The intoxicating rush of an FA Cup run is unlike anything else. The excitement is contagious. You set out in January in hope more than expectation and you take whatever the draw throws at you, dreaming that maybe this year will be your year.
As the rounds go by and you find your team is still standing you allow yourself to think ahead. What if this really is our time?
Perhaps it was written in the stars that Watford would reach the FA Cup final in 1984. Before the draw for the third round was even made, Graham Taylor told Elton John to keep cup final day clear.
The chairman was about to embark on a long European tour but he made sure there wasn’t a concert on Saturday, May 19.
Watford knocked Luton out in the third round replay, then skipped past Charlton Athletic and brushed aside the previous season’s finalists Brighton to reach the last eight, by which time Wembley was on everyone’s mind.
Most of the First Division giants had been knocked out. Manchester United, the holders, lost at Bournemouth. Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham were also sent packing early on.
And Watford kept going. In the sixth round they faced a potentially awkward tie, a trip to face a bruising Birmingham City side. That moment of genius from John Barnes helped them make light work of the Blues.
The Twin Towers of Wembley, just ten miles away from Vicarage Road as the crow flies, were now looming large. All they needed now was a touch of good fortune in the semi-final draw and they could make it to Wembley.
Into the FA’s velvet bag alongside Watford went Everton, Southampton or Sheffield Wednesday and Derby or Plymouth Argyle. Derby were labouring in Division Two and Plymouth were struggling in the Third Division. It was obvious who everyone wanted and Watford pulled out the plum, like little Jack Horner.
Things got even better when the West Country side knocked Derby out in their replay at the Baseball Ground. That was until it dawned on the Watford players that the pressure would all be on them. So often the giant-killer, now they would be the favourites and the nation would be rooting for the underdogs.
By now, cup fever had spread through the town. There was a rush for tickets. Supporters hunted high and low for the ticket stubs that would enable them to apply for a ticket for Villa Park. The Hornets Shop was doing a roaring trade in souvenirs. Shop windows were decorated in red, yellow and black. Children made replica FA Cups from cereal packets and tin foil.
And slowly the tension began to ramp up. Watford had traded for so long on upsetting the odds. Now they were there to be shot at.
A week before the semi-final, they were hammered 6-1 at Carrow Road by Norwich City. It was a humiliating capitulation, a day when nothing went right. Steve Sherwood, the goalkeeper, was nursing an injured finger and had kept quiet the extent to which it was troubling him. Several players were a booking away from missing the big cup tie and no one wanted to pick up an injury and find they were ruled out.
Graham Taylor refused to dwell on the Norwich defeat. Instead he had a selection problem to solve. Kenny Jackett, so important to the team’s midfield, was out of action and Taylor had to decide how to fill the gap.
The manager opted to move Wilf Rostron into midfield and play Neil Price at left-back. Price had spent time on loan at Plymouth earlier in the season and their manager’s request to allow him to play in an earlier round of the FA Cup had been rejected by Taylor. Now he was lining up against his temporary former team-mates.
The atmosphere inside Villa Park was brilliantly vibrant. Watford’s bright yellow and red competed with Plymouth’s deep green. The vast Holte End terrace was divided in two with both sets of supporters vying to be the loudest.
Fourteen years had passed since Watford’s only other FA Cup semi-final, that deflating defeat at White Hart Lane against Chelsea. Everything felt different now but if Watford’s fans thought they had one foot in the final before a ball was kicked, they were mistaken.
It is arguably the case that more hinged on this match than any other in the club’s history up to this point. Victory would mean an appearance in the FA Cup final – the most-watched club game in the world. Back then more people tuned in to watch the Wembley showdown than watched the European Cup final.
But it was easy to overlook the lack of experience in a Watford team that was expected to breeze past Plymouth. None of them had played in an FA Cup semi-final. Only Wilf Rostron had got as far as the sixth round before. They were young and they were in new territory.
The opening exchanges were untidy. Neither side settled and Watford did little to suggest they deserved to be two divisions above their opponents.
In the 14th minute, Rostron won the ball on the halfway line and John Barnes picked it up, turning away from two Argyle players. He sped down the flank, his route to the byline seemingly marked by a long trail of toilet paper thrown on the pitch.
The pace of his run had Plymouth gasping. Two defenders shadowed him but neither was able to get in an effective block. Barnes sent the ball into the box and George Reilly, who had burst forward from a deep position, got in front of the defender and connected with the perfectly-flighted cross. Reilly’s header flew in at the near post.
The goal did little to settle Watford down. They even had the ball in the net again a few minutes later but the referee ruled out a fine Nigel Callaghan shot for offside.
Plymouth didn’t threaten much but while it was 1-0 Watford were living on the edge. The second half was just as tense, although Taylor felt that Watford always had enough to score again if it had come to it.
Perhaps knowing what was at stake was stifling the Hornets. Les Taylor, who could run all day and most of the night, got cramp just five minutes into the second half and had to grit his teeth just to get through the game. ‘It was a really difficult game but not because Plymouth were giving us the runaround or anything,’ he says. ‘It was an emotional day. There’d been a lot of build-up to it, you’re playing in your first semi-final and you just wanted to reach Wembley so badly.’
Late on, Steve Terry got a bad knock on his knee and had to go off. Reilly dropped back to fill in at centre half.
Watford survived a couple of scares at the end. Reilly got his legs in the way of one shot and then came the moment when the whole stadium seemed to hold its breath.
Kevin Hodges sent a shot across the penalty area towards Sherwood’s far post. The ball had beaten the Watford goalkeeper and was on its way. Everyone in green was willing the ball to bounce in. Everyone in yellow was urging it to go the other way. In the end, the will of the yellows won and the Hornets breathed a sigh of relief.
As Price says: ‘Every time I’m in Plymouth they bring that shot up and say that if it had bounced the other way and gone in they’d have won. But I remind them that it didn’t.’
When the final whistle went there was first a sense of relief, then unbridled joy. For the first time in the club’s history, Watford were going to Wembley. It had been close, just a moment of sublime wing play from Barnes had separated the teams, but it was enough.
As Taylor later reflected, reaching Wembley turned out to be the summit. The six-year journey from the depths of the Fourth Division to the FA Cup final had been as exhilarating. Has there been a prouder day in the club’s history?