This piece follows on from my previous blogs on the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth rounds of the 1986/87 FA Cup, which you can view here, here, here, here, here and here.
It seems that even back in 1987 there was a lot of conjecture about the location and scheduling of the FA Cup semi-finals. Finding a neutral venue for the Watford-Tottenham fixture proved troublesome. Due to Highbury being blacklisted by the FA because of Arsenal's reluctance to fence fans in - the 1984 FA Cup semi had seen pitch invasions by jubilant Everton fans - and Stamford Bridge ruled out with Fulham and QPR both at home on Saturday April 11, fans of both clubs faced the prospect of travelling up the M1/M6 to Villa Park, hardly ideal, but in the circumstances the inevitable solution. Thankfully the FA rejected an approach from Wembley to host the match; an FA Cup semi-final at the same location as the final would obviously be wrong, wouldn't it?
If traditionalists were appalled about the prospect of Wembley being used before the final, then many were up in arms when the Coventry-Leeds match at Hillsborough was switched to a 12.15 kick-off on the Sunday after police advice (Leeds' Neil Aspin probably wasn't too chuffed either, seeing as he had to cancel his wedding scheduled for the Sunday). The reason behind this decision was obvious; Leeds' hooligan element had forced two of their previous cup ties to be switched to early Sunday kick-offs, and although many journalists, club officials and players felt that the FA and police were giving in to the unacceptable minority, you couldn't argue with the logic behind the move. Besides, it meant that ITV could show an FA Cup semi-final in full, an hour after the scheduled finish, a rare treat for armchair football fans back in the 1980s.
Looking back at the eventual result of the Watford-Tottenham match, it is easy to see why the match at Villa Park was such a one-sided affair. Watford's preparations were frankly awful. Chairman Elton John was constantly being linked with stories about his impending departure from the club, as was manager Graham Taylor, who was strongly linked to the Everton job should Howard Kendall leave for the continent. John Barnes was also likely to leave Vicarage Road in the summer, his agent Athol Still irritating Taylor greatly by touting Barnes around Europe, although Liverpool were the only club so far to have tabled a firm bid. With the futures of chairman, manager and star player up in the air, the Watford ship looked like it was tilting. And we haven't even got on to the goalkeeping crisis yet.
In comparison, all looked rosy in the Tottenham garden. Third in the league, and hoping to go a stage further in the FA Cup than they had in the Littlewoods Cup, Tottenham's success owed a lot to their French-style five man midfield as the Daily Mirror described it, and the prolific form of Clive Allen. In the week leading up to the semi, Allen had equalled Jimmy Greaves' club record of 44 goals in a season, and he was itching to make it back to Wembley to right the wrong of his 1982 final experience, when he was injured after just two minutes playing for QPR against Tottenham and had to be substituted after 50 minutes.
Allen's marvellous season had recently seen him voted PFA Player of the Year, and called up for the England squad as they won 2-0 in Northern Ireland. One man who did not make the Belfast trip was Glenn Hoddle, a groin injury making him a major doubt for the Watford match, but once he was passed fit, and Gary Mabbutt also came through a late test, Tottenham were in good shape as they attempted to reach their eighth FA Cup final.
The same could not be said about Watford though. A week before the semi, goalkeeper Tony Coton fractured a thumb in training, a massive blow to the Hornets, as Coton had been superb throughout the campaign. "When they told me at the hospital that it was a fracture I was really sick," stated Coton, whose feelings of despair were probably shared by many Watford fans.
Coton's place would be taken by Steve Sherwood, or "Stevie Blunder" as some of the tabloids had harshly nicknamed him after his part in Andy Gray's goal in the 1984 final (as a fully signed-up member of the Goalkeepers' Union, I still think this goal was dubious). Having conceded thirteen goals in four games during the 86/87 season, and after being on the receiving end of some stick from the boo boys due to a poor performance against QPR in Watford's last match before the semi, Sherwood's confidence and general rustiness was a concern for Taylor and Watford fans as the big match neared. However, things were about to get a whole lot more complicated.
When news filtered through that Sherwood had dislocated a finger whilst training at Lilleshall two days before the semi, Watford's calamitous build-up was complete. Initially after Coton's injury, Taylor's first thoughts were to enquire about Pat Jennings' availability as cover - Taylor was not too keen on using promising 16-year-old David James as deputy - but when the recently retired keeper turned Watford down, Chief Executive Eddie Plumley came to the rescue.
Plumley telephoned his son Gary, a wine bar owner in Caerleon, South Wales, to inform him that Watford wished to sign him up as a non-contract reserve. Plumley had previously enjoyed a career mainly with Newport County, and had helped the club reach the quarter finals of the 1981 European Cup Winners' Cup. But his involvement in his business had restricted his appearances greatly in recent years, and with just a handful of matches for Newport and Ebbw Vale during the season, the thought of Plumley being thrown into an FA Cup semi-final was a little scary to say the least.
But that is exactly the prospect that faced Watford after Sherwood's injury. All of a sudden, Eddie Plumley was back on the phone to the Romans wine bar, desperately trying to contact his son in order to get him over to Lilleshall for training; despite signing for Watford, Plumley had remained in Wales, after all, he didn't think for one minute that Watford would be unlucky enough to lose two keepers in a week.
"I disappeared out the door, went home to pack my bag and left a note on the kitchen table saying I'm off to play in the semi-final. I can remember being so positive," recalled Plumley, in Simon Burnton's piece in the Guardian in 2003. Although Plumley was eagerly awaiting his opportunity, Sherwood still had a chance of making the starting line-up if he could pass a fitness test on the day of the match. Come Saturday, Sherwood looked to have passed his examination, Taylor fully testing the injury himself. So it came as a shock to many, Sherwood and Plumley included, when the manager opted for the now infamous wine bar owner. He was about to become a lot more famous.
In truth, Tottenham may well have beaten Watford even if Coton had been fit, but an understandably shaky performance on the day from Plumley did not help matters. "We knew there was a problem with their keeper. To test him out early was something we spoke about," admitted Clive Allen, whose shot was spilt by Plumley, leading to Steve Hodge's opener after 11 minutes. Allen added the second two minutes later, breaking Greaves' record in the process, although his goal owed a great deal to a deflection off John McClelland. Plumley's and Watford's day was turning into a nightmare.
The match was dead and buried after 35 minutes, as somehow Paul Allen fired a shot past Plumley at his near post, the keeper obviously culpable as Taylor's decision started to look even more debatable, although Plumley had no chance with Hodge's second after 73 minutes. Malcolm Allen managed to head a consolation, but on a day where pain was everywhere for Watford, Steve Sims' dislocated elbow neatly summed up his team's fortunes.
Come the post-mortem, Taylor was adamant that he had made the right call, citing the fact that he could not risk Sherwood for a semi-final (especially with no sub keepers back in 1987), and that as Plumley was ineligible for the rest of the league campaign, a further injury to Sherwood would have left Watford short. But their mid-table position seemed to suggest that this was a gamble worth taking, and unsurprisingly Sherwood was distraught at missing out: "I could have played - I was in no real pain from my dislocated finger".
Plumley would never appear for Watford again, his five minutes of fame indelibly printed in the history of the FA Cup. He may have been on the receiving end of some banter from the Tottenham fans - "You should have stayed in your wine bar" - but Plumley remains positive about his day in the sun at Villa Park. "I would love to relive it all again because I thoroughly enjoyed the excitement of it. I wasn't nervous. It was adrenaline rather than nerves," Plumley told the Watford Observer in 2012. Sport doesn't always have a fairytale ending, but stories such as Plumley's are part of what makes it so compelling and endearing at times.
Thankfully the second semi-final was a much closer affair. Second Division Leeds, playing in their first FA Cup semi-final for ten years, may have been missing the cup-tied Bobby McDonald and Mark Aizlewood, but in a gripping encounter played out in front of 51,372 at Hillsborough, the Yorkshire club pushed Coventry all the way. It would take extra time to separate the two teams, with Coventry grateful that Steve Ogrizovic enjoyed a much happier afternoon than Plumley had the day before.
Much was made of both sets of management teams in the run-up to the match. Billy Bremner, like so many of his former team-mates, had ventured into management and was still in regular contact with Don Revie regarding tactics and tips, and with Leeds hovering around the play-off positions, and in the semi-final of the FA Cup, many references were inevitably made to the glory days of the past. Bremner would ultimately fail to get Leeds back into the top flight, but for now optimism was high that the club was making moves in the right direction.
Coventry's management duo of John Sillett and George Curtis had certainly worked the oracle. According to skipper Brian Kilcline, the partnership was very much a good cop-bad cop routine; Sillett was the jovial coach who loved to live life with a smile on his face, whereas Curtis acted as the disciplinarian, often giving players a dig in the ribs before matches to make sure they were focused.
The pair left no stone unturned in their preparations, with Coventry practising against reserve and youth teams set up to play in Leeds' style, and also making sure that training started at 11.30am to reflect the unusual kick-off time for the match on Sunday. "What most people would call breakfast has become their pre-match meal," indicated Sillett, but you have to admire the forward thinking approach.
Not that it seemed to do Coventry any good come the Sunday. After a 15-minute delay due to traffic congestion - this had also happened at Villa Park the previous day - Leeds dominated the opening 20 minutes, Ogrizovic called upon to pull off some vital saves. "Leeds, resembling a roaring bush fire, burned alarming holes in Coventry's security," wrote Stuart Jones in The Times, and when Aizlewood's stand-in, David Rennie, scored after 12 minutes, no one could argue that the underdogs were not deserving of their lead.
Ogrizovic was called on again to thwart Ian Baird, before Coventry finally started to get their act together. Prompted by Dave Bennett, the Sky Blues should have been level before the break, Cyrille Regis guilty of missing three chances, and Keith Houchen temporarily losing his magic touch in the FA Cup. Eventually the pressure told, as Bennett set up substitute Micky Gynn for the equaliser on 68 minutes, although Sillett was big enough to admit that it wasn't his tactical genius that had brought about the change in fortunes, more the fact that Nick Pickering had been honest enough to admit that he was injured.
Momentum was fully behind Coventry now, as super sub Gynn played a part in setting up Houchen for the goal that looked like taking City to Wembley for the first time in their 104-year history. However, Leeds' own substitute Keith Edwards was not be outdone by Gynn, scoring with his first touch on 83 minutes, to send the pulsating match into extra time. "No one complained," wrote Jones. "The afternoon had been so consistently thrilling and so gloriously entertaining that the huge crowd relished an encore, exhausted though the players might inevitably be".
Fittingly, Bennett and Ogrizovic would again play a significant role in the extra half an hour. Bennett's goal after 98 minutes finally separated the teams, although Coventry again owed another huge debt to Ogrizovic, his late save from an Edwards header proving crucial. The excellence of both players had helped Coventry scrape through to Wembley in the biggest test during their cup run so far, and with their youth team already in the FA Youth Cup final, all of a sudden the footballing city of Coventry was thriving.
Another hero on the day was naturally ecstatic about his role in helping Coventry reach the final, but less than happy about his future at the club. "I don't expect to be in the team (for the final)," proclaimed sub Gynn, adding "I don't think this will change a thing". Gynn wanted regular first team football, something that he had seen very little of during the season. "Even an FA Cup winners medal wouldn't be adequate compensation for not playing every Saturday. My contract expires this summer and the club have asked me to name my own deal. I don't think I could stand staying at the club and not being in the team". Fate would play a big part in deciding Gynn's future though, with one man's misfortune ensuring that he did make the starting eleven come May 16.
So the countdown could now truly begin for the FA Cup final. Between the semis and final a great deal would happen; Glenn and Chris would make an unforgettable appearance on Top of the Pops; Coventry's Brian Borrows faced Wembley heartbreak; Tottenham's title challenge petered away; Coventry appeared on Blue Peter; and Glenn Hoddle would play his final league match for Tottenham. This was all the prelude to a superb FA Cup final, a true classic that lives long in the memory, as Coventry's dream year continued and Tottenham were again faced with the feeling of so near yet so far.