Wednesday, 20 May 2015

1983-84 FA Cup final

This piece follows on from my previous blogs on the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth rounds and semi-finals of the 1983/84 FA Cup, which you can view here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

For a young football enthusiast, May 1984 was an exciting time. In the space of a few weeks, both the UEFA Cup (second leg) and European Cup finals would be shown live, with Scotland v England, and the second half of Brazil v England also broadcast to the nation. In an era of famine this was a feast of live action, but even during this special period there was one day that stood out.

On paper, the FA Cup final between Everton and Watford was hardly the sort of match that would set the pulses racing, yet such was the prestige of the competition and the sense of occasion that the game was as eagerly anticipated as ever. Although the final will not go down as an all-time classic, it provided us with enough topics of discussion before, during and after the 90 minutes. The first FA Cup final to witness shirt sponsorship on display would be the scene of triumph and despair, redemption and controversy. For one man in particular, the agony had started in earnest a few weeks before the big event.

Derby day blues

After defeating Plymouth to reach their first FA Cup final, it was becoming clear that Watford's season was beginning to take its toll. A 0-0 draw with title-chasing Manchester United a few days after the semi-final was achieved without Steve Terry, Paul Franklin, Kenny Jackett and George Reilly, with Steve Sims still unfit after a two month lay-off. The lack of centre backs led to skipper Wilf Rostron playing in an alien position for the visit of Ron Atkinson's side, hardly headline news, but indicative of the struggles facing Graham Taylor. Unfortunately for player, manager and club, Rostron would soon be filling column inches for different reasons.

Watford's Cup run had begun with a trip to local rivals Luton, but on an April Saturday in 1984, Rostron's season collapsed at the same ground. Involved in an altercation with the already booked Paul Elliott, Rostron retaliated, leading referee Roger Milford to send both players off. Rostron had been walking a disciplinary tightrope for a large part of the season, perilously close to the points mark that would see him serve a two-match ban. Taylor refused to rest his skipper, stating that this would have been "cheating", yet as Rostron trudged off to the Kenilworth Road dressing room, he had to contemplate the very real fact that he would not be leading his side out at Wembley.

Taylor was furious, lashing out at both Milford and the FA's disciplinary system, as for the third year in a row an FA Cup final captain would be suspended for the final; Glenn Roeder missed the 1982 replay, with Steve Foster missing the first match in 1983. The Watford manager confronted Milford in the tunnel, and also made his feelings about the official clear in the press, rebuking Milford's statements of sympathy and calling his comments "sanctimonious". "It breaks my heart to think that I will be walking out at Wembley without him at my shoulder," Taylor said regarding Rostron. "It all seems so unbelievably harsh". Taylor was not the only man to feel sorry for Watford's captain.

Even FA Secretary Ted Croker admitted that the situation was sad, with Elliott sorry that their tangle would have such repercussions for Rostron. Roeder and Foster shared their feelings on the matter, with Jimmy Greaves calling the incident a "diabolical injustice" and writing that "Rostron is paying a ridiculous price for being sent off after his tame skirmish at Luton". Malcolm Macdonald said that "my heart goes out to Wilf Rostron", whilst proposing a new disciplinary process where disciplinary points picked up in League matches had no impact on the FA Cup.

Through all of the furore, the FA stood firm, declaring that they would refuse any attempts by Watford to rearrange a match against Nottingham Forest to help Rostron, and defending the current approach. "There just isn't a better system that anyone has come up with," disciplinary spokesman Eric Dinney declared, although Croker did admit that the FA would look at the situation once more. "Twice is coincidence. Now the time had come to do something about it," Croker revealed. Too little too late for poor Rostron, however.

The captaincy was eventually handed to Les Taylor, although his manager joked that he may not wish to take on a role that had seen the previous four occupants suffer various troubles from being dropped (Pat Rice) to long term injuries (Jan Lohman and Steve Sims) and Cup final suspension (Rostron). The Rostron saga had been an unwanted spanner in the works as the club prepared for their first FA Cup final, but there would be more to contend with as May 19 neared.

Building momentum

Injuries would further cloud Watford's approach to Wembley. An embarrassing 5-1 defeat away at Nottingham Forest was shambolic - Taylor admitting that the score could have been 10-2 to Forest - as injuries left Watford's squad creaking as the final drew closer. Two weeks before the final, full back David Bardsley strained knee ligaments in a training incident and faced a race against time to gain fitness. Bardsley succeeded, yet Steve Sims failed to convince Taylor that he was ready for
first team action.

Mo Johnston also gave Watford fans a heart attack when he injured his ankle whilst training at Wembley, although eventually he would take his place. With Neil Price coming in for Rostron, Watford's defence was inexperienced to say the least - Bardsley (19), Terry (21), Sinnott (18), Price (20) - a factor many thought would work against Taylor's side on such a big occasion.

If Watford were wilting slightly then in contrast Everton were blooming. With only five defeats in 1984 - two of those immediately after their semi-final win - Howard Kendall had led a revival in the team's fortunes, and an unbeaten run of six matches leading up to the final indicated that all was well in the Everton camp. The progression made since January saw Kendall rewarded with a new four-year contract just before the final, and the recent signing of Sunderland's Paul Bracewell highlighted that he was not prepared to stand still even with the Wembley date against Watford on the horizon.

The spine of the team was outstanding. Neville Southall was seen as the most improved keeper of the season, many journalists debating if Everton's last line of defence was now better than Peter Shilton. Skipper Kevin Ratcliffe was a rock at the back, his pace and reading of the game vital assets. Peter Reid had finally put his past injury concerns behind him, and was embarking on a run of form that saw him gain international recognition in the next year. And Andy Gray had proved a crucial signing for the club, a catalyst for the success that followed.

Everton were catching the odd break or two to compound Watford's frustrations. Ratcliffe was close to a suspension, but a groin strain picked up whilst playing in Wales' 1-0 win over an abysmal England side led to a convenient day off for the Manchester United fixture. John Bailey did earn a two-match suspension, but Everton's rearranged game on the Monday before Wembley at West Ham meant that the left back would make the final. Taylor must have wondered if the world was against him.

A battle of styles

The immovable object against the irresistible force is how The Times' Stuart Jones described the tussle between Everton and Watford in his preview of the final, Jones highlighting the tightness of the Toffeemen as opposed to the gung-ho approach of the Hornets. Everton had only conceded one goal on their way to the final, John Chiedozie the only man to be able to get past Southall in seven Cup ties, whereas Watford had been 2-0 down in their very first match against Luton, and seen 145 goals scored in total during their League matches that season (compared to 86 involving Everton).

A stick that was always used to beat Watford with was that their style of play left a lot to be desired. In truth, they were a direct side, but with wingers of the calibre of John Barnes and Nigel Callaghan they were certainly not a one-trick pony. So you can imagine Taylor's delight when the FA Cup final programme described Watford's methods as "all up-and-under, kick-and-rush", adding that "Watford critics have said that at the end of the match in which the team is involved, it is the ball that has to be carried off on a stretcher".

After the Rostron saga and the programme slur, it was becoming increasingly clear that the FA would not be on Taylor's Christmas card list. "It's taken the gloss off the occasion," a disgruntled Taylor admitted, before complaining that no one from the FA had informed him about what was about to appear in the programme. "I am resigned to the fact that if it turns out to be a bad game it will be Watford's fault".

Taylor indicated that he would not compromise his attacking principles for the final - "innocent but insane" as the Daily Mirror's Frank McGhee described it - but one thing he did decline was the opportunity to record the traditional FA Cup final song. Reportedly (and this been confirmed by Watford supporters on social media platforms) the Watford manager wanted his team to concentrate solely on the football. It's like having an international pop star as your chairman and not releasing a Cup final song, as Alanis Morissette would probably put it.

Mind you, listening to the Everton team song, perhaps Taylor made the right decision.

Previews and pre-match

The number of previews and opinions given in FA Cup final special editions of the morning papers shows just how big an event the match was back in the day, as an estimated 250 or 300 million people were expected to be watching the match worldwide (depending on which source you believed). The general consensus was that the extra experience Everton's players gained in the Milk Cup final would be invaluable, and this was reflected with the bookmakers who put the Merseyside club as 8/13 favourites, with Watford at 5/4. But there were pundits arguing the case for both sides of the north-south divide.

"I am picking Watford to win because I believe that Everton will buckle under the teasing challenge of Barnes and Callaghan with George Reilly and Johnston there to pick up the pieces," wrote the Daily Express' Steve Curry on the morning of the match, with the Daily Mirror's Harry Miller in agreement regarding Watford's wide men, also adding that the long ball game would be Everton's downfall.

Opposing Curry in the Express, Derek Potter backed Everton to add to their recent FA Youth Cup success, with Jimmy Greaves ranking the teams at 86-84 in Everton's favour, adding "I sense that victory will belong to Everton". Stuart Jones was much more decisive. "Everton will win the FA Cup this afternoon. They are the third successive class of pupils to learn a lesson from Liverpool in March and finish the term by returning to Wembley".

Saturday May 19: The time for talking was almost over, yet with the television coverage starting on both the BBC and ITV at 11am, the excitement grew and grew. Naturally Elton John appeared to give his views, with the BBC also wheeling out Freddie Starr, Smith and Jones, and Michael Barrymore, the latter we were informed would be providing "pre-match fun", but if anyone has ever had the misfortune to see his "tribute" to John Barnes then I share your pain (it seems to have disappeared from YouTube, which is probably for the best).

It would be Elton John who would hog a lot of the limelight before the match, the tears flowing as Watford's chairman joined in with the crowd in singing Abide With Me. "It was an emotional, once-in-a-lifetime experience," he later revealed. "It was the singing of the crowd that really moved me". Hardly surprising with approximately 100,000 inside the famous old stadium. "EVERTON GIVE ELTON THE BLUES" proclaimed one particular banner, one of the many things I still feel nostalgic about with regards to FA Cup finals of yesteryear. It turned out to be a very accurate statement. 

Sharp shooter

Everton would soon become aware of the aerial threat of Watford early on as a Rory Delap style throw from Sinnott was flicked on by Reilly, and as Barnes headed towards goal Southall was relieved to grab hold of the ball. Indeed Watford started the match brightly, the first half hour of the match easily their best, yet even during this period Everton did fashion a couple of efforts on goal. In what would become a theme of the day, Trevor Steven got the better of Price down Everton's right and Sharp headed wide, with Kevin Richardson also going close when his left footed effort almost sneaked past Steve Sherwood on his near post.

And then came a crucial moment of the 1984 FA Cup final, as Barnes latched on to a Les Taylor pass, jinked inside a stumbling Gary Stevens and headed towards Southall and Everton's goal. Barnes pulled back his right foot as Southall spread himself, and at first it looked as if the Welshman had pulled off a fine save. Yet a closer inspection revealed that it was in fact Derek Mountfield who blocked Barnes' initial strike, and as Taylor's follow-up was deflected wide, Watford were left to rue a golden chance to take the lead.

Gradually Everton grew into the match, with Reid and Steven particularly influential, and it was no surprise when the Merseysiders went ahead in the 38th minute. After Richardson's cross was headed clear, Stevens drilled an effort towards goal, a poor attempt in truth, yet as it would transpire a fantastic pass to Graeme Sharp.

Making the most of Stevens' wayward shot, Sharp trapped the ball instantly and cracked a right-footed shot in off the base of the post from 12 yards out. Watford looked towards the linesman in hope that the flag would go up, but a look at the replay showed that Sharp was onside, and as Everton's players piled on top of each other in celebration Watford had a mountain to climb.

A matter for debate

As the second half began, Southall would again need to be at his best as he athletically leapt and took the ball one-handed from a Kenny Jackett cross, with Barnes poised behind him. Before the match Taylor had made a point of questioning Southall's mistakes in two previous matches against Watford, something which the Everton keeper later stated had motivated him on the day. Southall's improvement over the season, and his "prodigious performance" at Wembley (to use the words of Frank McGhee) contributed greatly to Everton's first trophy in 14 years. Unfortunately for Watford, an incident involving their own keeper would go a long way to sealing their fate on the day.

Just as Taylor had tried to cast doubts on Southall pre-match, many journalists had also queried the solidity of Steve Sherwood in their previews, so his part in the clinching goal was discussed at length in subsequent match reports. In my opinion - and I write this as a fully signed-up member of the Goalkeepers' Union - any criticism handed to Sherwood was unfair, as Andy Gray admitted that he basically headed the back of Sherwood's hand for Everton's second goal, yet this did not stop various reporters looking at the part played by Watford's keeper.

Yet again Steven got the better of Price to put the cross in which led to the goal after 51 minutes. Falling backwards, Sherwood appeared to have gathered the ball, yet Gray leapt above Terry and made contact with the Watford keeper's hands and as the ball apologetically crept over the line, all eyes turned to referee John Hunting. Hunting awarded the goal as Sherwood sat on the Wembley turf astounded at the decision, contemplating what he would refer to as "the worst moment of my career". Taylor was "staggered" and thought that 99 times out of 100 the keeper would have got the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately for Watford, John Hunting had a different view on the matter.

"I was absolutely right," Hunting said when defending his decision after the match. "I was perfectly placed to see the incident and there was never any question of a foul. There is not the slightest doubt in mind that Gray heads the ball in. Sherwood went for a long cross from the right and his momentum took him backwards. He let the ball go and Gray put it in." General opinion seemed to lean towards Sherwood, as the days of Nat Lofthouse were recalled and compared to the different era of the 1980s, where keepers were rightfully protected more. The debate would go on and on.

What was certain, though, was that the goal killed the match as a spectacle. From this point on Everton were comfortable. Although 24-goal striker Mo Johnston later had a goal cancelled out for offside, the Watford race had been run. Price went off shortly after the Gray goal, his awkward afternoon ended when Paul Atkinson replaced him, but as the minutes ticked by the countdown to the Everton party was truly beginning. As the final whistle sounded, and Ratcliffe climbed the Wembley steps to receive the FA Cup, Howard Kendall must have pinched himself. From zero to hero in the space of five magical months, and even before the dust had settled, talk of a possible Everton title tilt was being mentioned for the next campaign.

Aftermath

"It will be remembered joyously by those who love Everton, as the day this great club emerged again from the gloomy shadows cast by their conquering neighbours," wrote McGhee in his Monday morning column, with Stuart Jones highlighting that "Everton's horizon, so dark in December, is also dazzlingly bright". Certainly Howard Kendall was in full agreement. "What I really want Everton to be is the best. What I really want to win is the championship. The FA Cup is tremendous for the fans and the players. But for me it is just a start. It gives us a major trophy. It puts us at Wembley against Liverpool again in the Charity Shield. Most of all, it puts us into Europe where we should always be".

Both teams enjoyed open top bus parades, a rumoured 500,000 people turning up for Everton's celebrations, as the blue side of Merseyside finally had something to cheer. As many predicted, it was to be the start of the Everton revival and a period of footballing prosperity in the city, as both teams went head-to-head over the next few seasons for the major honours in England. Watford would hold their own during the next few League seasons, and reached a further semi-final under Taylor in 1987, but his departure shortly after this signalled the beginning of the end of the fairytale rise of the club.

And so ended another year in the FA Cup story, and there are a few tales to recall. A season that had seen the holders humiliated by Third Division Bournemouth; Liverpool humbled again by Brighton; Everton struggle past Gillingham as Howard Kendall desperately clung on to his job; the romantic run to the semi-finals of John Hore's Plymouth; heartbreak for Wilf Rostron; and a refereeing controversy as Everton ended 14 years of hurt.

Some of the cynics scoffed at the competition when the so-called big boys exited at various points, but back in 1984 the FA Cup was strong enough to survive regardless. And in the end there could be no arguing that we ended up with a deserved winner, as a giant of English football woke up and set off on the path to mid-eighties glory under a manager who when the journey began at the Victoria Ground, Stoke, must have felt a million miles away from Wembley success.

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