The GT Years Ranked: 4 - 1983/84
Nick Catley presents his list of GT's greatest seasons at Watford
In some ways, the peak of the Taylor era. Playing in Europe, and reaching the FA Cup final – almost all our dreams had been achieved. The only way we could go further was to win something – and for all the incredible achievements of that era, that’s the one thing we didn’t quite manage.
It was a pretty good season in the League. You can argue that a fall of nine places represented second-season syndrome if you want, but we still finished in the top half, representing impressive solidity at the very least, despite early-season struggles during an injury crisis which prompted Taylor to place a joke advert in The Times appealing for new players. It was the first time under Taylor we’d failed to improve on the previous season’s position – although doing so from second place would have been pretty testing, even by his standards.
The main memories, however, came in the cups. Before Christmas, six European games against teams we’d barely heard of, let alone dreamt of playing, brought an added dimension to our new-found status. The home game against Kaiserslautern is of course widely and rightly lauded. However, the win in Sofia against Levski Spartak may have been even more impressive, but is perhaps less fondly remembered simply because so few of us were there to see it. TV footage survives, but is of such low quality it doesn’t help much. Lionel Birnie ranked this as Watford’s third-greatest victory ever in the excellent The 100 Greatest Watford Wins, and that seems a fair assessment of the achievement.
Not being old enough to go on those European away-days is probably my biggest regret as a Watford fan – that and Sheffield Wednesday’s equaliser in the last minute of the 2014/15 season to deny us the title – so much so that I splashed out a significant, non-refundable sum on flights and accommodation to go and watch us play Eintracht Braunschweig in a 2015 pre-season friendly, a game which was cancelled around 36 hours beforehand because Quique Sánchez Flores wanted to see more of the players on the training pitch. It was my own fault for placing any store on a non-competitive match, and I haven’t been to one involving Watford since.
Even the European games were, of course, overtaken after Christmas by the FA Cup run. The first match at Luton, where we recovered from two down to draw, was the only one I missed, but I remember being gripped by the pulsating replay, a 4-3 win in which we were twice two goals ahead, sealed by Mo Johnston’s extra time winner. I felt petrified every time Paul Walsh got the ball. I’d love to abuse him in the manner compulsory for Watford fans discussing Luton players, but – my word. Even given a spell at Liverpool and five England caps, it’s arguable he never quite reached his full potential.
Relatively routine wins over Charlton and Brighton followed before a sixth-round tie in a St Andrew’s cauldron in which John Barnes made a mockery of an, erm, robust Birmingham team, ruling the pitch in a 3-1 win. A tension-filled 1-0 victory over Plymouth at Villa Park followed, a rare occasion in which we had become the favourites rather than the underdogs, and we were at Wembley.
It’s a well-worn trope, of course, but for a couple of generations – probably peaking between the early fifties, when a serious number of people started to get TV sets, until the end of the eighties, the FA Cup final was everything. Fans and players alike knew in their heads that the team that finished top of the First Division was objectively the best in the country. But when you daydreamed, it wasn’t about winning the League. Instead, you imagined being interviewed over breakfast at the hotel and having helicopter footage of the roof of your bus shown live on TV. You visualised scoring the winner on a sunny day at Wembley. You saw yourself (or, once you’d reached a certain age, your team’s captain) walking up those steps to collect that famous trophy, adorned with yellow, black and red ribbons.
Being involved in all of this, therefore, was like climbing into the frame of a cartoon and becoming the star. Suddenly, it was all about us. It’s an experience with no obvious modern-day equivalent – certainly the 2019 final wasn’t even a pale imitation.
Of course, we didn’t see Les Taylor go and lift the Cup. Yes, Wilf Rostron’s sending off at Luton was ridiculous, and yes, the second goal shouldn’t have stood, but the feeling remains that our admittedly incredibly young team (much later, Taylor said he regretted not picking Pat Rice for the experience he would have provided) didn’t quite do itself justice, which irks slightly, even now. Everton were an excellent side, and would go on to show just how good the next season, winning the League and Cup-Winners Cup, but the nagging feeling remains. Still though. What a season.