May 19, 1984. To some, just another Saturday. To Evertonians, the start of a glittering run of successes that would mark the club’s greatest period.
Howard Kendall, who had survived the sack by the finest of margins, proudly led out his side at Wembley knowing they were favourites to claim domestic honours for the first time since 1970. 14 whole years without a trophy. Imagine that.
Watford were the opponents on that fine Wembley day, understandably the neutrals’ favourites as a side backed by Elton John, managed by the excellent Graham Taylor and playing an entertaining brand of football that had almost won them the title in their first ever top-flight campaign in 1983. The Hornets finished four places below Everton in 11th and reached their first ever FA Cup final, beating Luton, Charlton, Brighton, Birmingham and Plymouth to reach Wembley.
Everton’s run was not much more difficult on paper, though in true Everton fashion they made it so. The now-famous 2-0 win over Stoke in the third round was not as simple as the scoreline suggests. Next came third tier minnows Gillingham, who rocked the Blues not once, but twice, demanding heroics from Neville Southall in two 0-0 draws. Everton prevailed 3-0 in the second replay, earning themselves a tie against Shrewsbury, who were dispatched by the same margin. Notts County were next, Everton battling to a 2-1 away win. A much-fancied Southampton side, who would finish runners-up in the First Division, awaited in the semi-final at Highbury. It took 117 of goalless tension before Adrian Heath popped up with a vital goal, as he always seemed to do, to take Everton to the FA Cup final for the first time since 1968.
Despite losing Kevin Sheedy to injury before the final, Everton were in good spirits. Preparations went well, and the squad was joined by celebrity fan Freddie Starr, who, as Kevin Ratcliffe tells it, was starstruck in the presence of the sullenly indifferent Southall. John Bailey had survived missing out through suspension thanks to a rearranged game. There was a positive buzz about the blue side of Wembley, even in spite of Everton’s woes in the decade preceding the final. After so many lows, the Toffees had rallied, and rescued themselves from the mire. The season had ended with the Blues in excellent form. Victory was very much within their grasp.
Watford’s defence was known to be vulnerable, thanks to a spate of injuries. Captain Wilf Rostron had covered at centre back in recent weeks, but a red card curtailed his chances of leading the team out at Wembley. Everton’s, contrastingly, had only conceded once en route to the final, away at Notts County.
Yet in the opening exchanges, there was no suggestion that either side was particularly vulnerable or impregnable. A long Watford throw-in was flicked on, and met at the back post by the Hornets’ exciting winger, John Barnes. Barnes’ header was weak, however, and a sprawling Southall dealt with it. Everton went down the other end, and a Trevor Steven cross found Graeme Sharp, though the Scot made poor contact and his header bounced harmlessly wide.
Though not a poor game, the final looked unlikely to go down as an FA Cup classic. It needed a spark, with Everton almost provided. Peter Reid battled his way through a veritable midfield warzone and found Andy Gray, who fed Kevin Richardson. The midfielder’s effort from the left-hand side of the penalty area was low and well-struck, too much for Steve Sherwood to deal with, but the Watford keeper breathed a sigh of relief as the ball struck the outside of the post. A twisting and turning Heath then saw an effort deflected over the bar. Everton were turning the screw.
Naturally, it was then that Watford carved out their best chance of the first half. Barnes took down a long pass and cut inside, firing in a shot that was brilliantly blocked by Derek Mountfield. Stand-in Watford skipper Les Taylor pounced on the rebounded ball but his strike flew wide with two Everton men flinging themselves desperately across the goal-line.
But like a tree standing by the water, Everton were not moved. Reid powered forward and hit a scuffed effort wide of Sherwood’s left-hand post. Then, after 38 minutes, Everton drew first blood. Again, the Blues won the bitter midfield battle, then embarking on a neat passing move that culminated in a Richardson cross that was only half-cleared. Steven reached the ball first and hit a poor first-time shot. Or, looking at it another way, an excellent through ball. Everton were clearly in the karmic good books that day, as the ball made a beeline for Sharp, who controlled it with his first touch, and fired in an effort off the post with his second.
At Wembley, and back home, Evertonians jumped for joy. They led in the FA Cup final.
The rest of the first half passed without incident. Watford were struggling to forge chances, with Scottish striker Mo Johnstone – later to appear for Everton in the first Premier League season – marshalled out of the game by the Blues’ back line. Kenny Jackett almost teed up a cross for the waiting Barnes to head into what would have been an empty net, but Southall strained his every sinew to pluck the ball from the air in the nick of time.
On 51 minutes, Everton found the all-important second goal. A misdirected Watford throw gave Everton possession in their opponents’ half, and Steven jinked down the wing, looping in a cross to the back post. Sherwood came to claim, but out of nowhere appeared Gray, who headed into the net. While Gray ran off jubilantly, the Watford players were furious. And rightly so. Even Gray would admit later that he had collided with Sherwood, knocking the ball out of the keeper’s hands. But John Hunting saw no issue with the goal, and as the referee, his opinion was the pivotal one.
A two-goal lead established, Everton opted to defend what they had rather than push for more. Johnstone had a goal correctly chalked off, but Watford spent most of the second half battling gamely to create half-chances. Now it seems antithetical to the Everton way of doing things to hold a lead without incident in a big match, but on this day, it happened. The full-time whistle not only brought to an end the final, but marked the beginning of a truly special time for the Everton team.
Apart from Gray, every Toffees player picked up their first piece of major silverware that afternoon. Just a few years later, each would have enough to last them a lifetime.