MONDAY, March 17, 1986, Watford v Liverpool – FA Cup 6th Round Replay.
“My son Mike and his mate Macca badgered me all weekend about the driving to the replay. The fact that they would have to bunk off school hadn’t even entered their heads! Before I knew it, we had a car-full heading south on a Monday dinner-time.
“The highlight of the journey was the sight of a clapped-out three-wheeled van bursting with more than a few tipsy Reds, making very slow progress down the motorway. We passed it three times after lengthy stops at services on the M1. Each time we overtook, its passengers appeared more and more disheveled.”
— Bernard Nevin, Liverpool fan.
EVER since it became fashionable for English football supporters to follow their team to away games, generations of Liverpool players have benefitted from the backing offered by travelling Reds’ fans in football grounds all over England, Europe and beyond.
Beginning with major cup games (mainly finals and semi-finals) in the early part of the 20th century, then — with the help of developing rail networks from the 1950s onwards — for league fixtures at nearby North-West grounds after the Second World War, and at matches all over the country thereafter, Liverpool had always enjoyed the support of one of the most vocal, fanatical and loyal bands of followers, miles from the familiar surroundings of Anfield.
Every so often however, an away fixture captures the imagination of supporters so much that it sees numbers swell way beyond what would be the norm. A game for which fans put personal commitments to one side; when work, college or school play second fiddle to inspiring the Reds to a famous away victory.
There have been countless occasions where Red’s fans’ fanaticism off the pitch has complemented the footballing brilliance on it; the chaotic scenes at Wolves, in the final league game of Bob Paisley’s first season as manager in 1976 when hundreds among the 20,000 fans who travelled, swarmed onto the Molyneux pitch to salute the players at the final whistle as a late comeback clinched the Championship; the following year 27,000 intrepid Liverpudlians journeyed famously over land and sea to the eternal city of Rome to provided the soundtrack, and stunningly visual backdrop, to Liverpool’s first European Cup triumph at the Stadio Olimpico; a generation later, over 40,000 devotees of Rafael Benitez, Steven Gerrard et al made the remarkable passage to Istanbul feel more like a pilgrimage than a trip to a football match.
An FA Cup quarter-final replay at Watford may seem like small beer in comparison, but in an age when the FA Cup retained all of its unique magic, when a trip to Wembley still inspired thoughts of a typically Scouse invasion of the capital and, with the trophy representing Dalglish’s best chance of silverware in his debut season as manager, the lure of this game was too much for many a Liverpool fan.
On the eve of the replay, skipper Alan Hansen summed up the importance of the match in the eyes of the players. “It will be a cracking game and one for big hearts.” Recalling Watford’s dour defense from the first match, he added, “They will have to open up a bit more than they did at Anfield.”
Ahead of the game Dalglish reiterated the importance of the squad system which saw him exchange players on a regular basis — either to combat the strengths of the opposition or call on those he felt were in the best mental and physical shape. Paying tribute to players who had experienced spells on the sidelines he stressed, “For any club to be successful, they must have strength in depth. It’s easy to remain happy when you are in the side. The test comes when you are out, and all of our players have made a contribution.”
Due to the fixture backlog the replay had been scheduled for a Monday night, but this didn’t stop thousands from sagging school or taking time off work to start their journey South. The significance of an awkward, potentially exciting replay had motivated large numbers of Liverpool fans to make arrangements to support their team, with many leaving the city in the early afternoon to be sure of their place at Vicarage Road for the 7.45pm kick-off.
Under FA rules that allowed the visitors one quarter of the available capacity, Liverpool had been allocated just over 5,000 tickets for the match but, from the number of cars crammed with five (or more) passengers heading south — many weighed down with crates of the cheap, popular “Ace” lager – it appeared even larger numbers had deemed this particular away match as one not to miss.
All afternoon service stations along the M6 and M1 were engulfed by Liverpool supporters; at familiar stop-offs like Keele, Hilton Park and Watford Gap, the general public looked on in disbelief as the hordes enjoyed the usual horseplay and shenanigans synonymous with 1980s road-trips following the Reds.
Shortly before kick-off, as the travelling thousands made their way over the peculiar, dimly-lit allotments that led to the Vicarage Road visitors section on the South Terrace, a build-up of people outside the ground saw Liverpool fans also admitted to the whole of the South West Terrace — and pockets of the East Stand. Hundreds of Reds fans with tickets were allowed inside without any check at the turnstiles, a relatively common occurrence at the time.
As kick-off drew closer, the Liverpool supporters under the cavernous roof of the South Terrace recognised the wider presence they had in the ground, and the decibel levels were raised even higher. It was clear that as many as 10,000 away supporters had managed to gain entry and the incredible noise they were creating contrasted starkly with the sedate, old-fashioned chants of ‘Watford, Watford’ from the home supporters. The Scouse contingent had swelled the crowd to a capacity 28,097. It was the Hornet’s biggest gate of the season — by a staggering 9,000.
When the teams were revealed it was confirmed that Dalglish and Steve McMahon would return to the starting XI in place of Sammy Lee and John Wark respectively. Dalglish would partner Rush with Craig Johnston dropping back into midfield.
Watford named the same side that had forced the goalless draw at Anfield in the first game, with John Barnes again expected to pose the greatest threat. It appeared that Graham Taylor would also employ the same cautious approach with Lee Sinnott again employed to thwart the surges of Mark Lawrenson from full-back.
As the teams appeared and ran to their respective ends of the ground, even the Liverpool players, resplendent in their all-white change strip, appeared taken aback at the raucous welcome offered by the ubiquitous travelling Kop.
The Watford pitch had improved slightly since Liverpool’s win in the league fixture two months previously but it remained heavily sanded through the middle and not conducive to passing football.
The opening half saw plenty of endeavour from both sides, with Liverpool taking the game to the home side and Watford again happy to rely on getting men behind the ball and attacking on the counter.
Graham Taylor’s style and tactical approach wasn’t pretty, but it was effective — relying on the pace of Barnes up front to give them an outlet for long balls played from defence. With Liverpool enjoying the bulk of possession, Watford’s principal hope was that a set piece would allow them to grab the lead, one which they would later defend to the final whistle.
It nearly paid off when, from one such award, the aggressive Colin West nodded down Kenny Jackett’s free-kick and Grobbelaar saved smartly from Sinnott’s snapshot.
In the 26th minute the home fans appealed for a penalty when Gary Gillespie muscled the troublesome West off the ball to win a header, but the pleas were flamboyantly waved away by charismatic referee Roger Milford.
Despite Liverpool’s more considered and cultured approach on the bumpy pitch, and the constant urging of their noisy fans, they created little in the first half. Again the Hornets held firm with Tony Coton, the hero of the game at Anfield, only called into action on a couple of occasions, the most notable being a straightforward save from a 25-yard Jan Molby shot.
Attacking their own supporters at the Vicarage Road end in the second half Watford remained calm and unhurried. It appeared that Taylor’s tactics were, for the time being at least, working. The moment Watford had been waiting for — and Liverpool supporters dreading — arrived just two minutes after the restart. Jim Beglin was forced to hold back pacy winger Worrell Sterling on the edge of the box and referee Milford had no option but to award a free-kick in dangerous territory.
With the dead-ball specialist Barnes shaping to take the kick, Grobbelaar hastily assembled five players into a defensive wall. It was to no avail however, as the Watford man’s vicious left-foot shot curled round the static Liverpool line and into the bottom right hand corner of the net.
It was a sweet moment for Barnes who, like many black players of the time, had been subjected to the racial abuse and chants which plagued English football grounds throughout the 1980s.
Just as in the last round at York, Liverpool faced a shock elimination from the Cup. Sensing their hopes for the season were hanging by a thread, they laid siege to the Watford goal in search of the equaliser that would keep them in the competition.
Content to soak up the pressure and hold out for full-time, Watford retreated further and further back inviting wave after wave of Liverpool attacks. Their defence however, was in obdurate mood and headed clearances, desperate tackles and long punts downfield denied the Reds a clear sight of goal time and again.
As the pressure mounted so too did the backing from the vast numbers of Liverpool fans on the South Terrace.
Sensing the desperate nature of the situation, supporters drew on every last breath to urge their side forward, but each time Liverpool created a shooting chance, the brilliant Coton was equal to their efforts. Against a backdrop of disbelieving groans from the Liverpool fans behind his goal, the keeper denied Rush brilliantly on at least three occasions.
As the clock ticked down it seemed that Liverpool’s Cup jinx would strike again. With just three minutes remaining however, the most dramatic moment of Liverpool’s season so far had Reds’ fans shaking with delight, fear and relief in equal measure.
Spotting another willing run by Rush, Steve McMahon played a ball into space just inside the right hand edge of the Watford penalty area. Sprinting diagonally in chase of the speculative pass Rush was heading away from goal but Coton, fearful of the threat the Welshman had posed throughout the game, came off his line and dived at the strikers feet. In the blink of an eye Rush got a touch on the ball to nick it past the keeper — and fell to the floor.
The throng of Liverpool supporters gathered in the same corner of the ground punctuated the momentary silence with a deafening plea. In this second, Liverpool’s season hung in the balance. Everyone looked towards Roger Milford for his reaction to Rush’s fall.
When the referee jogged nonchalantly towards the incident and, with an outstretched right arm signaled a penalty, Reds’ fans danced wildly on the terracing.
The explosion of excitement among the fans instantly turned to panic however, as they contemplated the outcome of the penalty kick which would decide not only their side’s cup fate, but potentially their entire season. Unable to deal with the tension, hundreds of fans turned their backs on the pitch whilst scores of others other placed their hands over their eyes.
What made matters worse for the fans was the scene that was unfolding on the pitch. With no-one willing to step forward to take the spot-kick, the Liverpool players were having an animated discussion over the identity of the penalty-taker. Eventually, carrying the ball under his arm, it was Jan Molby who emerged from the group and, as the entire ground fell silent, he placed the ball nervously on the spot.
Molby explained afterwards that following his miss in the League Cup semi-final, “it was decided that Ian Rush or John Wark would take any [future] penalties. When it came to it, I was not expecting to get the job. The only one who looked ready to step-up was Steve McMahon, but Kenny Dalglish told me to have a go.”
Belying his nerves, and uncertain how to outwit the seemingly invincible Coton, Molby took several steps back, looked goalwards, then skipped forward to take the kick. Apprehensive Liverpool fans needn’t have worried, and the Dane side-footed a perfect penalty into the bottom left hand corner, sending the goalkeeper the wrong way. The reaction in the Liverpool end? Pandemonium. Delirium.
As the goalscorer ran behind the goal to take the acclaim of the ecstatic fans he was engulfed by Liverpool players. Covered by almost a full team of white shirts, only his outstretched arms were visible, his shoulders seemingly holding up five, six or seven players.
Amid the emotion of their dramatic late equaliser, Liverpool had to quickly concentrate their minds on the prospect of extra-time but with their fans singing, “We’re on the march with Kenny’s army,” surely there could only be one winner.
The shattered Watford players listened to the consoling words of manager Taylor at full-time, but their abject body language and evident fatigue suggested that their chance of FA Cup glory had gone. Surely now Liverpool would press home the psychological advantage granted by their late, late equaliser, and score again to avoid the prospect of a second replay.
Although they were forced to wait until the second period of extra-time to claim their place in the semi-finals, the inevitable winning goal duly arrived. Once again, Liverpool were indebted to the brilliance of their goalscorer supreme, Ian Rush.
Accepting a pass from Dalglish on the edge of the penalty area in the 198th minute of this pulsating FA Cup tie, the Welshman transferred the ball expertly onto his left foot and, almost effortlessly, sent a low shot bobbling along the bumpy surface. The ball skipped over Coton’s dive and nestled in the same corner where Molby’s penalty had rested earlier.
Once again the Liverpool fans greeted the goal with ecstatic celebrations. For the first time in the tie the Reds were ahead. Rush sprinted to the supporters with his arms raised – a familiar pose they had grown accustomed to over the years but one they never tired of seeing. He was quickly mobbed by the chief architects of the victory; Molby, Dalglish and McMahon.
The resigned Watford supporters began to drift away and the ground resonated to a triumphant chorus of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the massed ranks of away fans behind the goal and dotted all over the stadium. There was to be no denying them. Liverpool spent the remaining 12 minutes exercising a familiar exhibition of keep-ball interspersed with passes back to Grobbelaar.
As the final whistle sounded to send Liverpool through to a semi-final encounter against Southampton – a fifth meeting of the sides that season – the players received the plaudits of the fans and vice versa. They applauded the part these supporters — who had followed them South in such numbers — had played in their success, especially when the tie had seemed lost with just minutes to go.
At no point had the supporters stopped willing their team on and for those who travelled under their own steam by car and minibus, dry throats were lubricated into the early hours as greedy Hertfordshire landlords earned an unexpected Monday night bonus.
After the match Molby, whose nerve and precision from the spot had saved Liverpool in consecutive rounds of the Cup, described the thoughts running through his mind as he stepped up to take the crucial penalty. “I kept thinking that the keeper had probably seen me on TV taking my last kick [v QPR] and so I took a long run to put some doubt in his mind. You could see he was confused because he went the wrong way.”
Debating the decision of the referee to give the penalty, Molby admitted with refreshing honesty, “We were all joking and telling Ian Rush what a good dive it was, but he said Coton definitely clipped his ankles. He was moving very fast and so many penalties are given in that situation.”
An elated Dalglish, who had dismissed worrying reports of his striker being unsettled, saluted Rush’s all-round performance. “The longer the game went on,” he said, “the better he was looking and the more chances he was getting.”
Preferring to comment on the overall balance of play instead of the severity of the situation at 0-1 with just four minutes left, the player-manager added, “I felt we were always in control. Coton was their best player.”
Looking forward to the semi-final, Dalglish dismissed his side’s three earlier wins over Southampton. “Those results won’t count for anything come April 5. We’re just happy to be in a position to play them in the semis.”
The evening had proved to be a huge bonding exercise between players and fans and instilled a belief, on both sides, that there was a spirit at the club which would see them all the way to Wembley.
While hopes of winning the FA Cup were very much alive, the Championship was another matter. Liverpool were still searching for their best form, and every game in league and cup called on their most attritional, determined qualities.
Their title hopes rested on the other challengers, Everton in particular, slipping up more than once in their remaining games, but no side was entering the final stages of the season with more confidence than Dalglish’s men. The euphoria of their triumph at Vicarage Road had seen to that.
This is an extract from On The March With Kenny’s Army, by Gary Shaw and Mike Nevin, which is available from Amazon or by contacting the authors on Twitter: