A lingering sense of melancholy
Report by Kevin Birdseye
This isn't a match report as such. But then, this wasn't like any other Watford occasion. So here, all rambling and incoherent, are some of my Cup Final memories. Committed to paper before my recollection of them flickers and fades completely.
For me personally, Wembley came at the end of a season that offered a foretaste of my ex-pat Horndom to come. I was spending the academic year away from Coventry Poly in Toulouse and Mainz, trying to learn some of the local lingo.
So it was that two other exiled 'Ornet lingo merchants (Graham C. and Paul L.) made the appointed rendezvous with me outside Mainz's main railway station on the Thursday evening before The Big Day.
The other two had tickets waiting for them in Watford. I was not so lucky, but figured I'd still get to see all the pre-match bits on the Beeb at worst. Surely better than watching the game, all alone, on German television in a bar of disinterested locals?
The long drive through Germany and Belgium took us past Cologne, Liege, Brussels and Bruges. We agreed that the latter, with its lovely canals and fine beers, would be a good draw in the following season's Cup Winners' Cup. Losing to Everton wasn't on our agenda.
The 4 a.m. sailing from Ostend to Dover passed uneventfully. In contrast to the dull, peeling paintwork of our Belgian ferry, our Watford hats and scarves (not a replica shirt between us in those days) drew instant recognition from all the other Brits on board. Women smiled sweetly at us. Men-folk shook our hands and wished us all the very best. They all knew the importance of our mission.
It was as though the colours we wore transformed us into brightly-garbed celebrity soldiers, on our way to perform some great and noble deed. And that's exactly what we felt we were doing. We were on the march with Taylor's Army and we were going to Wembley. Bloody fantastic! If I could get hold of a ruddy ticket, that is!
Our arrival at Dover produced a truly surreal moment. An officer from Customs & Excise beckoned our car to pull over; the consensus then among the car's occupants was that the Watford scarves hanging from every conceivable nook and cranny were, upon due reflection, perhaps not the best way for us to slip through customs unmolested.
The man from HM Customs surveyed the car's three occupants with their assorted Watford T-shirts and hats. His trained eye dwelt on the hand-crafted "Watford, Wembley '84" banner in the rear window. He tugged on one of the various scarves dangling limply from a side window.
And then, with a perfectly earnest and straight face, he popped The Most Stupid Question Ever Popped:
"And what is the purpose of your visit to the UK?"
(I instantly had visions of this same officer asking a similar question of invading Wehrmacht troops in 1940, if Hitler had actually ever dared to launch Operation Sea Lion.)
Miraculously, we refrained from exploding with mirth - thereby sparing us probable exposure to Her Majesty's Rubber-Glove Treatment - until safely on the A2 and on our way to London.
Back in Watford, I grabbed some shut-eye for a couple of hours, then eagerly headed into town. There were Watford colours every which way you looked! I purchased the WO. Challis's cartoon made witty references to the mad scramble for Cup Final tickets. Except I couldn't see the joke. All my worst fears had been confirmed. I was destined to spend my cup final in a pub, it seemed.
Arrogantly, childishly, pathetically, I felt cheated. After all, I deserved to be there! I'd seen us play when we'd been 92nd in the league! A ticket, I reasoned, should've been mine as of right! As did many others, I'm sure.
Shamelessly, as soon as we'd beaten Plymouth in the semi-final at Villa Park, I'd even written to GT from Germany, brazenly informing him that, under normal circumstances, I would've followed the 'Orns throughout the cup run and already bagged my ticket, no sweat. So could he possibly see his way to blah-blah, etc, etc.
Basically, I sent GT a begging letter.
Quite illogically, I thought GT would somehow remember who I was from our two former brief encounters and send me a ticket out of the kindness of his heart. "There you go, Kev, son, this one's on me!"
To GT's credit, he actually did send me a reply, apologising for not being able to assist me further, thanking me for my support and wishing me all the best. Like he did in response to who knows how many similar requests. Still, a nice touch.
So, resigned to missing out on the Wembley trip, and too short of funds to seriously contemplate running the gauntlet of the touts, I returned to my parents' house. Utterly dejected. My personal party was being pooped. Suddenly, coming all this way just to watch the telly seemed so bloody stupid.
So when my mother greeted me with a casual: "Oh, Paul rang. Something about a spare ticket for tomorrow", she seemed somewhat taken aback at being whisked off her feet by her errant son and made to dance a frenzied jig around her living room.
I phoned Paul L. (as in 'Levene', by the way: he of the nostalgia pieces in the match-day programme). PL confirmed the glorious, unexpected news. A spare ticket. For me. I launched into a stream of incomprehensible stuff about wanting to sire his offspring.
I remember racing around to his house on my step-dad's rickety bike. At a speed that would've left the likes of Boardman and Indurian eating my dust. Hell, I swear I even kissed the poor fella on his doorstep when he produced the magical piece of paper. I shall be forever in his debt.
Thanks to him, I was going to WEM-BER-LEY. To see WATFORD. In the CUP FINAL. Blimey O'Reilly!
Elated, I raced home, deposited the ticket safely, then floated back into town. Everything seemed so much more festive to me. My dejection had given way to that palpable pre-match sensation of half-fear, half-excitement, deep in the pit of the stomach. But on a scale never previously experienced.
I slept not a wink that Friday night. Did any Watford fan, I wonder?
I was up at six. After much dithering, I chose my clobber for the great day.
Tied around my waist would be my extra-long 76/77 scarf (one pound twenty-five pence from Peter Spivey, and still hanging on the wall to my left right now).
As neckwear, I chose a Hornet Shop scarf (bought to celebrate promotion in 78/79); shorter than the Spivey scarf but with even brighter shades of the United Colours of Watford.
To counter such a riot of colour, I opted for my sober, grey Watford T-shirt with "Lonsdale" motif and a pair of black strides.
All topped off, literally, by my battered and much-loved "Rubettes" style Wattie hat, purchased only GT knows when (and still hanging in the garage). I looked quite stunning, I decided. And it was a sunny day. A good omen!
Photos were taken outside the house of me proudly brandishing my ticket. There was time for one last, nerve-calming cuppa. Then off I trooped, amid shouts of Good Luck from the neighbours. Nervous? Not half!
Instinctively, I headed for The Horns public house by Watford Library. A good choice as the place was full of people and friends from my old school, many of whom I'd not seen for over three years. Another good omen!
The communal tension soon evaporated as bottle of Pils followed bottle of Pils. At twelve thirty, high on that heady mixture of pre-match adrenaline and booze, we embarked on the 15 minute stroll to Watford Met station.
Except the walk actually took us 35 minutes. Which says a lot about the state of our group. En-route, we tackled trees and each other through Cassiobury Park. Then the song started up: "We'll be running 'round Wembley with our willies hanging out and singing I've got a bigger one than you". Old ladies scuttled for cover. (We'd all attended the Boys' Grammar, you see. All that exposure to rugby at a young age does terrible things to you.)
The Met Line train to Wembley Park was heaving, as no train on that line can possibly ever have been before or since. Only now, as I was actually on my way there, did it occur to me just how damn close we as a football club had been to Wembley all this time.
At Wembley Park, our train disgorged its cargo of up-for-it Hornets just as another, packed with Scousers, pulled in from Baker Street. The combined noise from the two trainloads was deafening, frightening and exhilarating all at once. Boy, was I glad I'd travelled back for this! What an adrenaline rush!
Up Wembley Way we marched. Then, near-disaster! An Evertonian swiped my lucky hat as a souvenir and ran off triumphantly with it. The booze had me chasing him in a flash. Things could've turned ugly, I guess. And yet, instead of a conflagration erupting after I'd blurted "Give it back yer Scouse Git, that's me lucky 'at", the Everton fan did just that. He even apologised profusely as he did so. We shook hands with him and his mates and wished each other well. Another good omen! "Have My Baby, Johnny Barnes", we sang. Our match-winner, surely!
(After the tales I'd heard from fans of other teams of mass brawls on the way to and from the stadium, it has to be said that the atmosphere inside and out was indeed very good that day.)
Now, the ticket I'd obtained was for a section of the ground well away from my chums. No problem, though. Like most fans then, I just bundled through with them, pointing out to the stewards that I wanted to be with me mates. Frankly, the stewards didn't seem to care. This was one year before Bradford and Heysel. A different age altogether.
Inside came the first jarring note: It instantly became apparent how wide the gulf was between the Home of Football's global reputation and the pitiful state of the place. What a shit-tip! And even with an hour still to go to kick-off, the stairs were already starting to flow with Wembley's notorious cascades of second-hand lager and bitter.
Then came another downbeat note: Outside the ground we'd seen plenty of Watford fans still looking desperately for tickets. As we sloshed our way up the stairs, we even saw some 'Orns literally taking their lives in their hands by shinning up drainpipes, then swinging precariously across to the outstretched, waiting arms of mates, who then pulled them in through tiny windows.
Demand for tickets had plainly well outstripped supply in Watford. So I couldn't help but wonder how it was that the lower tier at our end of terracing contained more than a fair sprinkling of blue and white flags.
The fact that my ticket (on the wall above my computer) has a stamp on the back, which reads: "Birmingham County FA", tells its own tale. Football may have been far less corporate then, but fans were still given the rawest of deals. In the official pecking order, senile county FA officials were clearly deemed worthier of tickets for the final than fans.
AND NOW, AN APOLOGY: If you've got this far and are still waiting for the match report, you'll be disappointed, I'm afraid. For from this point on, my day became a bit of a blur.
True, the sight and the noise as the players emerged from the tunnel remains a treasured memory. Had I still been in a distant German bar at that moment, I would've been inconsolable in my sadness at missing out.
But when it comes to the nitty-gritty of the actual game: well, what is there to say that you don't already know? That we played crap and lost just about sums it up for me.
If only Wilf Rostron had been playing, and not suspended after a tragic piece of refereeing at, irony of ironies, The Kennel. On the day, Wilf's inspiration as captain might have settled the nerves of the many youngsters in our team.
Alas, without him the kids largely froze and we never got going. Even then, on 36 minutes Barnsey, then Les Taylor, came close to opening the score. "Not long now", we thought. And we were right. Everton promptly made it one-nil.
At half time we remained optimistic. GT would turn things around and get 'em playing. Wouldn't he?
But you can't legislate for things like Everton's second. Talk about a cold shower. I remember seeing Gray challenge Shirley Sherwood and clearly knock the ball out of his hands and into the net. And then waiting for the inevitable referee's whistle and free kick to us. And waiting. And waiting. I'm still waiting now, fourteen years on.
There was no way back. We sang "We'll support you ever more" and had never meant it so passionately. Those of us who truly cared, that is. I say this, because the final jarring note of the day for me involved a bloke, who'd been in my class at school, shrugging his shoulders at full-time and smiling benignly as if to say, "Oh well, win some you lose some". Like we'd just been beaten in some meaningless, end-of-season fixture. How come tossers like him got tickets, eh?
I screamed incoherent abuse at him. I was crying but I didn't care. We'd lost and my world had ended. Worse, we hadn't remotely done ourselves justice.
I was too gutted to go and cheer the team when they toured the town the next day. We'd had our chance to win something. To cross the line between lauded victors and perpetual also-rans. And we'd failed at the final hurdle.
Somewhere, on the Friday, I'd read a quote from GT, exhorting Hornet followers to enjoy their day "as we might not get another one", or words to that effect. Ho-ho, I'd chortled. He's a caution, that GT! I never suspected then how prophetic his words would seem fourteen years later.
Oh, how different the intervening years might have been had we won! A lingering sense of melancholy, indeed.