With the biggest cup tie in years coming up, it looked like Watford were in danger of falling apart.
They were having to fight for their lives to stave off an immediate return to Division Three. Every time they hauled themselves upwards, they slipped back into trouble again. At times they seemed unable to cope with the step up and yet in the FA Cup they had produced some of their most accomplished displays of the season.
Tom Walley, the Welshman who wasn’t just the team’s engine but the one who fetched and carried the coal to keep the train going, never doubted Ken Furphy.
‘He had this knack of getting us very well organised for the big matches,’ says Walley.
As the season drew on, Watford knew every game was going to be like a cup tie if they were to avoid the drop.
The cup was a nice diversion. Having knocked out Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City, they scraped past Gillingham to make the sixth round for the first time since 1932, and only the second time in the club’s history.
Their reward was another clash with Liverpool. Earlier in the season, Bill Shankly’s Reds had knocked Watford out of the League Cup winning 2-1 at Vicarage Road.
Eleven days before their biggest cup tie in decades, disaster struck. The influential Keith Eddy got injured.
While Walley toiled, Eddy pulled the strings in Watford’s midfield, dropping back and orchestrating moves from deep. ‘Eddy was a bloody good player,’ says Walley. ‘He could use the ball very well. When he was out, we did miss him.’
Eddy was injured at Carlisle and the Hornets crumbled, losing 5-0 and slipping into the bottom two for the umpteenth time that season.
With Liverpool on their way, the last thing Watford needed was to lose arguably their most composed player.
But if there was one thing Furphy was good at, it was coming up with a plan and then executing it precisely.
He took the team away for a few days, to St Helier in Jersey, where the club’s wealthy vice-chairman Harold Hutchinson owned a villa.
The squad played golf and relaxed around the swimming pool, enjoying an unusually warm spring in the Channel Islands while England saw out the last days of winter.
It wasn’t all play, though. Knowing the Vicarage Road pitch would be heavy, Furphy found a sandy corner of beach and had his players running through it.
‘Somehow the gaffer got me on a plane. I didn’t like flying and we were on this little thing that wobbled about,’ says Walley. ‘We went there and we got really well organised. We went through everything, man by man, so we all knew our jobs. Furphy was very good at that.
He could get us going for specific games. It wasn’t possible to do it for every game because you couldn’t watch the opposition like you can now. You can get video of everyone, you can send scouts to several matches. Back then you couldn’t do it.’
Liverpool were sure to be formidable opponents but the suspicion was that Bill Shankly’s first great team was on the wane. After winning two league titles, in 1964 and 1966, there were now some ageing legs in the side. Furphy hoped to exploit this by playing at a high tempo and stretching the defence. The fact that Tommy Smith, Liverpool’s combative midfield player, would be missing from the line-up was a bonus.
Furphy’s biggest dilemma was how to replace Eddy. Most people expected him to pick Colin Franks, the 18-year-old, who scored a sensational winner in the fourth round against Stoke.
The teenage midfielder’s long-range strike caught out Gordon Banks, the England goalkeeper who had won the World Cup just four years earlier.
Although his goal had given the tabloids an excuse to use a variation on their favourite Banks of England headline, Furphy was not so sure.
Franks was young and inconsistent. Instead, he went for Mike Packer.
Walley remembers Furphy’s team talk being clear and concise. ‘He didn’t have to say much,’ he says. ‘We had done a lot of work. Before we went out he said, “Don’t be afraid of them. They’re just men. It’s a big job and they’re a good team but they aren’t going to want to fight like we’ll fight. If we do our bit correctly, I am telling you, we can go a long way. If we stay organised, we might nick it.” He gave you confidence, made you feel like you had prepared well.’
This was Furphy’s finest hour. His team stuck to the task brilliantly. They hassled Liverpool, refusing to let them settle on the ball.
At half-time, it was still goalless but Furphy was wary. He knew a moment of inspiration could be Watford’s undoing.
The longer it went on, the clearer it became that a single goal would decide it. As it turned out, that moment of brilliance was created by the players in the gold shirts.
Stewart Scullion, whose wing play had caused problems all afternoon, pushed the ball forward from deep, ran past three defenders and won a throw-in off Ron Yeats.
Ray Lugg took the throw and Scullion knocked it back to him. With quick thinking and even speedier feet, Lugg tapped the ball through Chris Wall’s legs and sent in a perfect, arcing cross. Barry Endean, surrounded by defenders, timed his run beautifully and sent a powerful header into the net.
At the time, it was the single most important goal in the club’s history and sealed a place in the semi-finals.
Endean, a barrel-chested bully of a centre forward, had come out of non-League football 18 months earlier and could be too much for many defences to handle.
The clock seemed to stand still for Furphy after that but Shankly’s team had run out of ideas.
The four minutes of injury time were torture. ‘I now know the meaning of the word eternity,’ he said.
What happenened next?
Unfortunately, Bill Shankly was right. Watford were demoralised in the semi-final. The other three teams in the hat were Manchester United, Chelsea and Leeds United. All of them giants, all of them capable of giving out a hiding. Watford were the team everybody else was hoping to get. Watford’s match against Chelsea was played on a White Hart Lane pitch that resembled a sandpit.
In truth, the team of Peter Bonetti, John Hollins, Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris, Alan Hudson and Peter Osgood was too good for them.
David Webb gave Chelsea the lead after three minutes, although Watford fought back eight minutes later, when Terry Garbett scored an equaliser, and they held on until the second-half.
Osgood broke Watford’s resolve just before the hour mark and then the cracks opened up.
Chelsea scored three times in eight minutes. Peter Houseman got two and Ian Hutchinson grabbed the other. Although Watford could not claim to deserve a place in the final, it was a harsh score.
Watford’s cup run wasn’t quite over. They went on to play the first ever third-fourth place play-off against Manchester United, the other beaten semi-finalists, The match was played at Highbury, the evening before the cup final. Only 15,000 people saw a 2-0 United win.