The prologue to the explosive and controversial closing few minutes at Highbury had been written five months earlier.
The league game between Arsenal and Watford descended into farce when the referee, Brian Stevens, sent the goalkeeper, Tony Coton off.
Stevens awarded Arsenal a dubious penalty and Coton made his displeasure clear. ‘I called the linesman a cheat,’ he says. As Coton went off the pitch, handing his gloves and goalkeeper’s jersey to winger Nigel Callaghan, Graham Taylor asked him what he’d said.
Taylor knew Coton could have few complaints about the dismissal but it did make a mockery of the game. ‘It’s the only time in my managerial career when I seriously considered calling the players off the pitch. There was just no point after that,’ he said.
Watford lost the match 3-1 and Taylor fumed.
In the FA Cup, the Hornets had made heavy weather of the fifth round tie against Third Division Walsall. After a goalless draw at Fellows Park they then shared eight goals in a fantastic replay at Vicarage Road before finally getting through when Walsall conceded an unfortunate own goal in the second replay.
The quarter-final draw was not kind to Watford. George Graham’s Arsenal team had been top of the First Division for two months. They had hit a sticky patch but were still well in the hunt for the title.
More significant than that was their formidable record at home. They had lost just twice at Highbury all season. Extra spice was added to the showdown when the FA announced that the referee would be none other than Brian Stevens.
Taylor lodged an official complaint with the FA. There was no chance of the authorities changing the referee but if Taylor could apply pressure without overstepping the mark it might work in the Hornets’ favour.
Watford started the match well but fell behind when John McClelland and Coton got in a tangle. McClelland called for the ball and took it just away from the goalkeeper, who was mid-stoop trying to gather it. The ball ran loose for Ian Allinson to poke into the net.
Watford lived dangerously for a while but got themselves level when David Bardsley crossed for Luther Blissett to steer home at the near post.
Bardsley was have a great game in his new role as a winger. His pace and the directness of his runs was causing Kenny Sansom, who was the England left-back, all sorts of problems. At times, Bardsley made Sansom look like a statue as he ran past him and supplied yet another cross.
In the second half, Kevin Richardson broke through the midfield and played the ball wide to Bardsley, who skinned Sansom and crossed before Steve Williams could close him down. John Barnes met the cross with a fine glancing header that flew past John Lukic and in off the bar.
Arsenal were rattled and began to throw everything at Watford’s defence. Steve Sims and McClelland coped well with the aerial threat of Niall Quinn.
As time ticked by, Arsenal’s appeals for a penalty became desperate. ‘They were messing the ref around,’ says Sims. ‘I was telling the ref “They’re trying to get a penalty.” They were trying to run the game themselves.’
A couple of minutes from time, Steve Williams lofted a free kick into the box. Quinn and Sims jumped for the ball. ‘I got up early and headed it,’ says Sims. ‘He jumped under me and tried to claim I had leaned on him.’
The linesman flagged. The Arsenal players stopped and hollered for a foul. Watford played on.
‘Steve Williams was trying to stop the ref running. The ref didn’t blow and, as we all know, it’s play on until the whistle goes,’ says Sims.
Watford broke quickly. Gary Porter lifted the ball upfield to Blissett who ran at the Arsenal defenders, who were still appealing for the penalty. Blissett’s shot hit Lukic but he followed up to score the rebound.
The stadium erupted. The Arsenal players surrounded the referee. George Graham harangued the linesman. But the goal stood. After the final whistle, the argument continued in the tunnel. Arsenal were left with only their sense of entitlement and their anger.
For Watford’s fans it was one of the most dramatic and exciting victories of the Eighties, even if the less said about the semi-final against Spurs the better.
Watford Coton, Gibbs, Rostron, Richardson, Sims, McClelland, Bardsley, Blissett, Falco, Porter, Barnes
Manager Graham Taylor
Scorers Blissett 23, 88, Barnes 52
Arsenal scorer Allinson 12
Why was this match chosen? For the last-minute controversy, and the fact that Watford turfed Arsenal out of the cup to reach the semi-finals.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? It was a wonderful victory, which set up Watford's third FA Cup semi-final appearance and was, arguably, the last great result of Graham Taylor's first era.