This piece follows on from my previous blogs on the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth rounds of the 1983/84 FA Cup, which you can view here, here, here, here, here and here.
FA Cup semi-final Saturday in 1984, and as the thousands of supporters of the clubs involved made their way to the neutral venues in glorious April sunshine, there were a couple more chapters to be written in the fascinating tale of the competition.
Could the Plymouth adventure extend one match further and the Third Division club make history by reaching Wembley? Would Watford's six year journey from the Fourth Division to the Twin Towers be completed? Would Everton return to Wembley and make up for their Milk Cup final disappointment? Or would Southampton crown a marvellous season and reach their second FA Cup final in eight years? So many questions would be answered on Saturday April 14.
Although the very idea of resting players was frowned upon in the 1980s, injuries and the threat of suspension influenced Lawrie McMenemy's team selection in the run up to Southampton's FA Cup semi-final with Everton. The rehearsal for the Highbury date was clouded in controversy, with McMenemy resting four key players for the League match between the two clubs at Goodison. Asked to explain his actions, McMenemy stated that two of his players were injured and two had been dropped after a thumping on the plastic pitch at QPR, but with all four hovering on a suspension tightrope many were unimpressed.
"It would serve McMenemy right if Everton win at Highbury and that the three points lost at Goodison ultimately mean that Southampton fail to finish high enough in the League to qualify for Europe," wrote the Daily Mirror's Chris James, who was one of a number of journalists that questioned the right of McMenemy to rest Mark Dennis, Steve Williams, Reuben Agboola and Frank Worthington, who were all one booking away from missing the semi-final. Everton's Howard Kendall, who played Adrian Heath despite a similar dilemma, wanted a change in the disciplinary system, and openly stated that managers would often tell players to pick up a booking so that they would miss a so-called smaller match.
One man who certainly did not agree with resting players in this situation was Watford manager Graham Taylor. "No way will I ever pull out anyone just because they might be disciplined. The next step is cheating," Taylor declared when asked if he had given thought to resting Wilf Rostron, David Bardsley and Steve Terry prior to Watford's meeting with Third Division Plymouth. Mind you, Taylor did not have much choice. Before a League match with Liverpool two weeks before the semi, seven of his players were struck down with gastroenteritis, leaving Taylor down to the bare bones.
However, it wasn't just the topic of suspensions that filled the newspapers. The smaller squads and heavy work loads would inevitably lead to injury concerns as the season moved towards its climax. Everton's Kevin Sheedy was ruled out for the season, although the news that Terry Curran was returning after seven months out was a bonus. Plymouth's John Uzzell passed a late fitness test for the Watford match, as did Rostron who had damaged knee ligaments and had missed matches in recent weeks. Unfortunately for Watford, Kenny Jackett was ruled out on the eve of the match after injuring himself in a voluntary extra training session, but Southampton could at least welcome back Williams who had not played since the Sheffield Wednesday quarter final replay.
The form book
In Williams' absence Southampton had suffered greatly. A 4-0 defeat at QPR, the loss at Goodison, and a 2-2 draw against Leicester highlighted the importance of Williams in Southampton's side, the team losing five and drawing two of the seven matches that the midfielder had missed during the season. Some felt Southampton had one eye on the semi-final, and McMenemy's team selection for Everton gave credit to this theory, yet their opponents Everton were flying in contrast. In 1984 the Merseysiders had lost just three matches out of 25, and even though they had recently gone through the agony of a League Cup final defeat to Liverpool, the chance to get back to Wembley and right the wrong was so near.
Plymouth may well have wowed the country with their Cup exploits, but in the bread and butter of League football the club was struggling. Without a win in the six matches leading up to the semi-final, John Hore's side were hurtling towards the Third Division drop zone and staring a relegation scrap squarely in the face. "You say being in the semi-finals should not affect you. But you can't ignore it," said assistant manager Martin Harvey as he attempted to explain the slump in form. Like Southampton, Plymouth's run of form before the semi-final was excused, though their closeness to the relegation places was of a much greater concern.
Watford had also experienced a dip of form in the immediate period before the semi, losing 6-1 to Norwich in a display that saw keeper Steve Sherwood come in for heavy criticism. But this defeat - watched by Bobby Robson, who comforted Taylor by informing him that his own Ipswich team had lost 6-1 to Aston Villa the week before winning their FA Cup semi final in 1978 - was only one of four defeats in 1984 (two of those against Liverpool), a run that had seen Watford touch the heights of seventh place in the table.
Naturally Watford were heavy favourites, priced at 4/9 as opposed to Plymouth's 11/2, yet predicting the winner in the Southampton (5/4) and Everton (15/8) match seemed a much trickier prospect. The Daily Express' Steve Curry went for Southampton, as did The Times' Clive White, and Alan Ball, a former player with a foot in both camps. Jimmy Greaves was one man who chose Everton, although the fact that he also thought the tie may go to one or two replays highlighted just how closely matched the two teams were.
The end of the fairytale
"No Third Division side has ever reached the final and the vast majority of neutrals wouldn't be too upset if Plymouth made history at our expense". Graham Taylor's comments on the eve of the match at Villa Park was an accurate assessment regarding the hope of the sporting nation, as the underdog was naturally preferred to the First Division side. Any Watford employee interviewed before the tie warned against complacency, but if there were any chances of arrogance seeping into Taylor's men then the start Plymouth made certainly would have provided a wake-up call.
The Third Division side were definitely not overawed, with wingers Andy Rogers and Kevin Hodges constantly bothering Bardsley and Neil Price throughout, and Lindsay Smith going close early on after hesitation from a nervous looking Sherwood. Despite the bright opening, Plymouth fell behind after 13 minutes, the match winning goal set up by some typical wing trickery from John Barnes - unfortunately accompanied by monkey chants as he made his way down the left wing - his cross headed in by Reilly who sneaked marginally ahead of former Cambridge United team mate Smith.
Watford had further chances in the first half - Crudgington saved from Reilly, Johnston headed over, and Nigel Callaghan had a goal ruled out for offside - but Plymouth refused to go away. Price cleared an effort off the line after one of the many dangerous Rogers' corners, Hodges fired just wide, and Staniforth was unable to reach a Smith flick as the half drew to a close. The team that were dangerously close to Division Four and not expected to match Taylor's powerful side, were proving a difficult opponent to shake off.
"I knew Plymouth would come at us in the first 10 minutes and they did," Barnes later related. "What surprised me was the way they kept coming at us for the rest of the match". Indeed the second half was just as breathless as the first, played out in an equally frenetic atmosphere, as Plymouth searched for an equaliser that many felt they deserved on the day. Staniforth and Tommy Tynan tested Sherwood, with Watford's young back four of Price (20), Bardsley (19), Sinnott (18) and Terry (21) - "They are not out of nappies," joked Taylor - fully stretched and never truly comfortable, especially as Sherwood continued to look shaky under the high ball.
Reilly could and should have added a second, before he was called on to deputise at centre back after Terry left the field with a little over ten minutes left. Reilly coped admirably, yet in the last minute came the final chance that so very nearly took the match into extra time. Rogers' effort across the face of goal went just past the post, and with it the Plymouth dream was finally over. So near and yet so far, the team had fully "won everybody's respect," to borrow a phrase used by The Times' Stuart Jones.
Jones was not the only journalist to heap praise on the Plymouth's players. Simon Barnes wrote that Rogers "had a game that his grandchildren will love", comparing the winger to the Magic Roundabout's Dougal. Barnes also noted that the occasion reminded everyone present that "football could still be fun", with Curry writing that the match could have ended 4-4 and that the "crowd wallowed in it". The run had brought an estimated £80,000 to Plymouth and a lot of admiration. But all good things must come to an end.
For Reilly the match proved to be memorable in more ways than one. On the plus side he was Wembley bound, his goal seemingly completing his journey from rock bottom almost a year before when he was struggling with Cambridge and openly contemplated giving up the sport and returning to a career of bricklaying. "A year ago I was down at the bottom end of the Second Division and very miserable. I started to question whether I had a future in football". Reilly admitted that he owed Taylor so much for resurrecting his career and that to reach a Wembley Cup final was beyond his wildest dreams.
However, the impact Reilly had on that match lingered a bit too long in the memory banks of one particular supporter. In March 2003 Reilly was attacked on a building site in Northamptonshire, his ear bitten so badly by an aggrieved Plymouth supporter that it required 50 stitches. As he grappled with the fan, the crazed man whispered "Plymouth" in Reilly's ear, a quite astonishing assault fuelled by an incident in a match nearly 19 years previous. "I can't believe someone has held a grudge for that long," a shocked Reilly announced. "I know people have strong loyalties but this is taking it a bit far". Football fans have amazingly long memories, but sometimes you have to let things go.
Plymouth immediately came down to earth with a bump. Only two days later the players turned out in front of just 3,266 fans at Bolton - the lowest crowd at Burnden Park for 51 years - and lost 2-1, and three more defeats in the next four (the 1-1 draw against local rivals Exeter a small consolation) sent Hore's team into the relegation zone. Fortunately the squad managed to up their performances for one last push, three wins out of the last four matches keeping the club in Division Three for another season.
The 1983/84 FA Cup run was as good as it got for Hore. A poor start to the following season - not helped by the departures of want away defender Smith, and the Man City bound David Phillips - saw Plymouth drop into the relegation places once more, and by November Hore was gone, just a few months into his two-year contract worth a reported £40,000. He may have only been in charge for just over a year, but what a memorable period it was.
Nip and tuck
The Everton-Southampton match proved just as close as everyone expected. In a tussle described by Clive White as a "sometimes dramatic, thrilling semi-final" the afternoon was gripping, tense, and so absorbing that the supporters of both teams must have felt exhausted come the end of the 120 minutes. The actions of the fans would be mentioned come the fall out, but that is a story for another section.
Throughout the afternoon chances came and went, with White highlighting the increasingly vital role that Neville Southall was playing in Everton's revival, stating that the Welshman was "the biggest reason why they (Everton) will be reliving Wembley". Southall pulled off four fine saves, the best coming when he thwarted Danny Wallace in the second half, the keeper drawing the best Southampton could throw at him and seemingly taking the wind from their sails.
It was far from one-way traffic though in this archetypal Cup tie. As the match progressed Everton grew, with Adrian Heath spurning one glorious chance and then seeing another of his efforts cleared from the line by Mick Mills. Gradually Everton's midfield took a grip, Southampton's cause not helped by a patently unfit Williams failing to have an impact on proceedings. As the match drifted into extra time, the momentum was obviously with Kendall's men.
Indeed Andy Gray would miss another opportunity before the decisive moment of the day. Agboola was penalised for a handball just outside the Southampton box, and with just three minutes remaining the Everton faithful held their breath as Peter Reid stood over a free kick in front of a Blue Army on the North Bank. Reid's cross was nodded on by Gray, allowing Heath to ghost in and make up for his earlier miss to head Everton into a second Cup final in 1984.
"In a way you can understand their jubilation," said the excellent Brian Moore as Everton's fans invaded the pitch to celebrate Heath's goal, and as the match continued the police had a job on their hands trying to keep the supporters back. With so little time left Southampton could not find a response, and as the final whistle sounded Evertonians flooded on to the pitch, their joy unable to be contained by a struggling police force and the fact that there were no fences at Highbury.
For the third year in a row a team that had lost the Milk Cup final to Liverpool had made it back to Wembley, giving themselves the opportunity to heal the wound. "Liverpool had better get used to sharing the spotlight on Merseyside from now on," wrote White who like many was sensing that Kendall's side was beginning to go places. For the next few seasons Wembley would become a second home.
Sadly the match ended on a sour note, as rival fans had to be separated on the pitch by the police and their dogs, as the celebrations turned ugly. Immediately Arsenal and their Highbury stadium came under scrutiny. "Arsenal may never stage another FA Cup semi-final unless they agree to build fences around the Highbury pitch that was invaded by fighting Everton and Southampton fans on Saturday," wrote the Daily Mirror's Frank McGhee. The venue had seen its last semi-final, in the standing era at least.
The FA vice-chairman Andrew McMullen witnessed the scenes at Highbury, and declared that although the FA could not force the club to erect fences, he felt that Highbury might not be considered for future semi-finals because of this. Arsenal's secretary Ken Friar responded in bullish fashion, stating that he had never seen a serious pitch invasion by Arsenal fans in all his time at the club, and that fences were simply not an option. "The Board considered installing fences many years ago but our feelings were if you treat people like animals, they will behave like animals," Friar noted, as he tried his best to defend the club. "No one talked about our lack of fences when Highbury was named for the semi-finals, but the man with hindsight has perfect vision".
From a footballing perspective, Southampton brushed themselves down from their semi-final disappointment, claiming 21 points from a possible 27 (including a 3-1 win over Everton three days after Highbury), a run that saw them finish runners-up in the League to Liverpool. McMenemy, who had made noises about moving on to a new challenge during the Cup semi-final week, stayed for another season before taking charge at Sunderland in what would turn out to be an awful time at the club. Southampton were not quite the same force post-McMenemy, although they did lose another North London based FA Cup semi-final in extra time to a Merseyside club in 1986.
A serious tilt at the League title was something for Evertonians to consider in the future, but for now the club and their supporters could prepare for another trip to Wembley. After months of toil, just Everton and Watford remained, both able to make a believable case that their name was on the trophy. Everton's struggles against Gillingham, including Southall's heroics and an infamous Tony Cascarino miss, could be seen as another turning point in their fortune changing season, with Watford at one point looking down and out against local rivals Luton in the Third round.
Those local rivals would have another part to play in the 1984 FA Cup story, however, as a derby match at Kenilworth Road a few weeks before Cup final day brought about an unfortunate incident that would impact on Watford's team selection and preparations before their big day on May 19.