It's Quiet. Too Quiet.
David Harrison was at the Watford-Liverpool game on 21 February 1970. It was a bit special.
‘It’s quiet. Too quiet.’ So began the Watford Observer ‘FA Cup Special’ supplement, issued prior to the quarter-final against Liverpool in February 1970. It may have been 50 years ago but I can vividly recall flying downstairs to scoop the Observer off the doormat before my Dad got his hands on it. The relative lack of pre-match excitement was caused by a combination of factors. The club was embroiled in a grim relegation battle, sitting just one point outside the drop zone. Ticket prices had been inflated, causing predictable disquiet amongst fans. Inspirational skipper Keith Eddy was unavailable through injury. And Liverpool had already visited Vicarage Road earlier in the season, winning 2-1 in an unexceptional League Cup-tie
But this was still a massive game for the Hornets.
It’s difficult to convey the status held back then by the FA Cup. Whereas today the Cup is regarded as an annoying distraction from league activities, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s the opposite was the case. Attendances were huge, interest great and the draw, held on the Monday lunchtime and broadcast live on BBC Radio, not to be missed.
Radios were smuggled into school, with earphones surreptitiously inserted just as listeners were taken live to FA headquarters at Lancaster Gate, an unseen venue carrying mystical properties.
Watford’s 69/70 FA Cup run had been established as a record-breaker before a ball was kicked. For the first time in the club’s history we were exempt until the third round stage. What this meant in reality was that we didn’t have to face Southend United, a miserable fate that had befallen the club in no fewer than four of the previous eight years.
However the euphoria of the previous season’s long-awaited promotion had dissipated in a dismal start to the campaign, yielding two paltry points from the opening seven games. And they were both goalless draws.
By the end of the year Ken Furphy’s team were staring down the barrel of an immediate return from whence they’d escaped, just a few months earlier.
So the Cup came as a welcome diversion. The third round draw took Watford to the then cavernous Burnden Park, to face fellow Division Two strugglers Bolton Wanderers. Never an easy place to visit, two goals from King of the Rookery, Barry Endean, took the Hornets through, in front of a healthy 22,000 crowd.
Next up were Stoke City, then a successful top-flight club, boasting 1966 World Cup hero Gordon Banks in goal. Despite scoring just once, through a long-range drive by 18 year-old Colin Franks, the Hornets outplayed their illustrious opponents and warranted a more emphatic victory.
Third Division Gillingham were the fifth round visitors and a dour tie on a heavy surface saw two Ray Lugg goals take the club through to the quarterfinal stage for the first time since 1932. And Monday’s draw revealed that, for the third time in little over three years, mighty Liverpool would be heading to the town.
Liverpool’s season had been in direct contrast to that experienced by Watford. Their first ten games had produced eight wins and two draws. One of those victories had been a scrappy League Cup-tie at Vicarage Road when 21,000 saw a Bert Slater own goal and an Ian St John effort ultimately prove decisive, following a Keith Eddy equaliser from the penalty spot.
However the free-scoring Reds arrived for the quarter final in moderate form, their three previous League games having yielded one goal and no victories.
Ticket sales may initially have been slow but come matchday over 34,000 somehow squeezed into a pulsating Vicarage Road. I was behind the Rookery goal that afternoon and the image of Endean, arms aloft, charging towards the crowd, having headed Ray Lugg’s cross past the ponderous Tommy Lawrence, remains as clear today as then.
Match of the Day coverage of the game remains available on YouTube. If you’ve not checked it out, you should. Younger readers (classed here as those yet to draw a pension) will be startled by both the appalling playing surface and some remarkably lenient refereeing, but surely impressed by Lugg’s superb approach play leading to the goal.
It was a great day for the club, at the time probably their best-ever result.
I arrived home, still pinching myself at what I’d witnessed. The curate from the local church, who I barely knew, telephoned. He’d heard the result on the radio but didn’t believe it could possibly be true. He wanted confirmation from someone who’d been there. I couldn’t help much in the way of explanation but yes, it had definitely happened. Oh, ye of little faith!
The semi-final proved a step too far, while the final seven league games, just like the first seven, failed to produce a win. But Furphy’s team had done enough to retain Division Two status for another year.
For Liverpool the defeat was the final straw for an ageing team. Tommy Lawrence and Ian St John were both effectively finished, each playing just one more First Team game for the Reds. The likes of Ron Yeats, perpetrator of some X-rated challenges at Vicarage Road, Gerry Byrne and Roger Hunt were also coming to the end of the road.
‘The breaking-up process began that day at Watford,’ said manager Bill Shankly. ‘I knew I had to do my job and change the team. I had a duty to perform to myself, my family, Liverpool Football Club and the supporters.’
Clearly a significant event for Liverpool then, but this was Watford’s day.
The town may have been strangely quiet before the game but by 5 o’clock it was absolutely bouncing.