Thirty-five years ago, after Watford skipper Wilf Rostron was sent off against Luton Town, combative midfielder Les Taylor was suddenly thrust into the footballing limelight when boss Graham Taylor told him he would captain the side in the FA Cup Final against Everton, which the Hornets eventually lost 2-0.
Les remains the only man to skipper Watford in a major cup final at Wembley, but this honour will come to an end on Saturday when the Hertfordshire side take on Manchester City in the end of season showpiece.
We caught up with the man himself earlier this week to look back on that memorable May afternoon back in 1984 and to ask him if he thought the current Watford squad could go one better this weekend.
When Wilf Rostron was sent off, was it in the back of your mind that you would be leading the team out in the Cup Final?
No; not at all. Because Wilf was made captain after an injury to Pat Rice earlier that season and Steve Sims, who was one of Graham’s favourites, would have been next in line but he was also injured. It was a surprise when the gaffer told me a week before the final that I was going to be the captain.
So how did you feel when the boss told you?
I felt incredible because the first thing that goes through your head is that you’ve got a 50/50 chance of lifting the cup. In the week leading up to the final all sorts of scenarios were going through my head on what I was going to do as I was about fourth in line for the armband.
I knew Wilf would be on the bench so I thought about asking him to come up the steps with me but as he is like me, a proud Geordie, I knew he wouldn’t do that.
I had it up my sleeve too that (Chairman) Elton John would be in the Royal Box so I had it in my mind to ask him to lift the trophy with me if we’d won it.
Did Rostron give you any words of encouragement in the days leading up to the game?
Wilf was a very quiet man on the pitch, not a vociferous captain at all, but that Watford team was packed full of captains on the pitch so he knew he didn’t need to give me any advice at all.
Was the team confident they could beat an Everton side that was about to embark on a halcyon period in their history?
It’s interesting really because the season before we had done the double over them so I was confident we could beat them. That front four we had of Nigel Callaghan, John Barnes, Mo Johnston and George Reilly could win us games on their own and I was sure we were going to score in that game, but things unfortunately didn’t turn out that way.
Do you think the occasion got to some of the players?
For sure – It’s not until the actual day comes round that you realise how many people will be watching. Remember, at that time, apart from the World Cup Final, the FA Cup Final was the most watched football match on the planet. I think 80 per-cent of the players underperformed that day.
On the morning of the final, did you enjoy being in the spotlight or were you just keen to get the game underway?
I felt totally distracted if I’m honest and so did most of the team. We had Grandstand and World of Sport cameras in the hotel from breakfast time and for some reason they decided to get two comedians to go into both camps and do a sketch.
Freddie Starr visited the Everton squad, we had Michael Barrymore and I thought it was totally out of order, not what you need ahead of a massive game like that; looking back, it was embarrassing actually.
Everyone always talks about the players back then wanting to top up their earnings by doing loads of media stuff but I can honestly say our lads were not that interested in the money. If memory serves, I think we were on around £1500.00 a man bonus to win that final.
What did Elton John have to say to the players before the final?
Elton was very much a “hands on” Chairman who knew his football inside out. It wasn’t a gimmick either, he would spend hours talking with Graham Taylor about how to take the club forward and I remember when we arrived at Wembley for our pre-match walk on the pitch, Elton was there shaking everyone’s hand offering encouragement.
Are you still disappointed that match referee John Hunting allowed Andy Gray’s goal to stand, effectively ending the contest?
Not really, we always emphasised the fact that you should test the goalkeeper by crossing the ball into the box at the earliest opportunity and let the striker go in hard.
Our keeper Steve Sherwood was about six foot four and Andy Gray wasn’t even six foot so there was no excuse for Steve not getting to the ball first. Again it’s 50/50 and we came off second best and I think we realised that at 2-0 down there was no coming back.
Would you say the 1984 Cup Final is your proudest moment as a player?
Definitely; to be fair, I achieved everything I wanted to do in the game at Watford. We finished runners-up to Liverpool in our first season in the top-flight then we played in Europe the following year and of course in 1984 I captained a team in a cup final.
We were a little naïve on the day, but you must remember that it was our first major cup final and our team had an average age of 19. I was the second oldest player in the squad at 28!
So what advice would you give Javi Gracia’s team ahead of Saturday’s big day?
Make sure you don’t get distracted and remember that you are going there to do a job and you are going there to win; that’s the most important thing to remember – you are going there to win, despite being the underdogs.
Players like Troy Deeney are priceless in games like this and the spirit they showed in the semi-final against Wolves will stand them in good stead I’m sure.
Will you be attending Saturday’s game?
Unfortunately not, although I did get an invite from the club. But I will try to watch it on the TV and I’ll be rooting for the boys.