A day which started with excitement and hope ended in disappointment 40 years ago today when Watford’s first appearance in an FA Cup Final ended in a 2-0 defeat to Everton.

The game was played on May 19, 1984, long before the Watford Observer was able to publish reports and reaction immediately afterwards on the internet.

This meant Hornets fans had to wait almost a week to read the analysis and thoughts of this newspaper’s legendary Watford correspondent Oliver Phillips.

On Friday, May 25 beneath the headline ‘Questions and controversy after Watford’s Cup Final defeat’, this was Oli’s match report:

Did they freeze? Was Wembley too much? Did experience pay? Were they robbed by another cruel refereeing decision? Did they pay for missed chances or were they outmanoeuvred by an Everton side which had plainly done their homework? These were the questions on many lips after Watford lost in their first-ever FA Cup Final appearance on Saturday.

Some sections of the national Press reached for the cheap and easy angles, blaming Watford’s style and its failure to succeed at the top level, while saner mortals pointed to the missed chances which, had they been taken, would have changed the pattern of the game.

Had Watford scored first, those who came to crucify the Hornets with their pens would have had to look for other angles than nailing the Hornets to the cross of long-ball football.

But in the final analysis it was an amalgam of everything which caused Watford’s downfall on this historic day. Only three Hornets played up to real form, while two more froze, a couple of others played below par, another fluctuated between the impressive and the subdued, and the rest were only intermittently effective.

Watford Observer: How the front page of The Watford Observer looked after the finalHow the front page of The Watford Observer looked after the final (Image: Watford Observer)

Credit must go to Everton who played with greater fluidity and continuity. They switched neatly from 4-4-2 to 4-2-4 with midfield men Trevor Steven and Kevin Richardson moving out wide when Everton attacked, and these two in fact upstaged the fancied Watford wingers.

Everton also closed the game up well when they moved two goals ahead, catching Watford offside and telescoping the opponents’ offensive alternatives. It was not the most constructive of policies and did not enhance the possibilities of second half entertainment, but it was extremely effective against a side which needed a break to rekindle belief.

“We did not have the experience to combat it,” Graham Taylor later remarked on the subject of Everton’s offside.

Neither for that matter did they have the personnel, as Taylor was to acknowledge. Those who feel that a decision at Kenilworth Road had a considerable influence on the Cup Final, have a strong case.

Watford went into the match with two question marks over their line-up. The majority of fans would have preferred to have seen a fully-fit Steve Sims at centre-half on the grounds of superior experience, and Wilf Rostron at left-back. Yet ironically Steve Terry put in an outstanding performance, vying with Les Taylor for man-of-the-match tag.

Neil Price was later to shake his head in bafflement as to why he did not play his normal, tough tackling game. In effect the Wembley nerves froze him into submission, playing more of an escort role to Everton’s Trevor Steven.

So, in effect, 50 per cent of Watford’s enforced team changes proved successful, but the side plainly missed Rostron. He would not have been so circumspect in dealing with Steven and his forward forays may well have forced Everton’s right flank into a more defensive approach, and given the wiles of John Barnes more scope. But more particularly, Watford needed the effervescent Rostron on the left when trying to unravel the Everton offside trap in the second half.

The skipper’s runs from deep positions were sadly lacking.

Of course, had both teams had a fully-fit squad, the Hornets may have had the problems on the right as they faced up to the clever Sheedy, but ultimately that contribution from Rostron was a costly loss.

Price in fact knew beforehand that he was unlikely to complete the game, for Watford had prepared with a 12-man squad and the arrival of Paul Atkinson at some stage, was pre-planned. But the young full-back was not helped by the failure of Kenny Jackett to impress in midfield. If the Welshman did not have the experience of international football and First Division football under his belt, one could say that the Wembley nerves got to him.

Watford Observer: The page featuring Oli Phillips' match reportThe page featuring Oli Phillips' match report (Image: Watford Observer)

Further up on the left flank, John Barnes caught the eye, but I found incongruous some of the rave reviews he received in the national papers. He was brilliant at times but was very subdued at others. Towards the end, he tried to retrieve the game on his own, but overall it was not a great day for him.

In attack, Watford had a lop-sided approach. I looked forward to the match with some confidence, feeling that Nigel Callaghan, so long underrated by the Watford faithful, would use Wembley as his platform and prove to be a match-winner. I could not have been more wrong. Callaghan put together probably his worse 90 minutes of his Watford career, totally in the grip of nerves and the Everton approach, which had Richardson closing him down so tightly that Bailey was virtually a free man at the back.

With such limitation in service, George Reilly did well, winning some telling headers, helping to create one of Watford’s best second half openings. Beside him Mo Johnston was subdued and had little scope for his goalscoring knack – putting away perhaps the one real chance, albeit offside, and muffing two half-chances with his first touch.

In midfield, Les Taylor ran Steve Terry close – in fact he covered considerably more ground as is his brief, and led the team with a shining example of commitment. Further back, David Bardsley was not as assertive as usual, but in mitigation, his injury did cost him the opportunity of much of the pre-match practice.

The youngest man on the field was Lee Sinnott, who had a fairly good afternoon and deserved more praise for his performance than was awarded by the critics. When all is said and done, Terry and Sinnott handled the vaunted threat of Gray and Sharp with considerable success and, while both the Everton players scored, neither Terry nor Sinnott could really be blamed.

And lastly there was poor old Steve Sherwood, who like a man with a criminal record, is hauled in for questioning every time there is a crime in his genre. He did not really have a shot to save all afternoon, yet earned the headline for a supposed blunder.

When the ball bounced across the line in the 51st minute my instinctive reaction was that it would be disallowed for a foul on the goalkeeper and Terry. From my view, it looked as if Gray had pushed Terry into Sherwood.

The referee, perfectly positioned, felt otherwise, but repeated viewing of the incident on video does no more that Sherwood actually had the ball in his hands a fraction before the collision with Gray. That in essence is enough.

I felt sympathy for the view that nine out of ten referees would have disallowed the goal, but after watching the incident again, I feel that had George Reilly “scored” such a goal and had it disallowed the claim would be that the goalkeepers are over-protected. But at Wembley it seemed an injustice. Sherwood, once again the victim of an incident that Mr Hunting did not see, as he was at Brighton some 18 months ago when Michael Robinson head-butted him.

It was certainly the last thing Steve Sherwood needed but the crucial facts of the incident were revealed by the main participants. Andy Gray admitted that he had no contact with the ball agreeing totally with the goalkeeper who said the Everton striker headed his hands. In other words, it was a foul and the goal should have been disallowed, even though seeing the incicdent from the referee’s position enables me to sympathise with the referee’s decision. But what still remains in doubt is whether Gray pushed Steve Terry on the way to the collision with Sherwood.

The important fact was that the goal killed Watford and the enthusiasm of their fans. It also killed the game.

From then on the conviction and belief drained from the Hornets and TV critics had a point when they claimed that Watford did not show the passion and fire usually exemplified by a Graham Taylor team. Watford seemed mesmerised by the offside trap and found themselves hemmed in. The distribution was extravagant, the quality of the balls poor and there was all too little movement off the ball. It was indeed a disappointing end.

The annoying that is Everton did not look that good. They managed only three on-target shots during the entire afternoon and were fortunate to be ahead at the interval. Watford made great inroads in the Everton defence in the first period and should have been a goal or two to the good by the time their rivals scored. Barnes tried to make too sure of one chance and Taylor’s shot from the rebound was tipped away by Ratcliffe for a corner – a fact which escaped the referee’s attention. Taylor, Barnes, Johnston, Jackett and Price had other shooting opportunities – the first two in fact having clear-cut chances.

Yet it was Everton who took the lead, the goal coming from a cross by Richardson which was headed out by a stretching Sinnott. Gary Stevens seized the loose ball, and, attempting to shoot under pressure from Barnes, only managed to mishit the ball straight to Sharp. From a distance, Sharp looked offside, but it was later confirmed that Jackett had played the striker onside and Sharp was able to turn and shoot in-off the post for the goal.

It was a stroke of ill-fortune for Watford and Taylor was justified in lamenting that the Hornets did not get the “rub of the green”. Had Watford had a mishit shot fall to Johnston in similar circumstances, I doubt if Johnston would have had to use the upright to find the net.

Watford Observer: The back page of the 'wrap' around the Watford Observer on May 25, 1984The back page of the 'wrap' around the Watford Observer on May 25, 1984 (Image: Watford Observer)

In the end Watford were well beaten, but had come close to upsetting the favourites, indeed they should have done so earlier in the game.

“The rub of the green has nothing to do with style of play,” Taylor said at the Press conference to mainly deaf ears of Fleet Street.

It is true but when reading Sunday’s stories about Watford’s artisan approach, their “long-ball game exposed” and all the other handy epithets from self-proclaimed purists who half-distill the facts to suit their own arguments, two facts were overlooked.

The first goal came from a left-wing cross which put the defence under pressure and Stevens was there to pick up the second ball to press the defence still further. The second goal was from the right-wing – a deep cross and a big, old-fashioned centre-forward going in hard on the end of it.

Or perhaps I imagined that because Fleet Street purists claim the Watford style does not pay.