"There through it all"
By Jon Preston
You won't get any prizes for guessing that the best period in the history of Watford FC was from 1977 until 1987. Graham Taylor's first spell was truly golden and the only time we got close to repeating it was in his second spell! But which player do you associate most with this era? Luther, Ross, John Barnes? Great players all and their legacy will live on for a long time.
Yet only one man was there at the start and still there at the end with no interruptions in between. His first game was under Mike Keen; two games later the manager was sacked! As Graham Taylor started his Watford career there was our man between the posts. Ten years later his last game in charge, not that we knew at the time, was a testimonial for the same player. Step forward Steve Sherwood, much maligned at times but faithful to the very end. His place always seemed under threat and he spent long periods on the sidelines as first Andy Rankin, then Eric Steele and finally Tony Coton took precedence. But for the three most successful seasons of all 1981-82 to 1983-84 he missed just six games.
Despite being an integral part of the team that raced to promotion, took the runner up spot way from United in Division 1, played in Europe and then made the Cup Final, you wont find Steve in anyone's all time great XI's. He probably doesn't get much of a mention in any of the great individual performances either. Some players are destined to be the bridesmaid and that was Shirley down to the ground.
He wasn't even the most famous sportsman in his family. Older brother John won a bronze medal in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, in the same race where David Hemery won gold. Like Hemery, big brother also got national recognition for his appearances on Superstars - compulsive viewing for any sports fan in those days. Meanwhile little brother (well quite tall actually) was trying to make a footballing career at Chelsea. Not much chance of that with Bonetti in goal. In the days when loaning out players was not as common as it is today he spent time at Brighton, Millwall and then Brentford. The spell at Brentford was almost unique for the time as it lasted 18 months and he even won a "Player of the Season" award. A spell in America followed before he finally found a club he could call his own.
Within a few short months he found himself sat in front of a new manager and must have wondered whether he would soon be moving on. GT must have seen something he liked, even if Andy Rankin was the preferred choice for much of the time. And when Rankin left for Huddersfield in came Eric Steele and Steve still couldn't force his way in for any length of time. He needed a lucky break and he got one, just not the sort that you would have expected.
A 2-2 draw at home to Coventry in the League Cup was a pretty good result, but Taylor was disappointed with Steele's performance and decided to change keepers for the replay. A 5-0 defeat ensued and Steve must have though that "that was that". Not so! Steele was really out of favour and hardly played again. Even then fate was not that kind and the press always seemed to focus on Shirley's bad points. There was virtually no live football at that time, apart from the Cup Final, and coverage was "Match of the Day" on Saturday and "The Big Match" on Sunday. Needless to say the Hornets did not feature that much. The visit of West Ham did bring the cameras though; unfortunately it saw David Cross win the game with a superb chip. Sadly such goals always make the keeper look a little silly however good the chip. The cameras were never that kind to our man.
Promotion followed the following season, but with the game plan all about attack and scoring more than the opposition (however many you may concede) it was the forward line that took most of the plaudits. A shame really as it was probably Steve's best season. Better still as Division 1 was taken by storm, but the press focused on how such attacking policies would set the game back years and no one noticed the reliable keeper "just doing his job".
Again the cameras were there to record an error, or were they? I've often thought that the witch hunt that ended with "that goal" in the '84 Cup Final started the year before in a game against Aston Villa. A hopeful punt forward is chased by Ian Bolton and Villa's Mark Walters. Bolton desperately waves for Sherwood to come for the ball. Sherwood remains in his area. Neither plays the ball and Walters sticks his foot out and manages to loop the ball over Shirley and into the net. It looks bad, very bad. But look again and you can see what Sherwood could see, the ball was not going to reach the area before Walters got there. He's desperate for Bolton to knock the ball back, no back pass rule in those days. Too late, the press had spotted a weakness.
For the media he was easy meat. As Watford struggled at the start of the following season the knives were out. Glenn Hoddle's wonder goal is still shown today, but it does show poor Steve desperately back peddling in a vain effort to reach the ball.
Sensing that it was having an effect on his confidence Taylor finally rested him. Back in goal Eric Steele looked to heading for a clean sheet half way through the second half against Norwich. But then the whole team imploded and they went down 3-1. Would history have been very different if it had stayed at 0-0? Who knows, but GT appeared to finally give up on Steele after that game. So there was Steve ready to play his part in the next thrilling instalment in that "Tale of the Unexpected". Time enough for him to join the very elite band of goal scoring goal keepers. A wind assisted kick at Coventry, perhaps the ultimate expression of "Route One" football. The cup run may have ended in tears, but if not for some superb saves against Brighton we may never have got to the final anyway. The press would not leave it alone and it only got worse after a real nightmare at Norwich, 6-1 was not the best preparation for a cup semi final. You can't argue with a clean sheet though, and the Hornets reached Wembley on a glorious sunny afternoon.
Perhaps the memory goes with age, but the Cup Final coverage seemed much more intimate in those days. Following the players in the days before the final, on the golf course and in the hotel. At least we were spared "It's a Cup Final Knock Out" that year. Still there was a lot of focus on poor Steve and a perceived weakness with crosses. It's over twenty years ago now, but you'll never convince me that the referee was not influenced by what had been written in the days before the final. In the end it didn't matter, I firmly believe that the game was lost as soon as we went one down, but Steve Sherwood deserved so much more than to be blamed for a referee's error. He makes the catch and Andy Gray heads it out of his hand. Don't blame Gray he was just doing his job, but if that had been Shilton instead of Sherwood he would probably have been booked for his troubles.
Over the close season many names were mentioned as possible replacements, but he was still there as the next season started at Old Trafford. An inexperienced defence was leaking goals though, and the inevitable happened when Tony Coton was signed from Birmingham. It was time for fate to show a kind hand at last. TC was not signed in time to play in the League Cup tie against Cardiff giving the fans a chance to say thanks and so long for now. One down to a team bottom of the second division we conceded a penalty. A chance to show everyone that, despite everything, Steve was damn fine shot stopper. A full length dive to his left allowed him to turn the ball away. Without that we would surely gone out at the first hurdle, instead we reached the quarter finals. Even then it was John Barnes' hat trick that stole the headlines next day. But that save remains my favourite Steve Sherwood moment.
With Coton in goal it was never likely that he would get many games. But he never seemed to complain and was rewarded with a testimonial for 1986-87 after ten years service. Then at the end of that season it was the chance for one last hurrah, except fate would somehow spoil it again. Having reached the F.A. Cup semi finals after an epic victory over Arsenal Tony Coton broke a finger and was ruled out for the rest of the season. Perhaps this would be a chance to make up for 1984? Sadly his first two games were unimpressive and he then sustained an injury himself. Just how serious remains shrouded in mystery, Sherwood himself considered himself fit. GT, however, wary maybe of what had gone before decided to go with Gary Plumley - the son of the Chief Executive, formerly of Newport County but now a wine waiter. With no substitute goalkeepers it was a huge gamble that backfired disastrously. An unfit Sherwood could not have done worse as the game was over well before half time. Could Sherwood have played? I'll leave that up to you though you might note that he was back in the team just three days later as Chelsea were beaten 3-1.
A final run in the team which ended with a clean sheet against Spurs. The season itself finished with his testimonial game against Hearts, a tremendous match finally won 4-3 and a chance to say thanks and, had we known it, so long. Watford FC was about to change and just a hint of things to come was given when a very young David James came on to replace our subject.
Days later GT had gone and been replaced by Dave Bassett. He'd already made up his mind about Steve and showed him the door... not the last person to leave in that traumatic period. So that was that. Off to Grimsby where he gave excellent service (and got a very warm welcome when he returned to Vicarage Road with his new club) for a further few years before drifting into non league with Gateshead.
There you have it. Not the greatest keeper ever, but he wouldn't get into anyone's Worst XI either. A gentle giant who just got on with his job. And in these days of Prima Donna footballers with their fast cars and loads of cash, here was a man who played for five years in the top flight and had only just learnt to drive by the end of it. Football needs players like Steve Sherwood to come along every so often. Then again who's to say one didn't in the form of Alec Chamberlain?