‘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.
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.
* * *
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.’
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, 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.’
* * *
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.’
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