like we were just waiting for this thing to happen but it wasn’t getting any closer. I don’t know what the other side of that would have been like, what would have happened if we’d all stayed in our own homes? Would the media have been turning up at your house? Because they did do that in those days, they’d just knock on the door. I can understand why he wanted to keep us away from that.’

‘I can’t say I enjoyed the build-up much,’ says Sherwood. ‘The night before a game I like to do my own thing but we were eating together and then filling in time a bit. The wives and girlfriends were only allowed to come in at certain times, like after our evening meal. You’d have a chat and then they’d go home. If we’d had to travel a hundred miles for the game it would have felt more natural but Wembley was only down the road and I could have been home in 20 minutes, so it felt a bit strange. Maybe there were a couple of the lads Graham was worried might go out and attract attention, I don’t know.’

Maurice Johnston.

Maurice Johnston.

Maurice Johnston, who usually needed to be tethered to something immovable to prevent him from hitting the clubs and wine bars, may have been one of those Taylor was concerned about. ‘The build-up was awesome,’ Johnston says. ‘All the television shows were about the cup final, and the fans were buzzing. Wherever you were they were wishing you luck but I never got to enjoy it all because Graham had us locked away. If you’d have let us out, Graham, I may have scored a hat-trick!’

Although the match was important, Taylor was keen to ensure his players retained a sense of proportion as the day drew closer. He took the squad to a hospital in Stanmore one afternoon during the week. ‘There were young people who’d been in motor accidents and were paralysed,’ says John Ward. ‘We went to see them, say hello and give out a few gifts. It was the sort of thing Watford Football Club always did but it was important during that week that we did it, to show that there were things that mattered more than football. It helped put the cup final in perspective.’

Once Taylor was satisfied the players were all safely tucked up in bed the night before the game – and after double checking on Maurice Johnston – the management and their wives enjoyed their traditional pre-cup tie meal. Taylor had reserved a room in the basement of the hotel where they had their dinner and a few glasses of wine. ‘I usually found out what the players were up to,’ says Taylor. ‘But I’d be surprised if they knew we were doing that. I couldn’t afford to get caught out but it had become such a superstition by then. We’d told the players to come down to eat their meal and we said we’d be having ours a bit later, after our staff meeting. Once they’d all gone to bed, the wives arrived and we had our little celebration.’ As it turned out, the cup final marked the end of the tradition that had started in early January 1982 on the eve of the cup victory over Manchester United when Watford were still in the Second Division. It was the final time they held one of these dinner parties and, in a way, an era drew to a close.

No one slept particularly well that night. It was like waiting for Christmas Day and your wedding day rolled into one. So much to look forward to but a natural sense of apprehension.

At about ten o’clock on cup final morning, Eddie Plumley’s home phone rang. It was Graham Taylor. ‘Immediately I thought something awful had happened,’ says Plumley.

‘What is it? What’s wrong?’ asked the chief executive.

‘Nothing, we’re fine. We’re absolutely fine. I just wanted to call to say thank you for everything you’ve done. It’s been absolutely fantastic and let’s hope we can finish it all off this afternoon. Anyway, I’ve got a gift for you, which I’ll give to you tonight,’ said Taylor.

Immediately there was a lump in Plumley’s throat and the tears welled in his eyes. In fact, his voice began to quiver as he recounted to me that phone call more than 25 years on. ‘I was struggling to talk,’ he says. ‘The fact he had called on the morning of the most important match for him and his team, to thank me for doing my job, meant more than anything. I found out later that he had made quite a few of those phone calls that morning, which gives you some indication of what it was like to work with him. I don’t mind admitting, I was crying when I came off the phone. Later on he presented all of the staff and his management with a team shirt, with the cup final embroidery on. He made sure there were enough to go round. They are the sort of gestures you don’t forget.’

Back at the team hotel, things were to be unforgettable for a very different reason. The build-up to the cup final was a big deal for the two broadcasters, BBC and ITV, and they had sent a comedian to each team’s hotel to film a few links and sketches for the pre-match coverage. Everton had Freddie Starr, who at least was a Toffees supporter. Bizarrely, the BBC sent Michael Barrymore to visit Watford. It was to prove an awkward experience. The BBC’s Bob Wilson conducted an excruciating interview with the comedian, who was blacked-up, wearing a dark curly wig and a Watford kit. Barrymore was supposed to be impersonating John Barnes but, even for 1984 it was offensive. The ‘joke’ was that Barrymore’s Barnes answered Wilson’s questions by singing lines from Bob Marley songs. The terrible accent and the appalling stereotyping made it beyond embarrassing for those unfortunate enough to see it.

[Editor’s note: At the time I was writing the book, the footage was still on YouTube and had to be seen to be believed. It has since been taken down, perhaps not surprisingly.]

The players were not spared the awkwardness. ‘On match days I never usually had breakfast,’ says Callaghan. ‘I just had a pre-match meal at lunchtime. I was rooming with Dave Bardsley and we had a knock on the door saying we had to go down for breakfast. I didn’t want to but they said we had to. As I’m walking into the room, Barrymore’s behind me, following me in doing some sort of silly walk. What was that all about?’

Watford’s players forced a few laughs. ‘It was so staged,’ says Paul Atkinson, never the most gregarious member of the squad. ‘I felt a bit uncomfortable with it and I think all the lads did.’ ‘Barrymore was doing his Basil Fawlty impressions,’ says Les Taylor. ‘It was about the only thing he did, wasn’t it? And even that wasn’t very good. It was stupid really, we should have said no, in hindsight, but these things tend to get imposed on you. It was the same for Everton, so it’s not an excuse, but it didn’t make it the most relaxing morning.’

Steve Harrison, one of the coaches and the biggest joker in the dressing room – but a man who knew when to laugh and when to focus – wasn’t impressed either. ‘It wasn’t for me, that,’ he says. ‘Barrymore tried his best but he didn’t exactly go down a bomb. I think he took the mickey too much and tried to show them up a bit and I didn’t really like that kind of thing. It wasn’t that he spoiled the day but it just wasn’t very funny.’

Everton had trained as usual on Friday morning before travelling south to the Bell House Hotel in Beaconsfield in the early afternoon. ‘The routine never changed under Howard,’ says Derek Mountfield. ‘We had our evening meal at 7.30, then we were free to do what we wanted to do. It felt just like any other away game in London.’ Even the commotion created by Freddie Starr messing about in the hotel garden first thing on Saturday morning went down well. ‘There was all this banging going on and all the lads were hanging out of the window,’ says Kevin Richardson. ‘It was Freddie in his German soldier’s outfit and wellies, which was his trademark, I suppose. He was pretending to fall in a hole, making jokes, it was funny really.’

If there was a difference between the two sides it was that most of the Everton players had already had a taste of Wembley and the bitter tang of cup final defeat. They knew what to expect. They had also recorded a cup final record, Here We Go, and appeared on Terry Wogan’s chat show to perform it, but the Everton team were focused on the match not the build-up. They were going to Wembley to win.

‘We were adamant that we were going to get our hands on some silverware,’ says their striker Graeme Sharp. ‘Apart from the stupid song, everything was pretty low key for us. It was busy, with all the media and going to be fitted for the cup final suits and all of those things, but we weren’t getting carried away.’

Before the Everton team got on the coach to travel from Buckinghamshire to the stadium, they were sat in the hotel lounge watching the build-up on television. ‘Graham Taylor was on the TV and he said something like “It’s a fantastic achievement to get to the final and it’s a great day for the fans,”’ says Sharp. ‘Howard turned to us and said “Hey, we’re not going there to enjoy the day, we’re going there to win.” I’m not saying Watford didn’t want to win, of course they did, but we were going there absolutely determined to win. There was no question about enjoying the day because we knew there was no worse feeling than losing.’

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* * *

The whistle brought a roar from the crowd. George Reilly tapped the ball to Maurice Johnston, who laid it back for Kenny Jackett to send a lofted pass towards Nigel Callaghan on the right touchline. The ball sailed over Callaghan’s head, out of play. At last, they were underway.

Kendall knew all about Watford’s attacking threat. In February, the sides had met in a superb 4-4 draw at Vicarage Road. Watford had been 4-2 ahead with 11 minutes to go but Sharp and Adrian Heath scored late on. ‘They could score some goals,’ says Sharp. ‘But we were an entertaining side too. That game at Watford was a really enjoyable one, very open.

‘It was exciting playing against them because they had pace and power and they tried to beat you. Whatever footballers say about winning is true but there isn’t a player alive who doesn’t enjoy playing in a good open game where both teams are trying to win. You knew you’d get that with Watford but they were a lot better as a footballing side than people ever gave them credit for.’

The Everton manager’s priorities were to prevent Watford’s attackers getting into the space behind the full-backs, and to try to have a go at Neil Price, the least experienced member of the team, using Trevor Steven’s pace. Richardson, on Everton’s left, was told to stop Bardsley overlapping and keep an eye on Callaghan. ‘Howard and Colin [Harvey, Everton’s assistant manager] told me to get back and stop them because if we could nullify them on one side we could hurt them elsewhere,’ says Richardson. ‘We knew Bardsley was always going to be more dangerous going forward than the left-back [Price]. On the other side we had Gary Stevens up against John Barnes. Now, Gary was one of the fittest players I ever played with and he was the ideal person to have marking Barnes. There was no way I was going to run past Bardsley and cross with my left foot, because I’m right-footed, so my game was to keep an eye on their two right-sided players and support where I could. I was playing instead of Kevin Sheedy, who was injured. If Sheedy had played, Watford might have had a bit more joy because he was a more attacking player than me and naturally left-footed, so maybe Dave and Nigel would have had more space.

‘Watford would always come at you in waves of attack but we knew if we could soak that up and survive, we could get into the game. It was a red hot day, it really was. No disrespect but we could afford to let the ball do the work because that was our way, whereas there was a lot of running and closing down involved in that Watford game. You can’t keep that up for ninety minutes, not at the same intensity, anyway, so we were patient and we waited for our chances.’

Watford’s plan was to play their own way and try to attack them without leaving the defence exposed and, from the start, their fast-paced style gave them the edge. ‘If ever there was a game when we needed to score first, this was it,’ says Graham Taylor.

Watford had by far the better of the first 20 minutes but the goal didn’t come. Twice in quick succession Les Taylor sent low, fizzing shots past Neville Southall’s left-hand post. ‘The two best chances fell to me,’ says Taylor. ‘One went just wide, the other deflected off [John] Bailey and went wide and we didn’t even get a corner for it.’

Barnes had a chance at the far post but managed to produce only a weak header. ‘He’d have scored that if he hadn’t had that perm,’ jokes Price. And Maurice Johnston failed to capitalise when he had a clear opportunity to shoot. ‘I missed a breakaway and I thought “was that my chance to score in the cup final,”’ Johnston says. It was, because it was to be a quiet game for him and his strike partner, Reilly.

At the other end, Sherwood was anxious to get a touch of the ball before he was called on to make a save, because his warm-up had been disrupted. ‘The band was playing on our side of the pitch,’ he says. ‘Usually I’d have a good warm-up with Nigel Callaghan shooting at me but we didn’t get as long because the band was in the way. Meanwhile, at the other end, Everton were passing it around and shooting like normal. That annoyed me. Once the game started, I didn’t have much to do early on. I settled down and I thought we were on top.’

Watford’s young defenders started well, too. Lee Sinnott, at 18, was the youngest player on the pitch. ‘Injuries got me back in the team,’ he says. ‘First Ian Bolton, then Steve Sims and Paul Franklin all got injured. Paul had played extremely well when he was in the team so if he had been fit it would have been him in the semi-final and final, not me. And that’s the way I looked at it. I was only 18 and had very little experience but I was level-headed, I was a logical person. I was in the team and I had to do the job I’d been asked to do. Being so young we could have frozen but I don’t think we froze at all. My job was to mark Graeme Sharp, and I got on with it.’

Alongside him in the centre of the defence was Steve Terry, who marked Andy Gray, signed by Everton from Wolverhampton Wanderers the previous November. The rugged centre forward had won at Wembley before, scoring the winning goal for Wolves in the 1980 League Cup final. His arrival at Goodison Park had helped spark their revival. Marking Gray, who was all sharp angles and aggression, was a job Steve Sims, watching from the stands, would have relished.

After a positive start, Watford felt the match begin to slip away from them. The right-back, David Bardsley, who had spent a fortnight wondering if his knee injury would clear up, says the game passed him by. ‘The race to be fit affected me, of course it did,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to miss the final but the game came and went before I knew it. When you are that age, you don’t realise what it’s all about. If I’d have been 32 I would have appreciated it more. In fact, I’m probably a better footballer now, at 44, than I was when I was at Watford. The cup final was hugely nerve-wracking, I had no idea what to expect and I actually don’t remember much about the game at all. I know I’d have done a million things differently if it had come later in my career but you have to appreciate that two years earlier, I was not even playing professionally.’

A lot of the focus was on Watford’s left flank, where Wilf Rostron should have been. ‘I felt sorry for the young boy at left-back,’ says Sharp. ‘He had come from nowhere and he was up against Trevor Steven, who had joined from Burnley at the start of the season and had broken into the team and made a real impact.’ Steven was only 20, the same age as Price, but in a very short time he’d established himself as one of the best young players in the country. He gave Price a hard time which only encouraged Everton to give him the ball more often and Watford struggled to cut the supply to the Everton wide man.

Watford missed not only Rostron’s captaincy but his ability to get forward and link up with John Barnes. ‘No one ever gave Wilf the runaround,’ says Sherwood. ‘You never thought “Oh, Wilf had a bad game today.” Even if things weren’t going well, he would go back to his basics and he was so reliable. It was a big loss because the whole of the defence missed that steadying influence.’

‘Wilf used to take the pressure off me by telling me to stay forward,’ says Barnes. ‘There were times when, I won’t say I went missing, but if I was not in the game Wilf would be talking to me all the time and that helped me immensely. But I won’t say I specifically missed him in the cup final but the team missed him. Neil had a great left foot and his delivery was excellent but he wasn’t very pacy. In a team where we had lots of possession he was a great player to have because he could cross from deep positions and play you in. I think you can see that in the cup final, it was when Everton started to have more of the ball that we struggled, we got pushed back as a team, Neil got pushed back and the fact that Trevor Steven could run Neil made it difficult for us. Obviously they started to look to attack us down that side.’

Price was always a combative player from the old school of defending. As a full-back, he believed you had to show the winger there was going to be no leeway. Hit them early with a strong challenge, nothing deliberately nasty but a powerful block tackle with the full body weight behind it to deter the opponent from getting any ideas about skipping past. But when he had the opportunity to make a bold statement, Price found himself holding back because of the sense of occasion. ‘Very early in the game, the ball drops between me and Trevor,’ he says. ‘I was not averse to going through the player but I didn’t because it was the cup final. I always remember that split-second where I thought about it and held back, whereas usually I wouldn’t have thought. If I had smashed him, gone through him and got the ball, or perhaps not got the ball and been booked, maybe that would have changed my game a bit and put me on top of Trevor. But I never got into it, I was always on the periphery of the game, mentally, and I don’t think I did the things that were natural to me.

‘One thing that struck me was that you couldn’t get instructions to your colleagues or hear anything because of the crowd noise. It was like playing in a capsule, you were on your own a lot of the time. I was completely unprepared for that. Senior people didn’t tell me what it was going to be like but perhaps they didn’t know either. Graham was a very hands-on manager during a game, during a normal match you’d hear him even if you were on the opposite side of the pitch to the benches. But at Wembley it was like he wasn’t there, the benches were so far back and the noise was so intense.

‘The occasion was incredible and even though the dressing rooms weren’t great, they were a bit run-down, the place had so much history. I just wish I’d been told that everything around the game, the stadium, the day, it was all just hype, and that when we got on the pitch it was just a normal game of football.’

* * *

Seven minutes before half-time, Everton scored with their first meaningful attack and Watford’s promising work evaporated. A scuffed shot from outside the area landed perfectly at Sharp’s feet and the Scotsman was able to turn quickly and fire it past Sherwood. The ball hit the inside of Sherwood’s right-hand post, with the goalkeeper rooted to the spot. ‘It came at me quite quickly but I managed to control it with my left and hit it with my right,’ says Sharp. ‘There were a few calls for offside but I wasn’t. The goal came at a very good time for us. Watford had been on top early on but we had got back into it and because the goal came quite close to half-time we were able to just sit tight and get to the break with the lead. That was absolutely vital because it took the wind out of Watford. I still think now, if Watford had scored first it would have been a different game because trying to chase a game at Wembley is very difficult.’

‘We did expect them to come at us,’ says Kevin Richardson. ‘But the occasion, the weather, the commitment they were putting in, eventually it wore them down. And then came the second goal and that was it.’

The goal was a bolt from the blue. A crushing blow from Andy Gray that bundled the ball into the back of the net and Watford’s fading dreams into the gutter. It was a bitter pill to swallow, coated in a sickly layer of injustice. Watford, so determined to regroup and re-assert themselves on the match, now faced a mammoth task.

Six minutes into the second period, Everton attacked down Watford’s vulnerable left. Price kept pace with Steven but he was never able to get close enough to block the cross. Steven sent a high ball across the penalty area to the far post. It hung invitingly in the air. Sherwood had his eyes on it, and his arms up ready to pluck it neatly out of the sky.

Gray didn’t stand on ceremony. He was a ruthless centre forward. Only one thought went through his mind. Put the ball in the net however you can and we’ll argue about it in a minute, but get it in the goal.

Gray got the man first. The ball slipped from Sherwood’s tentative grasp. Steve Terry and Sherwood collided and came crashing down to earth. Gray did not stop to look back. As soon as the ball was over the line, he was away, celebrating, with his arm in the air.

‘Steve [Sherwood] called it and I tried to get out of the way but Gray jumped into him,’ says Steve Terry. ‘It was a foul.’

The referee, John Hunting, awarded the goal and Watford, brought up to respect the official’s decision as final, muted their complaints and got on with the game. But the goal, and the decision, had knocked the stuffing out of them. The television replays show that Gray headed Sherwood’s arm, not the ball. ‘It was a foul, no doubt about it,’ says the goalkeeper. ‘He headed my arm. He didn’t touch the ball. It shouldn’t have been given. Bob Wilson [the former Arsenal goalkeeper who was working for the BBC] came round to the back of the goal during the second half and told me it was a foul.’

‘Andy Gray maintains to this day it was a perfectly good goal,’ says Sharp. ‘You’re going up to challenge and you’re going in fully committed.

After that it’s up to the referee but there’s no way you’re not going to claim it.’

George Reilly, who stands at 6ft 4in and felt he was often penalised by referees because of his size, believes it would never have been awarded had the same incident happened at the other end of the pitch. ‘Andy is 5ft 10in and when you’re that height you put your arm up when you’re jumping to head the ball and you get away with it. If I did that, it was automatically a free kick. If I’d scored that goal, I’d have claimed it just like Gray did but it would never have been given. When I was at West Brom with Gray I said to him “That was never a goal,” and he said “Did you read the papers, big man? It said Andy Gray. Goal.” Maybe Steve [Sherwood] should have come out and just punched him, the ball, and taken the lot out?’ Les Taylor agrees: ‘It wasn’t Steve Sherwood’s fault because it was a foul, but Steve is 6ft 4in tall, he shouldn’t get battered by Andy Gray. It should have been the other way round.’

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Watford’s hopes of getting back into the game had been extinguished. ‘After the second goal it felt like I didn’t touch the ball for 15 minutes, we just went completely flat,’ says Reilly. Watford were rarely a threat after that and Everton, with their two-goal lead, could afford to sit back. Just as he had planned, Taylor took Price off, with Paul Atkinson going into the left side of midfield and Barnes taking a free role behind the strikers but by then Everton had things under control.

‘Our front four were the biggest let-down,’ says Les Taylor. ‘With our game you just hope that the front four works out for you but the best chances fell to me. It was disappointing to lose but I felt I played quite well, personally, and that is always difficult because how you play is irrelevant if you don’t win the game. But I was quite happy to have performed, we just didn’t create the chances.’ Sinnott says: ‘I think Everton’s wide players did better on the day. I am not blaming our wide men, but they got the ball to their wide men more.’

When the final whistle blew, the last remaining drops of energy drained from Watford’s players as the men in blue celebrated. Defeat cast a long shadow over Watford’s weary men and suddenly they felt like gatecrashers at a party. ‘Once you’ve lost you just want to get off the stage,’ says Sinnott. ‘It’s not your moment. You have given everything to try to win but it’s not your day and you have to stay out there and watch your opponents enjoying it all.’

‘I remember going round and shaking the Watford lads’ hands,’ says Sharp. ‘We’d won the cup and we were, of course, delighted, but you’re trying not to celebrate right in their faces because you knew what that feeling was like. There’s not much you can say other than “well done” or “bad luck”. What struck me was that the Watford supporters all stayed to applaud us as we did the lap of honour with the cup. That was absolutely fantastic and we applauded them back. It’s one of those moments that will stay with me. It’s rare these days, usually one end of the stadium is empty five minutes after the final whistle. Maybe it was because they had come so far. When I started as a professional, Watford were a Fourth Division club but they’d come through the divisions and they’d played in a cup final. Just getting there was a victory for them really. Maybe they appreciated what it was they’d been a part of that bit more.’

‘We didn’t expect to lose and the feeling at the end was utter despair,’ says Barnes. ‘We’d done well against them in the league but I thought the experience of the club makes a difference in those situations. I felt it a bit at Liverpool, you took the whole thing in your stride more because it was more familiar, and I felt Everton did have that edge. I am not saying they took it more seriously than us at all but we did take it as a lovely day out and we were enjoying it.’

Before climbing Wembley’s 39 steps to collect his medal, Reilly remembered to put in his false teeth, having promised his mother he wouldn’t meet a member of the Royal Family without them. Then the team walked slowly round the stadium, the warm applause taking a bit of the chill out of the shattering realisation that it was all over. Back in the dressing room, Pat Rice, a winner of two cup finals but a loser in three, passed on the benefit of his experience. ‘I said to them: “Now you know what it’s like to lose a cup final. Remember how much this hurts and come back and win one.”’

In the other dressing room, Everton’s players celebrated. ‘The bath at Wembley is six foot deep, full of warm water, and I just remember standing in the bath with both my arms on the side, my feet dangling, just thinking “I’ve been to Wembley, I’ve won a cup, I’ve got a medal… this is absolutely fantastic,”’ says Richardson. After soaking their manager with Champagne, the Everton players began to sing.

‘We did one of Elton’s,’ says Derek Mountfield. ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues.

* * *

The controversy over Gray’s goal dominated the newspapers and Sherwood took much of the blame. There were not the endless slow-motion replays from a dozen different angles in those days. Just an instant judgement that determined the narrative. And that judgement was that Sherwood had dropped a clanger.

‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he says. ‘If I was a manager, I’d want Andy Gray in my team. He’d go for a ball that was no right to be his, that was his way of playing, but that was a foul and the referee should have awarded a free-kick. What was disappointing was that all my family were there to see it. The following day, the papers gave me some terrible criticism. It was all my fault, I took the blame. That was the lowest I’ve been in my career and it took quite a while to get over. People are right when they say Wembley is an awful place to lose. If there was 48 hours I could cut out of my life, that would be it. People say “Well, at least you’ve played in a cup final,” but it doesn’t feel like that.’

The referee, John Hunting, was adamant when asked about the incident by journalists after the game. ‘I was absolutely right,’ he told the Daily Mirror. ‘I was perfectly placed to see the incident and therewas never any question of a foul. There is not the slightest doubt in mymind that Gray headed the ball in. Sherwood went for a long cross fromthe right and his momentum took him backwards. He let the ball go andGray put it in.’

Everton’s manager, Howard Kendall, played things down. ‘I’ve seen it again and it remains inconclusive. You see what you want to see in it. But there is no point arguing because the referee gave the goal.’

Up in the directors’ lounge there was only one topic of conversation. Was it a goal? ‘I had tremendous respect for the management and board of Everton,’ says Eddie Plumley. ‘They were fantastic people. I know they’d won it but there were so magnanimous really. They were unsure whether it was a goal and they agreed that they wouldn’t have been happy if it was at the other end.’

For Everton, the cup final heralded a new beginning. They went on to win the league championship and the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

‘I don’t think people realised at the time just how good they were,’ says Callaghan. ‘If English teams hadn’t been banned from Europe they’d have won the European Cup with more or less the same side.’

Although he recognised the achievement of having reached the final, defeat did not sit easily with Graham Taylor. ‘I’ve never brought myself to watch the game,’ he says. ‘I’ve seen odd clips here and there but I’ve never watched it and I don’t know if I ever will. I don’t really like talking about it either. I am not saying they did badly and I am not putting the blame at their feet. I blame myself for picking the wrong team and announcing it early. We were a young side and it was a fantastic achievement for a club like Watford to reach the cup final but it’s not right to say we were just happy to be there. I didn’t prepare the players for anything other than expecting to win.’

Despite defeat, they partied long into the night. Elton John hosted the do in the garden of John Reid’s home, near Rickmansworth. Everyone was invited, from the directors to the laundry lady. It was a fantastic night as the band played and Elton and Kiki Dee sang Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.

‘I’ve never seen Champagne bottles like it,’ says Price. ‘They were huge. Imagine what it would have been like had we won. We’d still have been there on Monday morning.’

Someone would have to clear up the empty bottles and streamers the following morning. The job of continuing the team’s progress would be less straightforward. Runners-up in the league one year, runners-up in the cup the next. Watford had set the bar incredibly high. Although Graham Taylor didn’t realise it at the time, the final represented the summit of the inexorable rise. ‘The FA Cup final marks, for me, the beginning of the end of the story,’ he says.

This article first appeared in Enjoy the Game © Peloton Publishing, 2010

The Yellow Brick Road to Wembley

‘Once we’d beaten Luton, I felt it might be our year’

This is the story of Watford’s FA Cup run to Wembley in 1984 from the book Enjoy the Game.

by Lionel Birnie

Elton John’s record company was finalising the details of his European Express Tour, arranging concerts from Brussels to Berlin and Madrid to Milan, when Graham Taylor told him it might be an idea to keep one particular date free.

Saturday, May 19, 1984.

FA Cup final day.

There aren’t many football managers who would dare say, ‘Don’t make any plans for the third Saturday in May, Mr Chairman. We’re all going to Wembley,’ before the draw for the third round had even been made, but as 1983 came to a close, and with league results improving, Taylor felt his remoulded team was coming together just in time for the start of the competition.

Although Elton knew not to take the manager’s tip-off as any guarantee, the supporters began to entertain dreams of a cup run when they read Taylor’s thoughts in the Watford Observer. Discussing the team’s cup chances with unbending logic, he said: ‘On the majority of occasions the FA Cup final is fought out between two First Division clubs.

‘So we have a one in eleven chance of reaching Wembley. And if we don’t think of ourselves as a bottom six team, our chances have to be slightly better.’

How could you argue with that?

Any inflated sense of optimism was punctured when the draw for the third round was made. It could not have been much worse than a trip to Luton Town, a venue that spelled almost certain defeat if recent history was anything to go by. Luton’s hold over Watford, especially on their own ground, defied even Taylor’s logic and added up to only one thing – victory for the Hatters, probably by a deflected goal in the 85th minute.

Kenilworth Road was not a fruitful place to visit, the last win there had been on Boxing Day 1964, and all four of Graham Taylor’s trips up the M1 as Watford manager had ended in defeat, three of them by a goal to nil. The Hatters enjoyed the spell they seemed to hold over their local rivals and even the previous April’s 5-2 defeat at Vicarage Road had failed to exorcise it entirely. There was just something about Luton that meant they got the rub of the green more often than not, and it had become utterly infuriating for Watford’s followers.

Third round: Luton Town 2 Watford 2

Third round: Luton Town 2 Watford 2

Twenty six minutes into the match, Luton were 2-0 up and looked in no need of any luck. As the Watford players trudged back into position after Brian Stein had scored Luton’s second, David Bardsley, still raw and inexperienced, turned to Steve Sims. ‘Bloody hell Simsy, we’re finished here,’ he said.

For Sims, this was not a time for gentle encouragement. ‘He was a bit of a worrier, Dave,’ says Sims. ‘I shouted across to him “Oh shut up, Dave, it’s only halfway through the first half. Let’s just get on with it.” I must admit, though, it wasn’t looking good.’

Within a minute, Watford had a managed to claw a goal back, thanks to some Luton-esque good fortune. Nigel Callaghan was fouled just outside the penalty area, John Barnes took the free kick and the ball deflected off Brian Horton as he charged out from Luton’s defensive wall and spun past Les Sealey, their goalkeeper.

Sims turned to Bardsley. ‘See, we’ll be all right. Now come on.’

Shortly before half-time, Barnes was chopped down in the area and Maurice Johnston scored from the penalty spot. With the equaliser, the momentum swung back in Watford’s favour and what followed was a fiery battle for supremacy that threatened to spill over. At one point, Luton’s belligerent defender Kirk Stephens swung his arm and poked Johnston in the eye. He claimed to the referee with wide-eyed innocence that he was merely signalling in Sealey’s direction. From there, the game simmered and spat but there were no further goals and it end two apiece.

* * *

Four days later, at Vicarage Road in the replayed match, the roles were reversed. This time it was Watford’s turn to take a 2-0 lead before the half-hour mark. Callaghan scored very early and George Reilly added the second before Mal Donaghy lifted Luton with a goal just before the break. When Barnes scored Watford’s third shortly after the interval, the Hornets looked to have finally cracked them, only for Paul Walsh to grab two in quick succession. The final 20 minutes were pulsating and every effort expended by the players on the heavy pitch as they searched for the decisive goal was matched by the nervous energy shed on the terraces. This was gripping, sudden-death stuff, with neither side willing to settle for a second replay.

Third round replay: Watford 4 Luton Town 3

Third round replay: Watford 4 Luton Town 3

At the end of normal time Luton’s players slumped onto the turf as their manager David Pleat implored them to find one last moment of inspiration. Taylor made his players stand. ‘I’ve never been so tired in all my life,’ says Sims. ‘It could have been 10-9 to either side.’

‘It was such an open game,’ says Steve Sherwood, the goalkeeper. ‘Neither side could defend but they were put under that much pressure by the forwards. They’d bombard us for a bit and then we’d have a go at them and I’d get a bit of respite but, before you knew it, they were back down at our end. It would have been horrible to lose that game.’

The winning goal from Johnston came in the first period of extra time and Watford withstood a late Luton onslaught to go through.

Elton was on Montserrat, the Caribbean island, recording an album, and had spent the whole two hours on the phone, listening to Watford General Hospital radio’s commentary. It was, he said, his most expensive phone call ever, as he racked up a bill totalling several hundred pounds. But, he said, it was worth it.

‘You don’t really talk about these things with the other players but after we beat Luton I got the feeling everyone thought it could be our year,’ says Callaghan. ‘There was just a sense that everyone was looking forward to the cup games a bit more.’

Fourth round: Charlton Athletic 0 Watford 2

Fourth round: Charlton Athletic 0 Watford 2

Watford’s chances of reaching the final were significantly better than one in eleven now, as a clutch of big names were turfed out of the cup that January weekend. Manchester United, the holders, were knocked out by Third Division Bournemouth, who were managed by Harry Redknapp. Arsenal lost at Middlesbrough while Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa were also beaten. Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur fell at the fourth round stage, as Watford skipped nimbly past Second Division Charlton Athletic at The Valley. Each giant that fell made Watford’s view of the twin towers a little clearer and by the time the fifth round draw pitted them against Second Division Brighton, the previous year’s beaten finalists and Liverpool’s conquerors in the previous round, the Hornets were second favourites to lift the cup. The bookmakers favoured Southampton, who were going well in the league, but did not rate Everton at that point because they were languishing.

Watford’s front four hit their stride that spring, with Callaghan and Barnes on the flanks keeping Johnston and Reilly well supplied. Goals were flying in – five at Notts County, four at West Ham, four against Everton. The defence may not have been watertight but the team was playing with verve and confidence again. Reilly had won over the supporters and the ovation he got as he was substituted towards the end of the 3-1 cup win against Brighton was a far cry from the boos he’d heard in the autumn. There was a sense the team was on a roll, and even an awkward quarter-final draw couldn’t derail them.

A week before the FA Cup sixth round match at Birmingham City, Watford travelled to Leicester, Steve Sims’s old club. Sims had only passed a fitness test on the lunchtime of the match, having suffered two dead legs in the previous week’s game against Everton. Early in the second half at Filbert Street, he cleared the ball upfield and as his leg followed through it cracked against a Leicester player who had tried to close him down. ‘At first I thought “Ow, that hurt” but I carried on for a few minutes,’ says Sims.

Fifth round: Watford 3 Brighton and Hove Albion 1

Fifth round: Watford 3 Brighton and Hove Albion 1

When the ball went out of play he looked down and blood was oozing out of his sock and over the top of his boot. ‘I rolled my sock down and there was a deep hole in my ankle the size of a stud. After another five minutes or so I came over to the side of the pitch, near the benches, and said that I’d better come of. He [Taylor] wasn’t having any of it because he’d already substituted Callaghan at half-time [there was only one substitute in those days] so I rolled down my sock, pointed to all the blood, and said “Look” and he said “yeah, perhaps you’d better come off.”’

Sims had his wound stitched in the dressing room and he went back out. ‘I stayed on the wing, out of the way, just making up the numbers because I could hardly move. I was dreading the ball coming near me as the ankle was getting so sore. After the match I’d been planning to stay up in Leicester, which is my wife’s home town, because it was my son’s first birthday but I decided to go back and get my ankle sorted out. I was on the coach and a couple of the lads were laughing at me because I was saying it hurt.’ Sims rarely complained and was often telling others to ‘stop moaning, it’s only a flesh wound’. Sims took up two seats on the coach, trying to keep his ankle still, wincing every time the coach jolted.

Physio Billy Hails gave him a couple of paracetamol. In the middle of the night, Sims woke in agony. ‘I was screaming out, it was that painful, so my wife rang Billy up and we realised it was broken.’

* * *

One day in March, Billy Hails was out in the Twin Tub, the nickname for club’s Fiat Panda that was used and abused by the club’s coaching staff, when it conked out, grinding to a halt with a shudder and a horrible grating sound. The car had run out of oil so the engine seized up. They later found the repair bill would be about £1,000, so Hails, John Ward, Steve Harrison and Tom Walley got together to discuss the problem.

‘Graham had called a staff meeting for the Friday afternoon, which was a bit unusual,’ says Ward. We thought we were going to get slaughtered for not looking after the car properly. That was the only reason we could think of for the gaffer calling the meeting.’

They decided to pre-empt the manager’s annoyance and split the repair bill between them. ‘Billy may have been driving when the oil ran out but we’d all been using the car so the fairest thing was to all put in £250.

‘Now, we weren’t well paid and none of us had the luxury of just saying goodbye to £250 but we wanted to get it sorted before the manager had to get involved.’

The four of them sat in the little office under the stairs off the corridor below the main stand, waiting for the manager, ready to disarm him with their solution. Taylor walked in with four brown envelopes in his hand.

‘Here it is,’ Ward thought. ‘This is our share of the bill from the garage.’

Taylor gave each of them an envelope. No one wanted to take a peek and see the cost of their error in black and white.

‘Well,’ said Taylor. ‘Aren’t you going to open them?’

They looked at each other. Two hundred and fifty quid down the drain. Great.

‘Go on, open them.’

Inside was not a bill for the repairs but airline tickets and the details of a swish-looking hotel in Portugal. Puzzled looks all round.

‘This is just a thank you from the club for all your work,’ said the manager. ‘Take a break, take your wives, and enjoy yourselves.’

Taylor had booked a hotel in the Algarve for a month and wanted each of them, in turn, to spend a week away. Anticipating the possibility of the team reaching the FA Cup final, Taylor knew the extra burden it would place on his staff. He wanted to give them a rest, a chance to recharge their batteries and return refreshed for the push to Wembley.

Because of the European campaign and then the FA Cup run, they’d been working flat-out, with barely a pause for breath, for almost nine months.

‘This was during the season, in the middle of a cup run but he knew how hard we’d worked and he knew what a holiday like that would mean to us,’ says Ward. ‘He also knew that if he’d asked us whether we wanted to go on holiday during the season we’d have said no, so he went ahead and booked it and convinced the board to pay for it. It just felt so special. We weren’t paid a lot but things like that really lifted you. He even said: “If anyone has any trouble finding someone to look after your children, they can come to Rita and me for the week.”’

The four drew straws to see who would take which week and, after a look at the fixture list, Ward and Walley knew they would miss the FA Cup quarter-final against Birmingham City.

Sixth round: Birmingham City 1 Watford 3

Sixth round: Birmingham City 1 Watford 3

Although they ended up getting relegated from the First Division at the end of the season, Birmingham were on a roll when they welcomed the Hornets to St Andrew’s. They had enjoyed a 12-match unbeaten run just prior to Watford’s visit and were slight favourites, partly because St Andrew’s was never an easy place to go.

Even with 10,000 Watford supporters in the stadium, the atmosphere was overwhelming and intimidating. A big, tough, working-class crowd anticipating an afternoon of cup heroics from their big, tough, workmanlike team. The attendance was 40,220 that day but there was barely room to move on those vast, ageing terraces.

Birmingham were a bruising, uncompromising side with a number of untamed temperaments among them – Tony Coton in goal, Noel Blake and Pat Van Den Hauwe at the back, Robert Hopkins in the centre and Mick Harford up front. They fought together on the pitch, and sometimes off it as well. ‘We had this reputation, I suppose,’ says Coton, who would join Watford six months later. ‘We were a tough team but we did play football, we didn’t just go round kicking people. We fancied our chances against Watford. They weren’t exactly shrinking violets, you know. They were a tough side but we knew we could match them in a physical battle, especially at home.’

John Barnes scored a superb goal midway through the first half. A huge kick from Sherwood fell out of the sky with such weight that the back-pedalling Blake, under pressure from Reilly, could only head it sideways.

Barnes, lurking on the left of the penalty area controlled it and, with footwork as quick and deceptive as a magician’s trick, cut inside his marker. He admitted that the slight bobble the ball took off the turf as he was preparing to strike it enabled him to get such pace and swerve on the shot. The ball dipped over Coton’s head into the net and even the goalkeeper had to admire it. ‘Yeah, Barnesy got a flukey one,’ Coton says, deadpan.

The Blues got themselves level after an hour when Howard Gayle played the ball across the face of goal and it deflected off Steve Terry into the net. ‘Mick Harford was right behind me and if it hadn’t hit me, he’d have scored, but it wasn’t a great feeling to score an own goal,’ says Terry. ‘The Birmingham crowd was so loud I was worried that might spur them. At that point I thought a draw would be a good result but we managed to settle down and get back in control.’

Twelve minutes remained when a headed clearance fell to Les Taylor on the left-hand side of Birmingham’s penalty area. He controlled it neatly, took a couple of strides and fired a powerful, rising left-foot shot that hit the underside of the bar and went in. It was his only goal of the season. Watford’s fans were still in full voice when, two minutes later Callaghan took a long throw-in that was flicked on by Reilly and then by Johnston before Barnes arrived at the far post to stab it home.

* * *

At about the time the team stepped onto the pitch at St Andrew’s, John Ward and his wife were boarding a plane for Portugal. Although he was looking forward to a week in the sunshine, his mind was elsewhere. ‘I thought to myself at the airport, “What am I doing here? I want to be in Birmingham,”’ he says.

By the time they touched down in Faro he knew the game would be over and Watford could be in the semi-final. Ward asked one of the stewardesses if the pilot might be able to find out the score while they were in the air.

The stewardess smiled and said she’d see what she could do but there was no announcement from the captain.

‘We got off the plane and I was looking around for a television or something that might have the English football scores on but there wasn’t anything.’ he says. ‘We were in the arrival area waiting for our luggage and as we were standing there, out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone waving at me. It was Tom Walley.’ A big glass wall was all that separated the arrival and departure lounges at the airport. Walley and his wife Pauline were nicely tanned and waiting to travel home. Walley spotted Ward and assumed he would know the score. ‘Tom was waving his arms, then he started banging on the glass mouthing “who won?” I shrugged and he threw his arms up in the air.’

Walley went off to find a payphone. A few minutes later he returned and ran right up to the glass with a huge smile on his face. He held his fingers up. Three on one hand, one on the other. Watford had done it. They were going to the semi-final.

Parted by that sheet of glass, miles away in a Portuguese airport, Ward and Walley celebrated as if they’d just heard the final whistle. ‘I couldn’t hug him so we were sort of slapping the glass and clenching our fists,’ says Ward. ‘We weren’t even at the game but I’ll never forget the joy of that moment.’

* * *

Watford were into the semi-final of the FA Cup for only the second time in their history. The team that had made it was relatively inexperienced in terms of the cup. Of the team that disposed of Birmingham, only Wilf Rostron had played in a sixth round tie before, let alone reached the last four, so most of them were sailing well into uncharted territory. Many of the supporters remembered the previous FA Cup semi-final, that 5-1 drubbing by Chelsea at White Hart Lane in 1970. But this time was different. Watford would go into the game as a First Division team. Wembley was one step away and they need not fear anyone left in the hat.

The players had been given Monday off after the Birmingham game, so they were not gathered all together when the draw was broadcast on BBC radio that lunchtime. With a couple of replays to come, six teams went into the velvet bag, with Everton the only obvious one to avoid. In recent weeks, the Merseysiders had been resurgent after a poor start to the season and Howard Kendall, so close to the sack in the autumn, had begun to craft a very fine team. Southampton had drawn their sixth round match at Hillsborough against Howard Wilkinson’s Sheffield Wednesday side, who were well on course for promotion from the Second Division.

Neither of them looked unbeatable nor particularly inviting, so that left Second Division strugglers Derby County, or Third Division Plymouth Argyle, who had drawn against each other, as the favoured opponents for the Hornets.

The fact it could have been Watford against Derby in the semi-final has been airbrushed from most people’s memories. Steve Sherwood remembers listening to the draw while he was in his car. ‘I pulled over and I was sitting in a lay-by. I remember hoping we’d get Plymouth. It wasn’t that I thought it’d be an easy game but it definitely gave us a better chance of reaching the final.’

Argyle, who had knocked out West Bromwich Albion earlier in the competition, pulled off another shock when a corner kick from Andy Rogers swung directly into Derby’s net in their replay at the Baseball Ground. That meant Watford would be the hot favourites against a Third Division side but, with the heady expectation and anticipation in the air, Graham Taylor was quick to ensure his players did not take anything for granted.

The whole country would be rooting for an upset, he told them, so they had to make sure they were disciplined and ready for a battle. Plymouth had nothing to lose while Watford were expected to reach Wembley. For most of the supporters, the Hornets already had one foot in the final.

Cup fever gripped the town. The queue stretched all the way down Occupation Road and round the ground when tickets for the match at Villa Park went on sale. With a historic date at Wembley now within touching distance, some supporters became edgy as the usual old wives’ tales got an airing around the pubs. ‘The FA takes 50 per cent of cup final tickets for itself, you know. The two clubs only get about ten thousand each,’ that sort of thing. Taylor had to use Watford Observer to quell the mild panic from supporters who feared they might miss out, reminding them that the semi-final had to be won or there would be no day out at Wembley to fuss about. ‘Fans are writing to me already, asking for cup final tickets,’ he said. ‘Please don’t write to me. I have to reply and that takes time I could use on other things. I don’t want mementoes proving lifelong support either.’

Taylor received a letter from a lady saying her son didn’t even watch football but that a couple of tickets might be a nice surprise for his birthday. She even offered to pay for them. One man wrote explaining that the ticket stubs he needed to provide as proof of his support had been put in the wash by his wife and were now a papery mush. Others were offering to pay twice or three times the face value of the tickets. And this was before Plymouth had been defeated.

Taylor knew the Third Division side would not be a push-over. He also knew that injuries were starting to chip away at a team that had begun to hit its stride.

With Steve Sims certain to miss the semi-final and facing a race to be fit should the team reach Wembley, the last thing Taylor needed was to lose his other central defender. Paul Franklin had grown into the team and proved to the manager that he was the preferred replacement for Ian Bolton. Some of his performances in the early part of the year had been outstanding. Franklin didn’t know it but the quarter-final would be his last first team game for 20 months.

‘During the Birmingham game I had blocked a cross from Howard Gayle and felt my knee twinge slightly,’ he says. ‘I didn’t think anything of it at the time, I just marked up for the corner and finished the game. It was okay on the Sunday and the Monday but when I started running again on the Tuesday it began to swell up.’ Franklin had a scan and the doctor told him the cartilage had torn. ‘It hadn’t gone completely, it was just a tear. Graham said he wanted me fit for the semi-final and the doctor said they could trim the cartilage and that I should be fine.’

Although it wasn’t anything drastic, the team, in such fine, freeflowing form up to the Birmingham game, was beginning to show signs of tension. With his first-choice central defensive partnership unavailable, Taylor had to throw Steve Terry and Lee Sinnott together. Terry could cope, he’d played plenty of times before and slotted into the side as if he’d never been away, playing well at Birmingham despite the own goal. Sinnott, still only 18, had played a handful of matches at left-back when he’d first arrived from Walsall in the autumn. However, he had been a non-playing member of the first team squad so the number of games he’d played for the reserves was limited. When he did play he was sometimes a full-back, sometimes a central defender.

Sinnott and Terry shared the same digs in Garston, got on well and as players they complemented one another. ‘Lee wasn’t a typical centre half,’ says Terry. ‘He was tall and very quick but he wasn’t powerful. Between us we struck up a good partnership quite quickly, although it wasn’t all plain sailing. I would attack the ball and mark the big centre forward, he would take the quick one and play a sort of sweeper’s role.’

Before they came together in the first team for a league match against Queens Park Rangers, Terry and Sinnott had played together just twice for the reserves, in a 3-0 defeat against Arsenal and a 4-1 defeat against Tottenham. But the injuries to Sims and Franklin meant the manager was running out of options. ‘We had to learn to work together quite quickly,’ says Terry.

Where everything had looked so stable a month or so before, there was now uncertainty and disruption. It was a little like the European campaign all over again. Reilly and Rostron picked up minor injuries and three or four players – Terry and Bardsley among them – knew that another booking would rule them out of the semi-final. Injuries and suspensions were about to open the door for the combative left-back Neil Price.

* * *

Price had played in a couple of the European games as Watford pushed Wilf Rostron up into midfield to plug a gap but his run in the team came to an abrupt end when he kicked Arsenal’s Charlie Nicholas into the stand at Highbury and was sent off.

‘It was [referee] Clive Thomas’s last season before retirement and he was always in the newspapers. Maybe he decided he wanted to be the man again,’ says Price. ‘I gave him every opportunity, to be fair. I made two pretty bad challenges and got booked for both of them.’

As the injuries that had plagued the Hornets through the autumn began to clear up, Les Taylor returned to the team so Wilf Rostron, who had filled the gap in midfield, reclaimed his left-back position, which in turn sent Price back to the reserves and eventually led to him temporarily heading west. ‘After playing in the team, I needed to go out on loan,’ he says. ‘There was no point going back to the reserves to vegetate, I needed to play more first team football, even if that meant going down a couple of divisions.’

In February, Price and Watford’s reserve midfielder Francis Cassidy went on loan to Plymouth Argyle. ‘It felt a very long way away at the time,’ says Price. ‘I’d got myself a little flat in Hemel Hempstead, I had my girlfriend up here, and then I had to go down to Plymouth and live in digs with a little old lady.’

After the structure and discipline at Watford, Price wondered what it was he was supposed to be learning at Plymouth. ‘It was a bit amateurish,’ he says. ‘They weren’t a bad side but the players had more of a say. It seemed to be a club run by a committee of senior players rather than by a manager. They trained on this scruffy pitch out the back of the stadium and it was all a bit loose compared to what I was used to.’

Plymouth’s manager, John Hore, asked Watford’s permission for Price and Cassidy to play in the FA Cup tie against Derby. Watford said no. Once the draw was made, there was speculation that Watford may let Price play against them in the semi-final. There was nothing in the FA’s rules to prevent it but Price says it was never going to happen. The way he saw it, he’d rather sit in the stand than have to play against Watford in such a vital game. Price couldn’t imagine being part of a side seeking to deny his own club a place at Wembley. After a handful of games for Plymouth, Price was recalled and went back into Watford’s reserves but as the season ended he would be thrust back into the spotlight.

* * *

A pattern was starting to emerge ahead of the cup ties. Watford were thumped 4-1 by Leicester a week before the quarter-final. Seven days ahead of the semi-final, they travelled to Carrow Road to face Norwich City. John Deehan scored four as the Canaries won 6-1. It was one of those days they’d have preferred to forget. Unfortunately, the television cameras were there, filming for ITV’s Sunday lunchtime programme, The Big Match.

Watford were fraying at the edges. Paul Franklin had a fitness test before the game and broke down again. With Rostron was injured so Kenny Jackett played at left-back and Paul Atkinson came into midfield. ‘I didn’t pull up no trees that day,’ says Atkinson, who feels his display cost him a place on the bench for the semi-final. ‘But to be fair no one played well. The gaffer wasn’t even angry afterwards. He didn’t even say much, so it must’ve been bad!’

Steve Sherwood had chosen not to tell the manager that he was struggling with a knock. ‘I played in that [Norwich] game with a bad thumb injury,’ he says. ‘I know I shouldn’t have played. I should have told them I was injured but there was no way I was going to miss that game, with a cup semi-final and possibly a final coming up, so I kept it quiet. During the game I was favouring it a bit. I didn’t want to get another bang on it and be injured for the semi-final. I don’t think all the goals were my fault but I did have a bad game.’

Callaghan tried to make light of the result, pointing out that he’d broken his pre-match ritual. ‘Look what happens when I forget to take my portable radio with me on the coach,’ he said.

‘We weren’t good but I honestly don’t think it was a 6-1 beating,’ says Graham Taylor. ‘Nearly every shot Norwich had went in. I don’t know whether the players had their eyes on the semi-final, I suppose it was only human that they would have. The thing was, the bad results didn’t seem to be affecting them in training and so I started to think that maybe the players thought they could get to Wembley.’

There was more bad news on the injury front when Jackett hurt his knee and was told he’d miss the Plymouth game. Not for the first time in the season, Taylor was trying to compile a jigsaw with several of the key pieces missing. The problems weren’t as deep as they had been during the European campaign but the advantage then was he had absolutely no choice but to throw in the youngsters. Now he had some decisions to make. Should he move Rostron, who was fit again, into midfield and play Price at the back, or should he go with Atkinson alongside Taylor in the centre? What about Richard Jobson, who had done so well against European opposition but then got injured and was only just on his way back?

* * *

The national press had got hold of a juicier story to tantalise the supporters. According to at least one tabloid, Luther Blissett was set for a shock transfer back to Watford in time to face Plymouth. It had been an open secret since the start of the year that Blissett would be on his way from Milan at the end of the season. At that stage, he had scored just three goals in the league and – as Italian clubs were restricted to having only two foreign players at a time – Milan wanted a change.

‘I could have gone back before the transfer deadline and been eligible for the FA Cup,’ says Blissett, who had travelled home to see his old team play on a number of occasions.

‘I saw them at Tottenham and Leicester and when I was in England around Christmas time but going back hadn’t crossed my mind. It wasn’t until things started to appear in the papers that I thought about it. There was talk about Milan signing other foreign players and it looked as if I’d be moving at the end of the season anyway.’

In March, Taylor made good on his promise to watch Blissett play for Milan and travelled to Italy with Rita to see the Milan derby against Internazionale.

It was a tight, goalless draw and Blissett barely had a chance to score. This was what Taylor considered to be ‘anti-football’.

The runs Blissett made were familiar to Taylor but the ball never arrived. ‘I felt so sorry for him,’ says Taylor, ‘because it wasn’t his style of play at all. I have such admiration for him going and having a go. He was making these great runs, the runs we knew he could make and that could hurt people, but it was obvious they were never going to play the ball he wanted. We had a meal afterwards and I said he had to change his game a bit but really that style of play wasn’t Luther’s strength at all. He wasn’t suited to facing up and playing with his back to goal.’

Although the possibility of Blissett returning to Watford still hung in the air after the English transfer deadline had passed in late March it was now no more than a fanciful notion. In theory Blissett could have signed for Watford and, as long as he registered at least seven days before the Plymouth match, he’d have been eligible for the FA Cup but not the league matches. Such a transfer made little sense for anyone. For a start, Blissett was determined to see out a full season in Italy. Milan were still in the Italian Cup and, although he knew he would be leaving, he didn’t want to turn his back on a difficult situation, even with the vague glimmer of a Wembley appearance potentially on offer. Running home to Watford just because it wasn’t working out was not Luther’s style at all. As for Taylor, he had a settled strikeforce and could do without the fuss and hullabaloo that the return of a terrace hero would bring on the eve of such an important game. There may have been a grain of substance to it but really, the storyline of Blissett returning home and making a Roy of the Rovers appearance in the FA Cup was just that, a fairy story.

* * *

Semi-final: Watford 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

Semi-final: Watford 1 Plymouth Argyle 0

Taylor was conscious that Watford were in an unusual position – that of favourites. And he sensed the players were nervous. He wanted to give one or two of the players time to prepare.

‘I knew on the Monday before the semi-final I would be playing,’ says Neil Price. ‘He [Taylor] didn’t announce the full team but he told me I’d be playing. The semi-final didn’t seem such a big deal for me, maybe it was because I knew the Plymouth lads, I don’t know, but I just got on with it. The manager wasn’t a great cajoler, not with me anyway, he didn’t put his arm around me and tell me what he wanted me to do, he just trusted that if we did the work on the training ground we’d be okay.’

As much as possible, Taylor tried to treat the semi-final like any other away game so the team travelled to the Midlands on the morning of the match. The night before, the coaching and management staff observed what was, by now, a cup tradition. They had a meal together and enjoyed the chance to spend some time with their wives and talk and think about anything other than the following day’s game.

The final leg of the journey to Villa Park almost unseated the perfectly laid plans. ‘We stopped for our pre-match meal at a hotel close to the ground,’ says Les Taylor. ‘It was one we often went to before matches in Birmingham but the 20-minute journey from there to the stadium turned into about 45 minutes because of the traffic and the number of people heading to the ground. Graham ended up giving his team talk on the coach and someone ran ahead the last few hundred yards to get the teamsheet in before 2.30pm. By the time we got to the ground there was only time to get changed and go out to warm up. I think the fact we were in a rush settled everyone down and made you focus on the match and what you had to do rather than everything around it.’

It was a blustery spring afternoon at Villa Park. Watford’s bright red and yellow and Plymouth’s deep green and white faced off against one another as the supporters of the two teams embraced the occasion to the full. There was something electrifying about the cup semi-final in those days. Rarely did you have an occasion when such a big crowd was split so evenly in their support for the two teams. This was not like a normal league match where a small but vocal band of away supporters tried to make their presence felt. The Holte End, a huge covered terrace behind one of the goals, was split down the middle and the two sets of supporters competed for supremacy. The balloons, flags, banners and clouds of torn up newspaper confetti swirling in the breeze gave a vibrancy to the occasion and helped mask the worst of the nerves.

The game that followed was not a classic but semi-finals are all about the result. The only goal came after 13 minutes when Barnes took the ball from just inside Plymouth’s half all the way to the touchline and sent over a cross that seemed to hang in the air awaiting George Reilly’s arrival. Reilly attacked the near post and connected sweetly. Not long afterwards, Callaghan shot from outside the penalty area and Watford’s supporters thought they had a comfortable 2-0 advantage, until the linesman flagged for offside.

‘I was up against my old team-mate from Cambridge, Lindsay Smith, and we had a really good battle,’ says Reilly. ‘We started well but they settled down and gave it a real go.’

‘That semi-final was the most nervous I’ve ever been for a game,’ says Sherwood. ‘We had everything to lose and when I got on the pitch I saw the Plymouth players warming up and they looked confident. We had this history of pulling off the shocks and beating teams higher in the league and suddenly we were the ones to be shot at. I thought, “If we’re not really careful here, we could get beaten.”’

‘It was a crap game, really, wasn’t it?’ says Rostron, who played in midfield instead of Jackett. ‘We didn’t play well at all and they could have won it. If they had won it, we wouldn’t really have been able to argue would we?’

Watching from the stand was an agonising experience for Jackett and Franklin, although at least Jackett knew he had a chance of playing in the final if his team-mates got through. ‘I wanted to be out there helping the team,’ says Jackett. ‘It’s easy to see little things that are happening down there on the pitch and think you could sort it out if you were out there. Most of all, I just wanted them to win the game and get the club to Wembley but then, of course, in the back of my mind I was wondering if I’d actually get to play in the final.’ By now Franklin had undergone three operations to remove the cartilage in his knee. His crutches propped up against the seat in front of him, he hated every minute of the game. ‘It was hard enough knowing I was going to miss that match in the first place, but to have the operation, then a major setback and to be on crutches knowing I had no chance of playing in the final was terrible.

‘When you’re young you think it’s going to come round again and, of course, for me it didn’t. I saw my team-mates achieve something like that and I was delighted for them but at the same time I was aware that I was not part of it. Everyone says, “You played a big part in us getting this far,” which is nice of them but it doesn’t make up for missing the semi-final.’

In the second half, Plymouth fought for their lives and at times Watford were simply battling to keep them at bay. ‘The occasion really drains you,’ says Sinnott. ‘You don’t realise how much energy you’ve used up on the day of the game trying to keep calm and focused until you’re out there on the pitch. Plymouth gave it everything they had and if you asked a neutral to say who was the First Division team and who was the Third Division team, they’d have been hard-pressed to pick. Plymouth were in it to the death.’

Five minutes into the second half Les Taylor, who would run deep into the night if he was asked to, was feeling the pace. ‘I just never got comfortable in the game,’ he says. ‘It was quite emotional really. I was in my first semi-final and I was taking it all in. We were not thinking consciously about Wembley but we knew there was something absolutely massive at stake. People say you shouldn’t be frightened of losing and we weren’t but we were aware what a defeat in that game would have meant. It’s bound to change you. It’s the first game I’d ever had cramp in. There were still 40 minutes to go and I was really struggling, and it was actually hurting me quite a lot. Usually, I can run all day but it was a very difficult game and Plymouth just kept on at us. Apart from George’s goal, we didn’t have many chances.’

There was a clock in one corner of the ground and, for long periods of time, it seemed as if the minute hand was stuck. The intensity of the occasion and Argyle’s refusal to lie down meant time passed very slowly. And every minute that did tick by seemed to give Plymouth a greater urgency and desire to get the goal they needed to force extra-time.

About 20 minutes remained when Steve Terry hurt his knee in a challenge. The studs of his boot got caught in the turf as his leg twisted. He played on for a while but the pain rapidly got worse. Graham Taylor sent Richard Jobson on and moved Reilly back to centre half for the last 15 minutes. Terry was lying down by the dug-out with an ice bag strapped to his knee to keep the swelling down. He propped himself up on his elbows so he could see what was happening out on the pitch.

Jobson tried to settle in but found the pace frantic and the rhythm of the game evasive, like watching the last ten minutes of a film and trying to work out the plot. ‘There wasn’t much I could do in that time to influence the game in any serious way so I was just concentrating on not making any mistakes,’ he says.

‘George made a couple of great tackles with his bean-pole legs,’ says Terry, who longed to be out there, able to head and kick the ball away.

Plymouth were getting closer to scoring the goal that would have forced extra-time. Time after time they attacked, roared on by their noisy supporters.

Watford’s followers seemed almost paralysed. Reilly deflected one shot just around the post with the desperation of a nightwatchman trying to defend his team’s last wicket. Then, with a couple of minutes left, Plymouth burst forward again. Gordon Staniforth cut the ball back to Kevin Hodges whose shot appeared to be on its way into the far corner of the goal, past Sherwood’s fingertips. As the ball bounced it changed course, almost imperceptibly, but enough to send it rolling inches wide of the post. For everyone inside the stadium, the world seemed to stop turning for a moment as the fate of the two teams hinged on the spin of that ball. ‘That shot had beaten Shirley [Sherwood],’ says Price. ‘It could have spun one way and in but it spun the other way and out. Whenever I go to Plymouth they say “If only that shot had gone in…” and I say “Well, it didn’t, did it?” but it was so, so close.’

* * *

Although it was a stomach-churning last 15 minutes, Taylor didn’t feel Plymouth deserved to win the game. ‘I always felt we looked like we could score again,’ he said after the match.

The referee, Joe Worrall, blew the final whistle. As he did, the yellow and red half of the Holte End seemed to sag momentarily as ten thousand people finally allowed themselves to exhale after holding their breath for so long. It was only a heartbeat before waves of joyous celebration erupted.

‘Que Sera Sera, whatever will be, will be, we’re going to Wem-ber-lee, Que Sera, Sera...’

Six years after hauling themselves out of the Fourth Division, Watford had made it to the FA Cup final. Graham Taylor blew kisses to the crowd and if the crowd could have done, every single one of them would have kissed him back. The man on the public address system announced that the other semi-final between Everton and Southampton had gone into extra time but no one at Villa Park cared at that moment. The final could wait, this was time to enjoy the moment. The celebrations lingered on as joy gave way to a blinking disbelief, an emotion felt even more strongly by those who remembered trips to The Shay and Spotland as if they were yesterday. After the celebrations had died down, as they made their way from the stadium, Watford’s supporters knew their cup final opponents would be Everton.

‘Getting back on the coach knowing we were going to Wembley was fantastic,’ says Sherwood. ‘We were a bit wobbly getting off the coach at the other end and no one drove home, that’s for sure.’

Terry was concerned about his knee and in the back of his mind the manager was too. Having lost Sims and Franklin he could ill-afford to patch up the centre of his defence a third time.

Price remembers the manager making sure everyone’s feet were on the ground. ‘We travelled back on the coach to the Hilton hotel in Watford and he got on the microphone at the front of the bus, as he did, because he loved to do this, and he said, “I know we’ve had a good win, I know we’re in a cup final, but we’ve got Manchester United on Tuesday, so if I catch any of you out tonight you won’t play against Manchester United and you won’t play in the cup final.”’

‘I’m sure a few of them went on the town,’ says Terry. ‘My knee was all strapped up so I didn’t but I’d be surprised if Maurice stayed in.’

* * *

There were six long weeks to pass between the semi-final and the final. Sherwood sums up everyone’s anxiety when he admits that the first thing he thought after the hangover had worn off was ‘God, I could get injured and miss it.’

Wilf Rostron, the club captain, would be denied what should have been the greatest moment of his career, the chance to lead his team out at Wembley, not by injury but by a referee’s decision.

Three weeks before the final, Watford played Luton at Kenilworth Road. Taylor made a plea to the travelling supporters not to gloat in front of the home fans. He didn’t want them rubbing it in by singing, ‘We’re going to Wembley, we’re going to Wembley, you’re not.’ It was a request to exercise a restraint that would have been beyond any set of supporters in the land. Watford’s fans were going to enjoy their success to the full.


‘It was a spicy atmosphere that day,’ says Price, who was playing left back while Rostron again deputised for Jackett in midfield. ‘It wasn’t a big ground but it could be intimidating because they didn’t like us very much. We’d got to the cup final and they probably weren’t too keen on that either.’

Watford were a goal up as the first half drew to a close when Rostron and Luton’s defender Paul Elliott went in for a challenge and ended up on the floor in a tangle. There was a bit of pushing and shoving as they got to their feet but nothing serious, certainly nothing to get excited about. ‘I don’t know what Paul Elliott had for breakfast that day,’ says Rostron. ‘But some of the fouls he committed were mad. He’d already been booked and he was charging around all over the place. I was over on the right-hand side, near the touchline, right in front of the Luton crowd. I don’t really know what I was doing over there and he must’ve been well forward too because he was a central defender. I don’t even think it was a foul. It was just a challenge where we went in on the ground and ended up with our legs entangled. I thought “hang on, he’s going to kick me here,” so I put my foot up and showed my studs to block it in case he did think about kicking me. But he didn’t. We got up and we were arguing but he didn’t hit me and I didn’t hit him.’

Elliott had already been booked for one of his earlier fouls by the referee, Roger Milford. Rostron says: ‘I thought, “Well, the worst I can get here is a booking, and if he books me, he’s got to book him and if he books him, he’s off.” The ref came across and sent us both off, just like that. I don’t think I’d even committed a foul in the game before that. The crowd was getting quite excitable and there were coins coming down, but that was it, I just walked off.’

No one on the Watford team could believe he’d been sent off. ‘Wilf was quite a fiery little bloke but it was just pushing and shoving, nothing more than that,’ says Terry. ‘It was an unjust sending off,’ says Sinnott. ‘And it took away something Wilf had worked damn hard for.’

By the time he had reached the tunnel at Kenilworth Road, vitriol and hatred still hanging in the air, Rostron had worked out he would not be playing at Wembley.

Each booking earned the player disciplinary points and once you reached a certain total you served a two-match ban. Reach the next threshold and you got another ban. A sending-off resulted in an automatic suspension.

The previous year, Brighton’s Steve Foster missed the FA Cup final against Manchester United because he had been booked in one of the final league games of the season, against Notts County. The booking took him over the threshold and he was given a two-match suspension, which coincided with the final. Bizarrely, had he been sent off in that Notts County game, he’d have been given a one-match ban and would have been eligible for the final. The rules were a mess.

Foster had taken the case to the High Court but the judge refused to grant his appeal against the decision, partly on the basis that it would open the floodgates and the court would be clogged up with sports people making claims. However, the football authorities accepted the anomaly in the rules was unfair and potentially open to exploitation.

Foster did get to play at Wembley, but only because Brighton took United to a replay, and the FA changed the disciplinary system after the controversy. A deadline was introduced meaning that if you got booked after a certain date in April, the points would be held over for the following season. Rostron says: ‘In the league game before the Luton match there were about three of us who knew if we got booked we’d miss the final because we’d have reached a certain number of points. No one got booked so we thought we were okay.’

A dismissal was a different matter. Rostron’s ban could not be carried over. He would miss the final. Reality sunk in and the anger boiled over. He chased after Elliott, who was already halfway up the tunnel. ‘There was quite an upward slope in the tunnel and he was a lot taller than me so there wasn’t anything I could do. I wasn’t going to hit him but I shouted at him, asking him if he realised what it meant.’

Graham Taylor refers to Roger Milford only as ‘the referee who wore the short shorts’. ‘He was never my favourite,’ he says. ‘As far as I was concerned, he wanted to be the star of the game too often. I’m not saying he wasn’t a good referee but he wanted to be centre of attention.’

In those days, the referee used to talk to each manager before the game and, on this occasion, he reminded Taylor, as he had done Luton’s David Pleat, that he would not tolerate dissent. Taylor says: ‘I said to him “Well, you won’t have any trouble with us because we’ve got the cup final coming up.” I shouldn’t have said it, and I wish I hadn’t.’

In Taylor’s mind, the referee should have warned Elliott and Rostron and left it at that. At the very most, each player deserved a booking. Still simmering with anger a few days after the match, Taylor said that had the incident involved another Luton player, Rostron would not have been sent off. But Taylor thought because Elliott had already been booked and had to go, Milford felt pressure to send off the Watford player as well.

‘All that happened was that there was a tackle and then they chested each other,’ says Taylor. ‘But how can Wilf, who’s five foot six, go up against Elliott, who’s six foot-plus? If punches had been thrown, that’s a different matter, but they weren’t.’ The match report in the Watford Observer confirms that no punches were thrown.

Taylor was livid after the match and blocked the referee’s way into the officials’ little changing room. ‘He should have dealt with me and reported me to the FA because I confronted him,’ says Taylor. ‘I really eyeballed him in the corridor. I wouldn’t let him past me until I’d made sure he knew what he’d done.’

‘I never used to come home and talk about games,’ says Rostron. ‘I never did that in my career – apart from that day when I got sent off. I spoke to one reporter, Geoff Sweet, [of the West Herts Post] but only because I knew him well. I didn’t want to make a big thing of it. Nothing I said was going to make them change things, was it?’

Watford had gone on to beat Luton 2-1 and Taylor said afterwards, ‘I never thought I could come here, win, and feel sick.’

‘That decision hurt me terribly,’ he says now. ‘I didn’t go back home from Luton that evening. I’m a big fan of Shakespeare and Rita and I had planned to go up to Stratford-upon-Avon to see a play. I was so upset, I hated that evening, I hated the play and I was probably horrible to be with because I was so affected by that decision.’

Milford, who still works as a referee’s assessor, doesn’t remember much about the match or the incident but recalls the furore afterwards.

‘I don’t recall the sending-off clearly at all,’ he says now. ‘In over 32 years of refereeing, do you think I remember every sending-off and caution? But for me to do that, I must have seen something to warrant a sending-off. I can’t remember having a conversation before the game, all I remember is Graham being very upset afterwards but as I see it I made a decision that was the correct one. Every referee makes mistakes but in this one I think I was right.

‘The thing is, as a referee it’s not your job to know what disciplinary points a player is on, or to know whether a sending-off affects another game, whether it’s a cup final or not. You have to make the correct decision on the pitch as you see it, regardless of the consequences and I think I did that. I saw it as violent conduct, they clashed, and I think even punches were thrown.

‘I know that’s not the answer Watford supporters want to hear but that’s how it is. What’s a referee to do? You’d get lambasted if you went easy on someone because they had a cup final coming up. All I can say is that it was an honest decision made on the basis of the incident, like all my decisions were.’

The week after the game, a reporter from The Sun rang Milford and misconstrued what he said. ‘I told the reporter that I was sorry Wilf was missing the cup final, which I was, but that got turned round into a big headline “Milford says sorry”, which wasn’t what I said at all. I wasn’t sorry for the decision but I was very sorry for Wilf and Watford.’

Taylor says: ‘I saw Milford quoted as saying that if he’d known [that Rostron would miss the final] he wouldn’t have sent Wilf off, well, one he did know and two it shouldn’t make any difference to the decision.’

Milford says he was not aware, before the game, that a sending-off would deprive Rostron of his cup final place, nor that it would have made any difference. ‘Referees don’t concern themselves with things like that. Look, if you go through a speed camera and the policeman stops you, he doesn’t know if you’re on three points or ten points. You can’t say “I’m on ten points, let me off,” because it’s not the policeman’s job to take that into account.’

Watford considered appealing against the decision but Foster’s case the year before had set the precedent. Watford knew they’d lose and that a protracted appeal would become an unwelcome sideshow as the team prepared for the final. However, a deep sense of injustice ran through the club. ‘I felt it was a rule that still needed changing,’ says John Ward. ‘It was wrong that you could get sent off in one competition and miss the biggest game of your career in a completely different competition. Yes, players need to pay a price for indiscipline but that was far too high a price.’

Sherwood’s assessment was more succinct. ‘I don’t think Roger Milford liked Watford very much.’ Two years later, Milford gave Liverpool a penalty in the FA Cup sixth round replay, which only stoked up the sense of injustice.

Ted Croker, the secretary of the Football Association, visited the two finalists in the run-up to the game to explain the protocol for cup final day. The first team squad gathered at Vicarage Road for the meeting. Rostron was there, involved in everything during the build-up, even though he would not be able to play.

‘It was one of the most upsetting things about it all,’ says Taylor. ‘Croker looked at Wilf and said “Well, you’re suspended so you won’t need to know this. Never mind, my brother missed one but they got there the following year, so make sure you do it next year, ha ha ha.” It was a terrible thing to say. Wilf may have chosen not to remember it, and whatever he may say about it, I could see the hurt in his eyes.

‘It was so wrong to miss the cup final. Even if it was a valid sending-off, the rule was still a bad rule. It hurt me that my captain, our captain, the type of lad he was, was denied an FA Cup final appearance.’

Losing Rostron was the biggest of blows to Watford’s preparations. The absence of their club captain, the little dynamo who pushed them up and spurred them on, helped organise the defence and broke forward with the enthusiasm a little puppy let off the lead, would leave a big hole in the tea

* * *

Another defender, Steve Sims, was still hopeful that he might be fit in time, although it was less than two months since he’d broken his ankle. ‘They took the plaster off as early as they could,’ he says. ‘I came back into the club on crutches and on the first day Bertie Mee said to me “Right, if you want to be fit for the cup final, put the crutches down, clear your mind and start walking on it.”’ Sims played for the reserve team at Swindon on April 26, a little over three weeks before the final. ‘It was funny because I could run but I couldn’t walk. In the first game I played I did a block tackle and it felt like it had broken again. It hadn’t but that proved I was still a long way from being right.’ Sims played six reserve games in 21 days but just ran out of time. ‘I was able to train and play in the reserves but a cup final is a big step up from that when you’re not 100 per cent,’ he says. ‘I’d have love to have played, the pitch and the Everton forwards would have suited my game down to the ground. It was frustrating to get so close.’

Terry and Sinnott had begun to work well together, although the team suffered another of those pre-cup tie thrashings at the City Ground just 12 days before the final. They lost 5-1 to Nottingham Forest. ‘I was up against Peter Davenport,’ says Sinnott. ‘He caused me a problem that day and I couldn’t get near him. I was quick and mobile but his movement off the ball was excellent. I was a yard or two behind him both in body and mind. Subliminally were our minds elsewhere? We were concentrating on the job in hand as best we could but were we in fact thinking about the final?’

Neil Price was the substitute that day and he was at close quarters as the manager fumed. ‘I was on the bench and towards the end he [Taylor] turned to me and said “I wanted to play you at some point but they’ve been that bad I’m going to just let them get on with it.”’

When he spoke to the press after the game, Forest’s manager, Brian Clough, recalled the 7-3 League Cup victory the previous season, saying of Steve Sherwood: ‘He’s as honest as the day is long but we’ve put more goals past him than I’ve had hot dinners.’ With Wembley approaching, it was the last thing a goalkeeper would have wanted to hear. ‘I wasn’t at my peak form,’ says Sherwood. ‘But I wasn’t playing badly. Goals were going in but I didn’t feel I was at fault.’ One of Forest’s five was an own goal by Paul Atkinson. ‘A brilliant flying header into the top corner,’ he says with a roll of the eyes.

As soon as one problem was solved, another cropped up. Two days before the Forest match, David Bardsley got a bang on the knee in training.

John Barnes had been given time to get over a knock and was back in the side for the final league match of the season, against Arsenal, but the two full-back positions were still up for debate. Terry and Sinnott would be the central defensive pairing but with Rostron suspended and Bardsley doubtful who could play on the flanks?

John Ward, the assistant manager, believes the solution was always straightforward. Taylor was reluctant to lose the influence and industry of Kenny Jackett, who was fit again, in midfield by moving him to left-back. ‘Neil Price was the reserve team left-back, so I thought it was always likely he would come in,’ says Ward. ‘That’s the way it was then, you had your first team and if a player was injured, the reserve team player stepped up. You could have argued in favour of moving Kenny to left-back but do you change one player or do you change two players and affect another area of the team?’

The 1984 squad, from the official FA Cup final souvenir brochure.

The 1984 squad, from the official FA Cup final souvenir brochure.

Watford had a glut of reserve team matches in the fortnight leading up to the final and while Taylor was monitoring Sims’ recovery in the unlikely hope he might yet make it, he took the opportunity to experiment a bit, exploring his options. Pat Rice played for the first time in a month when Watford’s second string beat Hertford Town in the Herts Senior Cup final on Thursday, May 10 – nine days before the FA Cup final. The 509th and final league game of Rice’s long career came on the last day of the season. The opponents couldn’t have been more fitting – Arsenal, the club where Rice spent the bulk of his career. But this was not a day for gooey-eyed sentiment. Rice was still very much in the frame for a place in the cup final team. Bardsley’s recovery could not be guaranteed and the left-back position was still up for grabs.

‘He picked me about four times in a couple of weeks,’ says Rice. ‘I’d not played that much and to be honest, I was getting knackered. I knew Graham was wrestling with this decision and he was talking to a lot of the senior players. One day he called me into the office and said: “I’ve got a dilemma, Pat.”’

‘What?’ replied the Irishman.

‘I know the influence you have in the team, and the experience, I just don’t know whether to play you or not.’

Rice replied: ‘Gaffer, I’ve been fortunate, I’ve played in five FA Cup finals. If you are asking me to make a decision, I’m not going to deprive a young player of a chance of playing in one. If you pick me, I’ll be delighted to play and I’ll give it everything but I’m not going to make that decision for you. Besides, if we play badly they’ll slaughter you for picking an old git like me.’

‘I’d have had a go at left-back, if that was what Graham decided,’ Rice adds. ‘I’d only played there a couple of times in my career, and that was for Northern Ireland but I’d have done it.’

But Rice’s performance against Arsenal probably made Taylor’s decision for him. It was an emotional occasion for the Northern Irishman. Watford versus Arsenal. A clash between the only two clubs he’d played for in his 20-year career.

‘Before the game, Graham went on the tannoy and thanked the crowd for their support and for buying the cup final tickets, then he turned to the Arsenal fans and said “We’re even rolling out old Ricey for you,”’ he says. ‘Paul Davis was playing for Arsenal and they played a ball through the middle and he was clear on goal. I think I was last man, and I was coming across to intercept. To be truthful, I meant to take Paul out. I never meant to get the ball because I knew he’d knock it past me, and I knew there was no way I would catch him. I lunged at it. It would have been an awful challenge but I got the ball and afterwards people were saying “great tackle, one of the best tackles we’ve seen here.”’ A few minutes after that, Rice was applauded long and loud by both sets of supporters when he was substituted. He knew it was the end. Taylor shook his hand as he approached the bench and grinned at him. The manager didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. They both knew Rice’s ‘brilliant’ last-gasp tackle had been a hopeful lunge. ‘If he was still thinking about putting me in the cup final team, that probably made his mind up for him,’ Rice says.

Watford beat Arsenal 2-1 and after the players had all finished getting changed, Taylor asked them to sit tight rather than head up to the bar. Then he named his cup final team, there in the dressing room, assuming that David Bardsley passed a fitness test. There were still seven days to go before the match.

‘This was totally against a piece of advice from Bill Shankly,’ says Taylor. ‘He once said to me “never pick your team for the next match on the coach coming home from a defeat, a draw or a win.” I picked the cup final team a week before, in the dressing room, because I thought the youngsters needed to know in order to settle them. What a mistake. What a terrible mistake.’

On the Wednesday afternoon, Bardsley came through a reserve game against Brighton at Vicarage Road with no ill-effects. Taylor isn’t sure who would have stood in had Bardsley not made it. Rice, perhaps, or more likely Nigel Gibbs. But in the dressing room, he had named the eleven men who would start Watford’s first FA Cup final. Sherwood, Bardsley, Price, Taylor, Terry, Sinnott, Callaghan, Johnston, Reilly, Jackett and Barnes. Eleven men poised to make history for Watford Football Club.

‘Once I’d done it, I knew almost straight away it was a mistake to name it but I didn’t have the balls to alter the team,’ says Taylor. ‘I’m not going to say which alterations I would have made because I think that is unfair to those who did play, so I’ll keep it to myself. But I didn’t have the balls to tell people they were in the team and then to hurt them that much by changing it. Some people may be surprised I’m saying that.

‘We’d beaten Arsenal 2-1. Maurice had scored, George had scored and we’d played pretty well but the thing was I had seen how the defence had handled Plymouth so well. They had handled the occasion so well but, as young players, I felt they needed to know they were playing so they weren’t dwelling on it all week. The team had changed so quickly that season, we had this group of lads, so young, and they hadn’t really gelled. They were inconsistent, inexperienced but they had handled the semi-final. I thought if they knew they were in the team it would settle them down and we could spend the week focusing on the game rather than having people fretting about their places.

‘I am not saying they did badly, and I am not putting the blame at their feet at all. I blame myself for picking the wrong team and announcing it early, which then gave me no options. To this day I can’t understand why I did what I did. I’d never done it before. I might have said to individual players “look, you’ll be playing next Saturday,” and people might have got the general idea what the side would be from the work we did in training but I’d never announced a team seven days early. When I saw one or two players in training that week, and the effect knowing they were in the team had, well, it wasn’t quite right.’

Taylor had named the team to settle the nerves but other factors meant it was to be an unusual build-up. But then again, when you’re preparing for the biggest game of your life, what’s normal?

This article first appeared in Enjoy the Game © Peloton Publishing, 2010

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Gracia sparks rush of nostalgia

by Lionel Birnie

It’s been impossible not to get swept up by the wave of nostalgia after Watford’s unbeaten start to the season. It had been 31 years since Watford beat Tottenham in the league and it’s Manchester United next, which will conjure memories of Luther Blissett’s two headers at Old Trafford in 1978, or Jan Lohman pouncing at the far post to knock them out of the FA Cup three years later. Or perhaps the matches that come more readily to mind are the astonishing 5-1 victory in May 1985, or the night teenager Iwan Roberts stunned United. Of course, many more people will remember two years ago (almost to the day) when Juan Camilo Zúñiga and Troy Deeney scored twice in the final seven minutes to give us the illusion Walter Mazzarri was the architect of fast, free-flowing football.

Nostalgia comes into its own as a warming comfort blanket during the cold, bleak years of nothing. When the long wintery seasons merge into one another we see the flicker of the flames from the glory years that much more brightly in the mind’s eye.

But whatever happens from here, these are the glory days and a reminder that a football club’s present is the sum of its past. When things are going as well as this it no longer feels like the Watford Football Club of the 1980s was a different entity to the one we see today – a shimmering mirage of greatness we can see in the rear view mirror only when we squint. This is the same club. The one that topped the Football League for one week only in 1982 is the same one that was playing in a run-down three-sided ground only a few years ago and is the same one that currently has a 100% record along with Liverpool and Chelsea (and, if we look further afield to the major European leagues, with Paris Saint Germain, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid). Usually the international break is a tedious pause that drags on but these past ten days have given us the opportunity to look at the league table and enjoy the sight of Watford in third place.

Tomorrow’s nostalgia is being created in front of our eyes.

* * *

Back in the 1970s and 1980s the manager of the month award used to be sponsored by the Bell’s whisky company and each recipient was presented with a large bottle of Scotch to mark their achievement.

Graham Taylor is presented with one of his many manager of the month awards.    Photo courtesy of the Taylor family.

Graham Taylor is presented with one of his many manager of the month awards.
Photo courtesy of the Taylor family.

Graham Taylor wasn’t much of a whisky drinker – he much preferred a glass of red wine – so it took him a while to get through a whole gallon of the stuff. By the time it was empty he’d usually won another award. In more recent years one of the empty bottles – won at either Lincoln City or Watford, he couldn’t be certain which – sat in his office at home and he’d collect his loose change in it. When it was full, he’d divide the coins between his three grandchildren. He joked to me once, ‘Recently they’ve been wanting driving lessons and things so I think I’m going to have to start putting notes in!’

There’s been a lot of 1980s nostalgia around this past week or so, not least because Watford’s start to the season is the best in the club’s top flight history, eclipsing even the remarkable 1982-83 season which remains the benchmark against which all other campaigns must be judged. Back in 1982, four wins and a draw from the opening five matches were enough to put the Hornets on top of the table on goal difference. A 3-0 win over West Bromwich Albion on September 11 (36 years ago this Tuesday) meant the table looked like this…

The top of Division One on September 11, 1982, as it would have looked on the BBC’s Grandstand graphics. Yes, really.    Image by Gold and Black.

The top of Division One on September 11, 1982, as it would have looked on the BBC’s Grandstand graphics. Yes, really.
Image by Gold and Black.

That night, Graham Taylor and his wife Rita, and Bertie Mee and his wife Doris, went to the Royal Albert Hall for the Last Night of the Proms and he always treasured the memory of singing Rule, Britannia! Jerusalem, Auld Lang Syne and the national anthem at the top of his voice knowing his football team were top of the league.

* * *

Inevitably, any success at Vicarage Road nowadays draws comparisons with the 1980s. Victories over Brighton, Burnley, Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur (plus a League Cup win at Reading), meant Javi Gracia’s side has achieved something even Taylor’s sides could not match. A run of five consecutive victories from the start of the season. It also put Gracia in an elite group of three Watford bosses to win the manager of the month award in the top flight. Taylor is one, of course, and Quique Sanchez Flores won the prize in December 2015 after victories over Norwich City, Sunderland and Liverpool, and a draw at Chelsea.


During Watford’s opening four Premier League games a pattern has started to emerge that would be familiar to supporters of Gracia’s previous club, Málaga.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Málaga and paid a visit to their stadium, La Rosaleda – the Rose Bowl. It stands between a busy junction and the Guadalmedina river and currently hosts Second Division football after Málaga’s relegation from La Liga last season. Málaga have started well, though, winning their four opening games.

Gracia was coach at Málaga for two seasons. Appointed in the summer of 2014 to replace the German Bernd Schuster whose style of play was unpopular, particularly coming so soon after Manuel Pellegrini had steered the club into the Champions League, Gracia rejuvenated Málaga. He steered them to ninth and eighth-place finishes in La Liga and masterminded a 1-0 win over Barcelona, who had Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in their line-up, at Camp Nou in February 2015.

Gracia did it with a style of play he is replicating at Watford. After steadying the ship on arrival, he settled on a flexible 4-4-2 formation with an emphasis on closing down opponents in central positions, getting the ball wide when in possession and supplying the forwards with crosses.

Málaga would play in high-intensity bursts, choosing their moments to pressurise en masse and attacking with a fervour and pace that could not be sustained for a whole match but which could be very effective for five- or ten-minute spells. Watford’s opening four league games have all included such spells – typically one burst in each half – which have yielded goals. It was perhaps most obvious at Burnley when, after a flat period before half-time, Watford roared out of the blocks and scored twice in the opening six minutes of the half, and against Tottenham when they turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead with two goals from set-pieces that resulted from a period of play when they were well on the front foot.

Víctor Martín Molina covered Málaga for the Madrid-based sports newspaper Marca when Gracia was the coach. ‘Gracia has a reputation in Spain as a very intelligent coach and a very hard worker,’ he said. ‘In Málaga, people like to see a certain style of play – fast, attacking play with wingers. Gracia created a team that was first of all very well organised. Then he wanted to attack in a high tempo but without taking too many risks behind.’

Gracia knew that opposing teams – especially the giants of La Liga – would have chances but he wanted to reduce the quality of those chances and for his team to choose their moments to apply the pressure as a team, rather than in individual areas of the pitch.

There are signs that Watford are doing the same. Midfielders hunting in packs – as we’ve seen when Doucouré, Capoue and Hughes pressurise the opposition at once to win back the ball. But there is a method to this pressing, winning the ball is only part of the plan. The players behind them are aware that they need to at the same time stay alert in case the opposition break, but be on their toes ready to support the attack, and the wide players and forwards are ready to exploit space, especially in wide areas.

There were mumbles about Gracia towards the end of last season and on the eve of this. The failure to score a single away goal and then the perception the transfer window had been a failure meant the season began on a curiously downbeat note.

But this is the hallmark of Gracia’s approach. Work on the basics first, even if the signs of improvement are not immediately obvious, and build from there with a settled team and a shadow squad who all know what is required when they are called upon.

The winning run won’t last for ever, we know it won’t, but that shouldn’t prevent us enjoying the sight of a Watford team playing with confidence and discipline. Troy Deeney looks back to his best again, Étienne Capoue looks hungry and José Holebas seems to have been transformed into Roberto Carlos over the summer. And, like in the 1980s, there is a sense around Vicarage Road that anything is possible.

Graham Taylor's diary: June 1977

by Lionel Birnie

When I was working with Graham on his autobiography, I would drive up to his house in Little Aston, not far from The Belfry golf course near Sutton Coldfield, and often we'd sit in the hexagonal summerhouse in his garden and look through the treasure trove of mementoes and souvenirs from his life in football and see what memories they threw up.

In one of the many boxes was a battered, red, hardback notebook. I opened it and started reading. It was immediately clear that this was a diary, of sorts, spanning a week in late June 1977, just as he was starting work at Watford.

The notes paint a vivid picture of the football club as Graham found it. Owned by a passionate multi-millionaire, staffed by keen and enthusiastic people, but lacking direction or a clear vision and with threadbare facilities and scant resources.

I asked Graham why he might have taken the notes in the first place. 'I was going into a new club,' he said, 'and I didn't know anyone, or anything about how it operated, and so I wanted to find out about everyone and everything as quickly as possible. I knew I would be meeting a lot of new people and finding out a great deal of information in a short space of time and I needed to be clear in my thoughts so that I could identify what changes needed to be made. I've always found that the best way to do that was to keep notes, so I would go home and sit for half an hour and write down what I had learned that day. It was a way of putting everything into some kind of order.'

I won't go as far to say Graham was a hoarder but he often joked that his wife, Rita, would have liked him to hire a skip and throw some of the stuff away, but I am very glad that he didn't because so much of the material he had kept over the years was invaluable when we came to write his book.

To sit and turn slowly through the pages of Graham's diary gave such an insight into not just the job he did at Watford but how he went about it. He was strident, decisive, fizzing with energy and ideas and prepared to upset people – although not by being deliberately obstreperous – in the process of improving the club.

We used extracts from Graham's diary in his autobiography, In His Own Words, and his diary came to mind a couple of weeks ago when I was invited by Rita to attend the unveiling of his statue outside Vicarage Road.

Tom Walley, John Ward, Luther Blissett and Rita Taylor with the statue of Graham Taylor in Vicarage Road. Walley and Blissett were two of the players Graham inherited when he took over at Watford in 1977. Ward, his friend and former team-mate from Lincoln City, came a little later. Photograph by Simon Gill.

Tom Walley, John Ward, Luther Blissett and Rita Taylor with the statue of Graham Taylor in Vicarage Road. Walley and Blissett were two of the players Graham inherited when he took over at Watford in 1977. Ward, his friend and former team-mate from Lincoln City, came a little later. Photograph by Simon Gill.

Simon Ricketts, giving directions from the bench.

Simon Ricketts, giving directions from the bench.

The crowd at the statue unveiling was so large I didn't get a chance to take a close look at the statue, or sit on the bench, so last week I took a trip to Vicarage Road with my friend Simon Ricketts. For those who don't know, Simon played a huge part in helping me finish the book after Graham died.

Simon had been helping with the book but when Graham died in January 2017, his role became even more important as he helped me find Graham's voice and complete the manuscript. I've written in some depth about that process here.

Graham Taylor's ghostwriter, Lionel Birnie.

Graham Taylor's ghostwriter, Lionel Birnie.

While we were working on the book, Simon was diagnosed with terminal cancer and he spent the first half of this year in hospital after an operation in the hope it would give him a bit more time. I was so happy that we were able to go to Vicarage Road together to see the statue this week and then take a walk into the Hornets Shop to see the book we had worked on together on the shelves.

The statue is a permanent reminder of what Graham Taylor did for Watford in his two spells at the club. It is not an exaggeration to say he built and then rebuilt the club we know today, then stepped in as chairman to provide a lead and reassurance for supporters when the club's future seemed to be in jeopardy.

With the unveiling of the statue, I thought it would be interesting to reproduce the notes Graham Taylor made in June 1977. Knowing how the story turned out, it's easy to take for granted the progress that was made, but reading his notes is a reminder of the task that lay ahead of him, Elton John and everyone at the club when he took over as manager. Some of the details he concerned himself with may seem mundane or trivial but it just shows what running a football club involved.

Graham Taylor's diary

Wednesday, June 22nd 1977

Fact-finding visit to Watford prior to signing contract on further visit on Friday to take over officially as manager on Monday, June 27.


Decided to arrive by train and took the Met Line from Euston. Pleasantly surprised on arrival to see parts of Watford I had not anticipated. Very residential area – first impression was that I could live here but would these people get ‘excited’ about their football club.

Arranged a meeting with Ron Rollitt, the general manager/secretary, and obviously a man of tremendous influence in the club. So far, over the telephone everything I had asked for had been done extremely courteously – in fact, it has been rather too good at times.

I had arranged meetings with the local press – Oliver (Oli) Phillips of the Watford Observer and Mike Green of the Watford Echo. I had wished to meet them together but appointments were kept separate at their wishes. Interesting, and would have to find out why?

Photographs at the ground with Nigel (photographer at the Echo), who gave me the indication that the Watford Observer got everything first and that too many people from the club had access to the press. Also that Echo were not really Watford orientated.

Meeting with Ron Rollitt, and chairman came down. Not really sure of general manager – he was in on final contract meeting. First impression of club was that organisation and discipline was sloppy. On seeing wage structure it was obvious that there had been no real policy.

Conscious that I am pre-judging the playing staff but I don’t think they are good enough. Come from all over and are not readily on call. Lack of lead from board who are immature and don’t really know how a football club should be run. All very nice people though and chairman is very sincere in wanting football club to be successful.

Administratively, life could be a bit difficult as my office is situated in the wrong position and Patsy Gledhill is the only member of staff. Overworked anyway and I’m sure the club suffer because of this.

At the end of the meeting – some two-and-a-half hours – I was just about as confused as I could be and still hadn’t discussed half of what I had wanted to. There’s a great deal to find out about a lot of the people and I am going to upset quite a number in order to get this club on its feet.

Mike Green – Echo
Had over an hour with him. Doesn’t travel on the team coach. seems nice enough fella – not a lot of ‘go’ about him.

Oliver Phillips – Watford Observer
Have to watch this situation – suspicion I was being taped and shall have to find out. Friday’s Observer convinced me I had been recorded as everything was word for word. Rivalry between two newspapers tends not to be all that healthy.

Friday, June 24th

Signed contract with Ray Ingram (my solicitor) present.

Board meeting
Unbelievable. Held in my office due to alterations in boardroom. No real order. Chairman doesn’t know how to conduct a meeting and Ron Rollitt directs flow. Interesting to see him get a bit upset over a vice-presidents’ issue. Club's overdraft is £90,000.

Photographs and press conference
Daily Mirror and Evening Standard and local newsmen. Chairman impressive in handling media situation.

Television interview with chairman
Up to London and then interviewed from Midlands. Not all that successful as TV people didn’t seem to be sure what was going on.

Had long conversation with chairman and Mr Smith and Mr Stratford about players. Money available and informed them about Sam Ellis, Dennis Booth and Ian Bolton.

Sunday, June 25th

Visited Mr Smith (vice-chairman) and went with him to Dacorum League presentation. Keen on selling club to public.

Dropped office literature in. No keys for desk or file and really wonder about prior organisation. John Collins’ desk and file in outer office were disorganised.

A great deal of work to do.

Had a look round dressing room block. Could really be made good and if we get things going this shouldn’t be too bad.

A lot of mess still about from the greyhounds and this is obviously going to be a problem. Evidently get £12,000 revenue p.a. from them.

Impression that David Butler is going to be an asset to me.

A lot of people about the ground due to greyhound racing.

Monday, June 27

Ron Rollitt in morning. Fixture list and he had looked through it and wanted to know my views on certain travel arrangements at Christmas. Obviously got a free hand as regards travel and there is no set policy at all. Long talk with him as regards Chairman and Board and he feels that we have to teach Chairman how to become both Director and Chairman. Had a look at accounts from AGM August 10 1977 and Elton John is committed to over £100,000. Obviously it is his club and I am more than interested to see whether he loans or gives money. Not all that sure yet about administrative side as regards organisation and am not too happy about how I shall get my letters done. However, there is no anti deeling but I have to go through Ron to get to Patsy Gledhill and consequently it will be very difficult to have confidential letters typed. Arranged for dictaphone as I think this will be necessary.

David Butler
All of three hours with David, who strikes me as a very keen man and willing to learn. However from what he had told me and from the little I saw the club is not functioning as a football club at all. Organisation is lax and generally speaking nobody is really sure of responsibilities.

Tuesday, June 28

Called in to see Johnny Hartburn, Sue Chalk and Margaret Tomkins. Commercial office. Interesting, he has been here one year but increased revenue considerably. Seems enthusiastic and has thirteen years’ previous experience at Orient and Fulham. Has increased income considerably over first year and could be an important person in future of club. Have to arrange a meeting with him.

Long day with Dave Butler again, visiting training grounds and they have so many venues that no wonder they never get down to one thing – lack of stability here but I am convinced more and more that the players are not really being given the correct lead and that some of them will be past the point of no return by now. Had a visit to the kit supply retailer and ordered more kit and tried to get better organisation here as well. Everything is rather confusing at present and the job is going to be very hard to pull it round. No chance to dictate any letters at all at present and there are now some 30-40 need answering. I must do this and see how organised one becomes there. Went through contracts and was rather surprised to find very few players had been given service bonuses although main exception Arthur Horsfield had got five and a half thousand including S.O.L. Not impressed with incentive scheme which is not related to income and can cost 35,000 at top and 5,500 with 40 points. There is no service bonus at all.

Wednesday, June 29

Dealt with approx 15 letters in over one hour. Constant interruptions and I know we shall have to get this better. Had a look at the circuit in weights room and not all that impressed as no record can be kept of improvements etc. David Butler responsibility for kit and this boy is certainly [a] hard worker.

All afternoon with Danny Blanchflower and that was some experience.

Evening met Wally Fielding and was reasonably impressed and he would take some replacing. I shall have to see him in action and carefully decide what course of action to take.

Contacted George Kerr (Lincoln) as regards Sam Ellis – offered £4,000. Spoke about 15,000 as if directors had fixed price. Oh George!

Thursday, June 30

Alan Burridge phoned – amenities and recreational manager. Offered help and arranged meeting. Ray Brown is manager of Watford Leisure Centre. Dinner with Dr Vernon Edwards (club doctor) and his wife. Obviously going to be valuable person and will be prepared to give information about players. Feels there are players who did not give their best.

Spent three days interviewing playing staff and whilst all interviews conducted on friendly basis obvious to me that changes will have to be made. Question marks for various reasons against Rankin, Garner, Horsfield, Sherwood, Joslyn, Bond. Those players who live far away will eventually have to be replaced.

After three weeks in job beginning to get some idea of club and it certainly isn't anything like I've been used to.

Theres seems to be an indiscipline about the place and no real lead at all.

So many people about the ground at times – no idea who they are. Greyhounds three times a week and trials on Thursdays, no training facilities simply makes it a place with no real football identity at all. In fact, identity is a problem all round. Players don't live in Watford – there isn't a commitment to the club at all – feeling it is being used.

Ron Rollitt (general manager / secretary) with personal secretary Patsy Gledhill. On face of it these two must earn their money as they do everything but I’m not too sure whether this is for benefit of club and some of the reception and telephone duties ought to be taken away from Mrs Gledhill. Suggested purchase a dictaphone as I can see a lot of problems getting my letters done. Not sure about their organisation at all and yet Ron Rollitt seems very concerned as regards myself. Not sure how he figures in the financial matters at all. Lunch hour – no one on the telephone when the press call.

Board of directors
Elton John – chairman. 30-year-old multi-millionaire pop star. Watford supporter all his life. Local boy made world star. Wants success for the football club but doesn’t really know how to get it. No grip of board meetings and yet has a mind of his own, good opinions and is no fool. He has a lot of advantages but also disadvantages and simply because of who he is people could want him to fail.

Geoff Smith – vice-chairman. Coach company proprietor. Club use his coaches and his brother drives them. Complaint from players that he drives the coach too slow and journeys take too long. Nice man and has lived in the area his whole life.

Muir Stratford – Articulate, enthusiastic.

John Reid – Elton John’s manager. Young man and don’t know yet about his commitment to the club.

Jim Harrowell – Ill in hospital and not expected to play an active part in club again but a strong Watford supporter and director of many years.

At present time board reads not less than five and no more than 10. To be altered to read not less than four and not more than seven.

In general the board is not stable in thought or policy at the moment and very reliant on chairman from financial point of view.

Any new directors must be prepared to work and are interested in contributing to running of the club.

Chairman must be available to be contacted, and he has to learn a great deal about the job.

Weight room, in which David Butler organises a circuit. He is very keen on body work. Apart from that there are only a few cones and absolutely nothing else at all.

£90,000 overdraft
Loss of £55,000 in 1976-77
Average 6,000 gate in 1976-77
Elton John has by far the major holding in the company and in effect one could say it is his club.

Commercial manager Johnny Hartburn with the female staff Sue Chalk and Margaret Tomkins. A former player and will be interested to see his background with regard to commercial qualifications. Introduced myself and had a three-quarters-of-an-hour chat with him. Seemed quite sharp and alert and this is one person who can help promote the club. Had four years with Orient and nine years with Fulham prior to this.

There’s the feeling you are in the makings of a stadium and yet short of atmosphere. Has greyhound track round the pitch and that is used two or three times a week. Makes for untidyness and certainly a lot of the ground needs smartening up.

Groundstaff is Les Simmons with two or three part-time helpers. He pays a lot of attention to the pitch, even to the extent of not liking the players to go on it.

No one seems to know who is in charge of it. We now have a lot to spare because a new colour scheme was introduced last season and consequently a lot of the old kit is available. Not impressed with how the kit is packed and would hazard a guess that no one really knows what we have got or not.

Medical staff are Dr Edwards, Dr Black and Dr O’Connor with the former being associated with the England party – probably this is how Dave Butler got his chance to work with the England Youth.

Dr Vernon Edwards will obviously play a leading part in the development of the club and can be an influential figure. His philosophy is the same as mine – the treatment of the injuted player should be as uncomfortable as possible!

Playing staff
Seems to lack real drive and leadership. Relatively young but with a group of older players. The’ve not been pressurised for some time and suspect there’s a lack of real discipline in certain quarters. Comments received are that there are a couple of moaners and that Alan Garner is a class above others but doesn’t always play in top gear. After interviewing 17 of the 20 pros I am more convinced than ever that some of the staff will have to be changed.

John Collins – coach

David Butler – physio

Wally Fielding – part-time trainer who seems very committed to youth set-up. Ex-Everton star. Seems to do almost everything as youth team manager. I think he may need someone to work beside him (perhaps Tom Walley?). Biggest problem is we have no pitches for youth games and a lack of facilities in general. He takes the under-18 team and Pat Malloy takes the under-17s. Feels that Pat (68) is too old.
Pat Molloy – old stager who although paid very little seems to be full-time and has a lot of duties.

Mollie Rush – tea lady, laundry lady, cleaner and landlady. Is involved on matchdays as well!

Les Simmons – groundsman who asked me to give a day or two’s notice before letting the players train on the pitch!

John Collins – is used to being in charge and seems to have been affected by me taking over. Not sure we can work together, although have been impressed by his abilities as a coach. The danger as I change players is whether he will begin to side with them?

No scouting system at all. One local scout and I think Bill McCracken is still on the stage (aged 95!). Traditional thing in football is that because of prior work people are offered a job for life.

No one watches opposition games. Have appointed four scouts but will have to look into the whole scouting system as soon as possible.

Training facilities
None at the ground and the club travel to a range of training grounds.

These are – Cassiobury Park, hills and long running and plenty of grass. Shendish – five miles out of town and the sports ground belonging to Dickinsons paper company. In pre-season lunches were provided but there’s the problem of getting pitches booked. Watford Leisure Centre – they have all-weather pitches which is good for evening training with youngsters. Woodside – where the under-18s play. It’s council-owned and has a running track round it but we struggle to get on pitches and have to give a few days’ notice. Hartspring Leisure Centre – indoor area and already booked for Mondays. Metropolitan Police Sports Ground – tried to book for regular use previously. We have got to get a ground where we can keep equipment.

Not sure if there is any set policy for away travel. Vice-chairman is coach company proprietor and we get very competitive prices. His brother is the coach driver but players complain he drives too slowly. Train is also used for some longer trips – look into day returns and group ticket schemes. Club has a good away following so must look into possibility of hiring a train for certain trips.

Youth policy
Almost non-existent. Wally Fielding seems to arrange trial matches, which is fine as long as I know what is happening. Must develop contacts with local clubs and schools and begin to strengthen youth teams. Developing young players essential for a club this size. Cannot rely on transfers. But youngsters must be identified and retained depending on potential to make it into the first team. Tom Walley is not going to play a part on the pitch but could be an asset here. Could be someone to shake-up the whole thing.

Deadline day anxiety

SSN graphic.jpg

by Lionel Birnie

So that’s it then, the transfer window has slammed shut. It always slams shut, no one ever thinks to just pull it to quietly.

A day of manufactured lunacy failed to match the preposterous heights we’ve seen previously and a look around social media this evening shows there are quite a few Watford supporters out there who are unhappy with the lack of activity on the final day.

Perception is everything. Had Watford signed Adam Masina, Ken Sema, Marc Navarro, Ben Wilmot, Ben Foster and Gerard Deulofeu over the course of the past week instead of earlier in the summer, the impression would have been of a dynamic club making strident, decisive moves to secure their targets in the nick of time, perhaps getting one ‘over the line’ at the last minute to reinforce the idea that the people doing the business had their sleeves rolled up and a bead of sweat on their brows.

The fact they had identified their targets and completed their deals before the World Cup was over is now being interpreted as some kind of failure. It doesn’t help, of course, that Watford have been linked with a dozen players in the past 48 hours lending the situation a sense of desperation that probably wasn’t there, although the rumour that West Brom's Jake Livermore was a target made me fear that someone at Vicarage Road had spent too long exposed to the blazing sunshine earlier this week and was suffering from some kind of heat-related bewilderment. (I gather Livermore was never a target, though). And so, the only arrival on the final day was a teenager from West Ham.

Of course it’s perfectly acceptable to be disappointed with the fact that the two weakest areas of the team – at the heart of defence and up front – have not been strengthened but the conclusion that Watford now face an inevitable battle against relegation does not necessarily tally. Of course, we might be in for a difficult season but history tells us that every Premier League season will be a challenge for a club of Watford’s size.

Nevertheless it’s been a funny summer. The sale of Richarlison for a gazilion pounds – each shot into the side-netting between November and May seemingly adding a million to the price – perhaps gave us the false impression that there was cash to burn.

Rumours that a striker from Barcelona, or perhaps one from Paris St Germain, were on their way fuelled the expectations and so it is barely surprising that when we look at the attacking options now and see that Troy Deeney, Andre Gray, Isaac Success and Stefano Okaka managed 11 goals between them last season we feel deflated. There’s nothing quite like the thought of seeing a new man up front on the first day of the season to stoke the enthusiasm. Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say, and we know all too well what Deeney, Gray and Okaka in particular offer. What we lack, on the eve of the season, is the excitement of the unknown, the thrill of watching a forward player get the ball and not knowing what his default moves are.

However, I just can’t bring myself to join in with the chorus of dissent. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting old, and perhaps it’s because I know that being annoyed about the club’s transfer policy – something we have no control over and probably only a sketchy understanding of – is a waste of energy. As I scrolled through Twitter just now a smile crossed my face at the thought of Javi Gracia or Scott Duxbury doing the same on their sofas this evening. 'Dammit, @GoldenBoy28 has got a point! We should have bought a striker!' [@GoldenBoy28 is an invention of mine so if you are @GoldenBoy28, I mean no offence].

The thing is, we have all signed up for the new season not knowing whether we are in for a thrilling ride on the rollercoaster or a chilling trip on the ghost train, taking us past the skeletons of Dave Bassett and Devon White. Part of the joy of football is that feeling of entering the unknown, the sense of placing our emotions and trust in others and hoping for the best. Part of the joy of the start of the season is that it is all fresh again, the disappointments of the past campaign largely forgotten and our hearts made fonder by three months' absence from Vicarage Road.

Unfortunately, we live in a world of slick, superficial coverage. The pundits state their rock-solid opinions, supporters follow suit and the language of the studios seeps into the stands. 'For me, Watford needed to strengthen up front,' they say, oblivious to the fact that the ‘for me’ bit is completely superfluous. After a day of other clubs getting ‘deals over the line’ and players ‘coming through the door’ it feels like the whole thing has become simply an exercise to generate anger, anxiety and a steady stream of callers to phone-in shows. As supporters the curious dichotomy is that our opinions count for everything and yet mean almost nothing. Without the supporters and their engagement there is no circus, no £50million transfer fees, no drama, no employment for TV people willing to stand outside training grounds reporting things they’ve just read on their phones. And yet I can scream into the void until I’m blue in the face that the Pozzos have got it wrong this time and it makes not a jot of difference. Far better, surely, to accept that what will be, will be.

I am a firm believer in Graham Taylor’s Rule of Thirds when it comes to transfers anyway. That is to say that a third of the players a club signs will turn out to be a success, a third will do okay and a third will not make the grade. The arrival of Trevor Senior in 1987 taught me relatively early on not to get too carried away by a player's reputation or past performance. It’s far better to wait and see what a player does in a gold and black shirt before proclaiming them to be the panacea dressed as the messiah.

Football has changed an awful lot since 1982, but I wonder what the reaction would have been had social media existed then. That summer – also a World Cup year – Graham Taylor’s response to winning promotion to the top flight for the first time in the club’s history was to sign precisely no one. I know there were a few letters to the Watford Observer suggesting that Watford needed to bring in some experience to help them cope with the First Division but there was no serious outcry, no flashes of anger, no volleys of abuse claiming Elton John had lost the plot and didn't care about the club.

I cannot take seriously those who wail that this has been the worst transfer window ever either. Okay, so the transfer window didn’t exist in its current form in 1996 but plenty of people will remember the contrast between the feeling of excitement at England’s progress to the semi-finals of the European Championships and the news that Watford’s two key arrivals of the summer were Steve Talboys and Richard Flash (both free transfers, both hopeless).

Having said all that, I also don’t believe the Pozzos should be awarded the luxury of an unquestioning eye. The club will know that if the first half of the season is a struggle, and if the goals are hard to come by, the criticism will be swift and obvious. The failure to sign a striker will be an easily reachable stick to beat them with.

But never fear, because the transfer window re-opens in January and we can enjoy the whole carry-on again.

For me, I think Watford may need to strengthen up front and I just hope they do their business early, but not too early, and get the signings over the line before the window slams shut.

Catching up with... Nigel Gibbs

The first in a series of long-form audio interviews with people who made an impact for Watford on or off the pitch.

Nigel Gibbs at the Grove hotel, Watford, March 2018. Photograph by Simon Gill

Nigel Gibbs at the Grove hotel, Watford, March 2018. Photograph by Simon Gill

by Lionel Birnie

I've interviewed a lot of Watford players over the years but those interviews have always been for written projects. An interview that's intended for an audience to listen to is a completely different thing.

I've teamed up with the excellent From the Rookery End podcast to contribute to a series called Catching Up With...

Who better to be the first guest than a one-club man who can justifiably claim the title Mr Watford – not that he'd dream of doing so because he's too modest?

Earlier this year I met Nigel Gibbs at the Grove hotel where we chatted over coffee about the highs and lows of his Watford career, which spanned two decades and some incredible highs which sandwiched a period of decline for the club in the 1990s.

It's more a conversation than an interview and I hope you enjoy it.

iTunes / Subscribebit.ly/watfordpodcast

The World Cup of Watford Shirts

Watford unveiled their 2018-19 home shirt this week and the World Cup starts tomorrow, so we thought we'd mark the two events and launch the World Cup of Watford Shirts to find out which is the best Hornets shirt of modern times.

The Twitter polls will be run on the @goldblacktees page between now and the end of next week.

Thirty-two home shirts have been drawn in eight groups of four and each winning shirt will progress to the quarter-finals. Each poll will be open for 24 hours. Group A is online now so get voting...

A big thanks to the brilliant Historical Kits for letting us use their illustrations. You can go straight to their Watford page here.


It's not how you start, it's how you finish

Two years ago, Watford faced Aston Villa at Vicarage Road and trailed the already-relegated visitors 2-1 going into injury time. Villa had been reduced to ten men with quarter of an hour left and, coming a week after a deflating FA Cup semi-final defeat against Crystal Palace, the tetchy atmosphere among the Watford supporters was not surprising.

Then Troy Deeney – disliked by Villa fans because of his well-known allegiance to Birmingham City  and a target for their abuse all afternoon – scored twice to turn the tables on the beleaguered opposition. Watford had been on the receiving end of similarly unjust outcomes during two previous spells in the Premier League so it was, to my mind, one of the high spots of that season. Five goals, a red card and a late, undeserved comeback to steal the points from a side who probably merited more.

On the walk back to the car, a fellow supporter engaged me in conversation, unprompted. ‘Awful,’ he said. ‘Awful.’

I had to wonder if he’d left early and missed the comeback.

‘Did you not see the two late goals?’ I asked.

‘Just papering over the cracks,’ he replied. ‘The football is awful. We need to get rid of this bloke.’

He was referring to the head coach, Quique Sanchez Flores.

‘I think we should be careful what we wish for,’ I said.

‘Well, it can’t get any worse.’

* * *

Last season, under Walter Mazzarri, arguably it did get worse.

Watford rarely earned plaudits for style but did enough in the first half of the season to avoid fretting about relegation at the end. They could even afford to lose the last six (failing to score in five of them). With the benefit of hindsight it’s clear the three no-frills home wins over Sunderland (1-0), West Brom (2-0) and Swansea (1-0) in April were the key to securing survival.

At least under Sanchez Flores there was a solid streak running through the side. Mazzarri, for all that his touchline antics gave the impression he was a ruthless operator, allowed a soft centre to develop. Under Sanchez Flores the goals for and against columns read 40-50. Under Mazzarri it was 40-68. This season it stands at 42-60 with three games, including trips to Tottenham and Manchester United, remaining.

One thing all three Premier League seasons have in common it’s that there has been a marked decline in the final third of each campaign. There’s an old cliché that applies here: it’s not how you start that counts, it’s how you finish, and Watford are getting into a habit of freewheeling over the line from a long way out.

Last dozen.jpg

* * *

When this season ends it may be that we look at the back-to-back 1-0 home wins over Everton and West Brom as the two results that clinched a fourth season of Premier League football. Last month a supporter at the club’s At Our Place event described these victories – tense, cagey affairs against unambitious opposition and each decided by late Deeney goals – as boring.

While it would be hard to make a case for either match being a rollercoaster of heart-stopping drama there was a certain engaging tension about both matches and the relief of breaking the deadlock and standing firm meant the final whistle was greeted with cheers and clenched fists each time. But the comment did make me wonder what it is we actually want.

When we’re grinding out results, we want free-flowing flair. When we’re playing more expansive football, as was the case against Bournemouth, and for the first half against both Burnley and Crystal Palace, but don’t win, we want the result.

But what was more ‘enjoyable’. Grinding out six points against Everton and West Brom, or collecting only two points from three matches during which the team tried to be open and offensive. What matters most, the points or the entertainment? And are they mutually-exclusive for a side destined to finish in a lower-mid-table position?

It’s a question to ponder as the season peters out and our sense of optimism is restored over the summer by a three-month absence from Vicarage Road.

When Watford played Barcelona – and the story of a shirt


by Lionel Birnie

A year or so ago, I paid an uncomfortable amount of money for a match-worn Watford shirt that was being sold on eBay. It’s a beautiful thing. Manufactured by Umbro for use in warm conditions, it’s made from an airtex cotton material punctured with little holes. The badge and Umbro logo are embroidered onto the chest, the lettering spelling out the name of the sponsor Iveco is pressed into the fabric, and a felt number eight is stitched to the back.

I started to do a bit of detective work on the provenance of the shirt and, according to a very well-informed source, it was almost certainly worn by Maurice Johnston for the opening game of the 1984-85 season against Manchester United at Old Trafford. It was also, more likely than not, worn by Johnston during the pre-season trip to Majorca, where Watford played Barcelona for the first – and so far only – time.

As an aside, I had not realised that Watford had worn a version of this cotton airtex shirt in the 1984 FA Cup final but close examination of photographs taken at Wembley show the texture clearly.

* * *

Anyway, the story of how Watford came to play Barcelona in the now-demolished Luis Sitjar Stadium in Palma in August 1984 has always amused me.

Not long after the FA Cup final, which Watford lost to Everton, Graham Taylor told John Ward, his first team coach, that he was taking a break with his wife Rita and daughters and would not be contactable for a couple of weeks. Taylor left Ward in charge with the instructions, ‘If anything comes up, handle it.’

A few days later, former Watford player Gerry Armstrong, who had joined Real Mallorca a year earlier, rang the club with a proposal. How would the Hornets like to take part in a pre-season tournament in Majorca with Barcelona, Real Mallorca and Rapid Vienna?

Ward asked Bertie Mee what he thought. Mee replied to the effect, ‘The gaffer left you in charge. What do you reckon?’

Thinking that an all-expenses trip to Majorca to check out the hotel and training facilities, hear more about the tournament and catch up with Armstrong was not a bad offer, Ward made the trip to the Balearic island.

Armstrong showed Ward round Palma. The hotel was great, the training facilities first-class, there was a good amount of money on offer for taking part, and the chance to play Barcelona was not to be sniffed at either. Ward accepted the invitation.

By the time the trip came round, things had changed a bit. Rapid Vienna had pulled out and were replaced by Universidad, a side from Chile. Watford's schedule was to play two matches on consecutive evenings – Barcelona, then Real Mallorca. The hotel and training ground Ward had been shown had been allocated to Barcelona and Watford were on the other side of town, a little too close to the tourist traps and nightspots. There was nowhere convenient to train and no swimming pool. 'The games are kicking off at 10pm because it’s so hot even in the evening and it’s what they do over there,' Ward said when I interviewed him for Enjoy the Game. 'I’d not known that. Basically, I'd got it all wrong.'

To make matters worse, Taylor's nemesis Terry Venables had been appointed manager of Barcelona and the game against Watford was to be his first fixture in charge. The two managers had spent the best part of five years sniping at one another in the press. Venables criticised the Vicarage Road slope and Watford's long-ball game, Taylor hit back with barbs about Queens Park Rangers' plastic pitch and reliance on the offside trap. It added an extra bit of needle to the match although Taylor recalled, 'I had no problem with Terry, and I don't think he had a problem with me. Yes, I made comments about the plastic pitch and I didn't like their offside trap, but there was no nastiness involved. Where I think the rivalry got stoked up was by Terry's supporters in the press.'

With the First Division campaign kicking off against Manchester United a week later it was not the ideal way to fine-tune for the season. Temperatures were so high during the day that they couldn't do much in the way of physical conditioning work. The matches were played late in the evening and it was well past midnight by the time the players got back to the hotel. By the time they'd wound down from the match it was the middle of the night.

* * *

There were around 22,000 spectators in the stadium to watch Watford play Barcelona on Friday, August 17.

Barcelona were a big club but they weren't quite the globally-admired colossus they are today. They'd not won the Spanish title in a decade and were yet to win their first European Cup.

Terry Venables was a respected coach and had just guided QPR to fifth place in the First Division but it's hard to imagine Barca making such a recruitment today. Their star player was the German midfielder Bernd Schuster and their big summer signing had been Scottish striker Steve Archibald, from Tottenham. As it turned out, they went on to win the league championship during Venables' debut season.

Taylor used the game as an opportunity to experiment with a European-style formation, although his hand was partly forced because a couple of his key defenders were not 100 per cent fit. Wilf Rostron played as a sweeper behind a back three of David Bardsley, Lee Sinnott and Kenny Jackett. Les Taylor sat just in front of them as a deep-lying midfielder. Nigel Callaghan and John Barnes played wide with Maurice Johnston, George Reilly and Luther Blissett operating as a front three, Blissett taking up a position just behind the other two.

Things got off to the worst possible start. In the first minute, Sinnott slipped in the penalty area and handled the ball. Schuster scored from the penalty spot. Rojo scored a second for Barcelona, Johnston pulled one back before half-time and the second half was seen out at little more than walking pace at times, with the score ending 2-1 to the Catalan side.

'I just remember it being so hot and humid,' said Les Taylor. 'We were a week away from the start of our season but the Spanish League didn't start until September so they didn't want a high tempo game. It was too hot anyway, we were breaking out in a sweat just jogging. Even though it was ten o'clock at night, it was still very warm and it was difficult to play in those conditions. I remember trying to mark Schuster but he would drop really deep to get the ball and then pop up on the edge of our box without us realising how he'd got there. He was always a step ahead and you could see his quality.'

* * *

The next night, Watford faced Real Mallorca and again lost 2-1. Playing in front of their home crowd – around 30,000 – Mallorca were keen to win the game and played in a more competitive, and more cynical, spirit than Barcelona had done.

At some point one of the Mallorca players spat at George Reilly as they jostled for position at a corner. Reilly reacted by administering a forearm smash. The referee approached the Watford bench and told them to substitute Reilly or have him sent off.

'The centre half spat in my face, and it smelled of garlic, I swear,' said Reilly. 'I dropped him one and the linesman hadn’t seen it. The crowd were booing me. Graham substituted me and said, "If you ever do that again you’ll never play for this club again." I said, right, so if I spit in your face now, what are you going to do? He said “What?" I said, "Smell this. It’s garlic. He spat in my face." He didn’t fine me or drop me. He knew when the provocation was too much.'

* * *

While they'd been in Majorca, stories had appeared in the press about Maurice Johnston, who was agitating for a move to Celtic.

Gerry Armstrong recalls the story. 'Maurice said to me, "I've done a story for one of the papers, it’s coming out on Sunday." Graham hated his players talking to the press. So I said, "What sort of story is it? Is it a bad one?"

'Mo said, "Well, I’ve had a bit of a go at Graham."

'I said, "Oh you haven’t. Well, you’re in trouble now. He’ll come back at you. If you want to leave, you have to play it his way and he’ll make it happen for you but he has to look out for the club’s interests so you have to do it his way. If I was you, I’d try to stop the story."

'He said he'd tried to stop the story but the paper was still running it, so I said he should have a word with Graham before it came out.'

Watford flew home from Majorca on the Sunday. Whether Taylor saw the tabloid story or not, he did recall being handed an envelope containing Johnston's formal transfer request when they got on the coach to go to the airport.

Taylor said, 'Thanks Maurice. It's Sunday and I don't work on Sundays so I shall open it tomorrow.'

* * *

On the plane, Taylor and Ward sat next to each other. Ward was wincing because the trip had been a disaster for one reason and another. Back-to-back matches in hot conditions, little time to train and prepare for the Manchester United match, and with a rumble of discontent over the players' bonus structure for the coming season.

Ward braced himself. 'Graham had been fantastic, and never said a word to me,' he said. 'I felt terrible about it. The players haven’t really kicked off but they weren’t too happy about it. No one knows I’ve planned the trip but I’ve heard the odd grumble. I’m just keeping my head down because I know what’s coming.'

Taylor buckled his seat belt, leaned over and said, 'Well, Wardy, I don't think we'll be doing that again.'

'It was so simple,' said Ward, 'but it was the biggest put down I’ve ever had. He had hated the trip but he’d put up with it because he knew he’d let me get on with [planning] it. I’d got it wrong but he hadn’t given me a hard time about it. It was the mark of the man.'

* * *

'It was a difficult summer in many ways,' said Taylor, when I asked him about the months following the 1984 FA Cup final. 'We'd had this cup run and the game at Wembley and the result had not gone for us, and more than that, the performance had not been the sort of performance we expected of ourselves.

'I was more than interested to see which way it was going to go the following season. Would we suffer a hangover from the cup final? We had this situation with Maurice as well. He had scored such a lot of goals in a short space of time that it was going to be very difficult for us to keep hold of him. I loved managing him in many ways because he kept me on my toes, but I knew I could not prevent him from going to a club like Glasgow Celtic. He was a Scottish boy and they would be playing in European competition, which we couldn't offer him at that time because we hadn't qualified.

'In a lot of ways a move to Celtic suited us because it meant he wouldn't be playing against us for another First Division club, so I wasn't unhappy about the idea of him going there but we had to do the transfer in the correct way. I had to make sure the club's interests were looked after and that meant getting the best price we could for him. And I couldn't have a player saying this, that and the other in the newspapers. But Maurice was a mischievous lad, I couldn't keep him totally under control.'

What about the suggestion that Watford's players were agitating for better bonuses.

'I do remember that after the cup final the players felt they should have been rewarded and I do remember the negotiations going on longer than was perhaps ideal. I wanted players to concentrate on the football and I didn't like discussions about money getting in the way of that.'

As Nigel Callaghan recalled: 'All through pre-season Taylor wasn’t happy because someone had questioned him and there was too much talk about money. By the time we came to the first game of the season away at Man United, GT was saying, "This was the worst pre-season we’ve ever had. If you’re not absolutely on your game they’re going to murder you, and it’s on TV and we’re going to look stupid." He wasn’t happy at all. But we drew 1-1. I got the goal in the last minute. We murdered United for most of the match, we were the best side that day and a draw was the least we deserved. We were on Match of the Day that night.'

When I asked Taylor if he remembered telling the players it had been the worst pre-season ever, he laughed. 'Quite possibly. That sounds like the sort of thing I'd say every now and then, but sometimes it was just to get the players up on their toes, especially with a game like Manchester United away on the first day. We lost heavily at Tottenham on the first day one season [1985] and we just weren't right and we paid the price, so it can happen.'

* * *

And that brings us back to the shirt. Maurice Johnston's shirt, worn in that game at Old Trafford, probably, and against Barcelona, possibly. He was my favourite player back then, and his transfer to Celtic, when it came, stung, although Luther Blissett's return from Milan eased the sense of rejection.

The shirt is neatly folded, in a box with a few other gems collected over the years. How did the shirt find its way onto eBay? I don't know, and the seller wouldn't say when asked, although he did sell No. 10 and No. 14 from the same set at around the same time. But knowing the story behind it makes it feel like much more than just a piece of memorabilia. It's a piece of airtexed history.

With thanks to Neil Dunham.

In praise of Will Hughes

In their book, Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski make a point about a ‘big English club’ that noticed its scouts who watched youth games often recommended blond-haired players – so much so that the club took the bias into account when assessing the scouting reports.

The conclusion was that blond footballers stand out because they are relatively rare and so more noticeable.

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This thought came to me on Saturday as Watford played Bournemouth, because my eyes were so often drawn to Will Hughes that I was trying to work out whether they were being disporportionately influenced by his hair colour.

That may sound a strange thought but all supporters watch matches with years of accumulated bias distorting their view. For example, some supporters praise perceived effort more than they logically should. A player who makes a futile but obvious effort to regain possession after giving away the ball gets a round of applause whereas the one who drops back into a pragmatic defensive position and bolsters the team’s effort to win back the ball from there does not.

As supporters we want to see effort as well as skill and, as a result, style counts for a lot. I am willing to bet that if Etienne Capoue ran in short, rapid steps rather than in his languid style, or charged to close down an opponent after making a stray pass rather than waving his arms in the general direction of one of his team-mates, he’d attract an awful lot less criticism. His style of play dilutes appreciation of what he actually does in a match.

Anyway, my conclusion was that Hughes was, by some distance, the most enjoyable Watford player to watch for the 75 minutes that he was on the pitch, and that had nothing to do with the fact he has hair brighter than the sun.

It was his first start since going off injured an hour into the Manchester United home match at the end of November and it surprised me that it was only his fifth Premier League start, so vivid were my memories of how well he’d played at Goodison Park and St James’ Park last year.

Hughes is not quick. He’s not big or imposing, although he is strong – wiry, probably – and difficult to knock off the ball. The threat he poses to opposition defences is not obvious but he has an elusive quality that makes the best attacking midfielders so difficult to contain. For defenders, it must be like grappling with a bar of soap in the bath. Just when you think you’ve got a grip, it slips away.

Where exactly was Hughes playing? It was hard to say. Just behind Deeney? False nine? False ten? Drifting in from the left? Or was it from the right? He seemed to pop up everywhere, and yet was rarely out of position. His ability to float added definition to the roles of the players around him too. Abdoulaye Doucouré, in particular, seemed to benefit from not feeling he had to be in two places at once. Capoue seemed content to sit a bit deeper and Roberto Pereyra was less isolated than in recent matches because Hughes managed to get the ball to him and bring him into the play in dangerous areas, notably with a little lay-off for Watford’s second goal.

By doing very little that is immediately obvious, Hughes seems to find space where others run into traffic. Sometimes he works the ball with neat, quick footwork but just as often he uses his body, throwing the sort of shapes you see from Dads on the dancefloor at weddings, allowing the ball to roll while his body puts defenders off the scent. When he’s trying to win the ball or bring it under control he doesn’t feel the pressure to do so with one definitive touch. He’s like Doucouré in that sense. He understands that sometimes a little toe poke, or a bounce with the sole of the foot to kill the pace on the ball and take it away from an opponent is enough. Then, after two, three, four touches, he’s suddenly wriggled free and the space has opened up around him. It’s a brilliant, almost indefinable skill.

Without getting too carried away – because he is far from flawless – Hughes is a player that makes you pay attention and it was clear that Watford became more predictable when he went off. It’s always slightly disappointing when the stand-out player leaves the field, as Hughes did after 75 minutes, but after so long out injured, and after three 20-plus-minute appearances as a substitute, he’d probably done enough for the day. What was puzzling, though, was the choice of replacement. Bringing on Stefano Okaka for Hughes was hardly like-for-like. It was akin to replacing a nimble little Lambretta with a milk float or bumper car.

And, of course, Okaka gave away the free-kick which allowed Bournemouth to pump the ball forward for their equaliser. Okaka does pay an unfair price for his size and style at times, but on this occasion he led with his arm and made the decision easy for the referee.

Once the disappointment of throwing away two points so late had faded, I was left with the sense that we’d seen an open, positive, attacking game as well as the hope that Hughes can stay fit for the remainer of this season and then become the fulcrum of the team next term.

The other thing I wondered was whether Etienne Capoue had dyed his hair blond in a bid to attract the attention of any scouts watching…

* * *

It’s an unrelated point because the faux rivalry with Bournemouth is a peculiar phenomenon but it cannot be denied that the fact they are able to sing about having been champions and we are not is incredibly irritating. Watford were only a minute or so away from winning the title decider against Sheffield Wednesday in May 2015 and, in injury time, fell victim to a free kick that was put into the penalty area and the ensuing failure to clear the ball. Plus ça change.

* * *

A comment made by a supporter at Watford’s At Our Place event this week caught my eye. I didn’t go to the event but followed on Twitter and so the way it was paraphrased may have shorn it of some nuance, but the essence was that the previous two home matches – the 1-0 wins over Everton and West Bromwich Albion – were boring.

It’s an intriguing thing, this. When the team is not winning, all that matters is the points. When the team is winning, we find other things to complain about and the idea of football as entertainment takes hold again.

It’s a generalisation, but while the money rolls in, the TV figures hold up and the stadia are (more or less) full, professional football teams have no obligation to entertain. Every place in the league table equals millions of pounds and so the accumulation of points does not need to be pretty.

Which is why Saturday’s game was so refreshing. An away team came prepared to play and, as a result, we saw some attractive movement and some clever use of the angles. But, on reflection, would we have preferred a downright ugly stop-start final 40 minutes?


What else is on the site?

Three more interviews in the Enjoy the Game 1980s series

Being Graham Taylor How I ghostwrote Graham Taylor's autobiography

If you don't shoot, you don't score An insight into how Watford pre-dated Opta stats