This was the cup upset that made the football world sit up and take notice of Elton John. Suddenly they could see that there was more to the rock star than flamboyant clothes and outrageous glasses and, if anyone still had any doubts, his ownership of the club was not a gimmick.
Watford had started their campaign in the Third Division well. They were second in the table and goals were flowing. Luther Blissett an Ross Jenkins had struck up a partnership that was beginning to yield a lot of fruit. With the season a couple of months old, they already had 20 goals between them.
Twenty-year-old Blissett came off the bench to score both goals that knocked Second Division Newcastle United out in the previous round. When the draw for the third round was made, Graham Taylor said: ‘We’ve hooked the biggest fish left in the competition, now we’ve got to land it.’
Watford went about the job methodically. Bertie Mee, Taylor’s assistant, watched United and identified their threats. No one dared to say it beforehand but this was not a vintage United side. They had not long recovered from a season in the Second Division and were finding it hard to turn a run of draws into victories. Even so, they had some dangerous players. Steve Coppell on the wing and Joe Jordan the powerful centre forward, who was a sort of rich man’s Ross Jenkins, had to be stopped. And Old Trafford in the late Seventies was not a place for the faint-hearted. It was cavernous, noisy and intimidating.
The first half did not go to plan. For a team that wanted to ruffle feathers, Watford showed too much respect and five minutes before the break Jordan scored. As Taylor would later say: ‘In the Third Division you challenge for every ball as if you believe that ball is rightfully yours. You have to take charge of the game. Just because we are up against a First Division team, some of them international players, does not mean we should change our approach. That is what I told them at half-time.’
Alan Garner put it differently. ‘We got a rollocking at half-time and the boss told us they were nothing special.’
The second half was a different story. Within a minute, Watford were level. Blissett ran into the box, between the defenders, and connected sweetly with Bobby Downes’s cross to head past Paddy Roche.
From then on, Watford feared no one. They were full of running and made Old Trafford’s big pitch work in their favour, dragging United’s defenders wide and creating space. Mee’s plan to isolate Coppell worked perfectly.
Blissett’s second was another header. Brian Pollard broke clear on the right and played the ball to Jenkins, who had made a run towards the corner, stretching United’s defence again. They worked the ball to Booth who had time and space to send in a neat cross for Blissett to meet.
‘What was so pleasing about that goal was that it was something we worked on in training,’ says Blissett. ‘We worked on certain moves like that so that everyone knew where they should be and what runs to make. What was so good about it was that something we’d worked on in training came off against a First Division side. It showed me that these players were not that much better than us. We were just as fit, if not fitter, and we were well organised and our manager had come up with something that Manchester United couldn’t stop and we’d executed it well.’
Taylor confided in the Watford Observer: ‘I wouldn’t want this repeated nationally, but we are as good as Manchester United. The difference between Division One players and lower division players is marginal.’
Watford weren’t quite home and dry. United came at them repeatedly in the closing quarter of an hour and would have equalised five minutes from the end but for a remarkable save from Andy Rankin.
Gordon McQueen, whose header Rankin saved, was convinced he had scored. ‘It was one of the most incredible saves I have ever seen. I placed that header so well. I knew it was a goal, then that green thing with a hand on the end of it got there and pushed it away.’
After the match, Watford’s supporters, all 2,300 of them, were held back until the stadium was empty and the surrounding roads clear of United fans. As they celebrated, the public address system played Candle in the Wind and the fans began to sing along. Perhaps it wasn’t the most triumphant song in the chairman’s back catalogue but it was a nice touch.
Up in the stand, Elton was doing a television interview. Wearing a huge dog’s-tooth check baker boy hat on his head, bushy sideburns and an earring, but with an understated black suit and tie, Elton looked almost shy, a far cry from his exuberant on-stage persona. One of the directors, Geoff Smith, said that the chairman had suffered in his seat, barely able to watch, as his team sought to hold on.
‘It’s a great reflection on the players, Graham and the staff,’ said the chairman. ‘They have come out of the Fourth Division, now they’re in the Third and they come to Old Trafford and play like that. I was petrified at the end. I thought the referee was never going to blow the whistle. Bertie Mee said to me “Wait till you go to a cup final, you won’t be able to stand it.”’
The Watford Observer hailed it as the club’s best ever result. United’s manager Dave Sexton made a prediction. He said that Watford would make it to the First Division but that Blissett would be the only player to go all the way with them. Sexton wasn’t quite right. Of the side that conquered United, Ian Bolton and Jenkins also made it to the top flight.
As the for the League Cup, the reward for knocking out Manchester United was a trip to St James’ Park. Not the one in Newcastle, the Hornets had already knocked them out, but the one in Exeter.
A trip to another Third Division side was neither glamorous nor lucrative but it offered a great chance of further progress. Watford saw them off and then earned an excellent goalless draw at Stoke City before beating the Second Division high-flyers in a replay. The run came to an end at the semi-final stage when they found Nottingham Forest too strong at the City Ground.