‘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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
* * *
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?’
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