As an Arsenal fan, I was strutting around in the spring of 1987, my chest puffed out as Georgie Graham's red and white army had just reached Wembley in the Littlewoods Cup. Many of the painful memories of the mid-80s were fading into the distance, as the new youthful Arsenal performed heroics against our North London rivals in three spine-tingling semi-final matches, and reached the FA Cup quarter finals with wins over Reading, Plymouth and Barnsley.
Pride can often come before a fall though. The FA Cup quarter final against Watford is still a match that winds me up to this day, a feeling of what-if swamped with an overriding impression that we were wronged on that fateful day.
Arsenal may well have reached the Littlewoods Cup final but in the meantime their league form had dipped alarmingly, just three points from 18 ending any realistic hopes of the title, as their odds went from 11/4 to 12/1 in the space of a couple of matches. This seemed to justify George Graham's repeated proclamations that his young team could not last the pace, although as he was apparently sitting on a £3 million war chest (not literally, I hope), these statements, along with his standard response of only spending when he felt he could add quality to his squad, sent the blood pressure of many Arsenal supporters through the roof.
One player many felt Graham should have pursued was Watford's John Barnes. The England winger was out of contract in the summer, and had made his intentions clear that he would be leaving the club, a decision which had the full backing of his manager Graham Taylor. Fiorentina were apparently interested, and it became increasingly likely that a move to the continent would be Barnes' preferred destination. When Harry Harris reported in the Daily Mirror that Barnes had spent £1400 on a satellite TV dish to watch Italian and German football at home, that was obviously the biggest confirmation we all needed that Barnes would soon be plying his trade abroad.
As the Arsenal match approached, a reported £1 million bid from Liverpool gave us a better idea of what lay ahead. Through it all, Barnes was adamant that he wanted to see the season out in a Watford shirt, determined that his last ever appearance for the club would be in a Wembley final. But first would come a trip to Highbury, and although the Hornets were undoubtedly a bogey team for Arsenal during the 80s, Watford were not fancied by many in the press to make it through to the last four.
Brian Stevens; now there is a name that will be lodged in the memory banks of many Arsenal supporters of a certain vintage. The appointment of Stevens as referee for the quarter final had caused controversy, Taylor contacting the FA in an attempt to get the official dropped for the fixture. Stevens had refereed Arsenal's 3-1 win at Highbury in October, a match that had seen Watford keeper Tony Coton sent-off, and had led to Taylor accusing a linesman of manhandling him, an accusation that Stevens had refused to include in his match report.
Watford's appeal fell on deaf ears, the FA understandably reluctant to switch officials on the request of a club, leaving Taylor philosophical: "I have no doubt Mr Stevens will handle the match fairly". After the match, Taylor defended his actions. "We did not request that the referee be taken off the game because we queried his ability, experience or his know-how," Watford's manager explained. "The FA had not been aware when they appointed him of what happened here last October. In the light of that we asked whether or not he was being placed in an intolerable, no-win situation."
Things started off well enough for Arsenal, a slapstick mix-up between Coton and John McClelland gifting Ian Allinson the opener. But the warning signs had already been evident, the pace and trickery of Barnes providing a chance that somehow Luther Blissett missed before Arsenal had scored. Throughout the match, Arsenal's full-backs were troubled by Barnes and David Bardsley, and it was the latter who jinked past Sansom to set up Blissett for the equaliser to leave the teams level at the break.
Martin Hayes and Sansom both put half chances over the bar in the second half, before Bardsley once again left Sansom flailing, his cross met by Barnes who rose in front of Lukic to give Watford the lead. Arsenal pressed and pressed, knocking at the Watford door and hoping to find an opening, but Coton stood firm, and as the match approached the final minute it looked as if the visitors had done enough to secure a semi-final place. And then all hell broke loose.
Steve Williams launched a free kick into the Watford box, inevitably aimed at Niall Quinn, but as defender Steve Sims attempted to win the ball, the linesman raised his flag across his chest for an Arsenal penalty. Stevens had other ideas though, waving play-on, as Arsenal then paid the ultimate price for not playing until the whistle. Blissett raced away, and after Lukic had saved his initial effort, he buried the rebound to send Watford's travelling supporters delirious.
Fury was very much the feeling enveloping the rest of the stadium. Arsenal's players surrounded Stevens, who after a brief chat with his linesman decided that the goal should stand. Steve Williams, who was never backwards in coming forwards, tore into Taylor, calling the Watford manager a cheat - "I've been called worse," Taylor later admitted - as Arsenal's players and fans lost the plot (Taylor was also pelted with coins for his troubles).
"When even Arsenal - and their supposedly better-bred supporters - do not know how to behave, what chance is there for the rest of the game?", The Times' David Miller complained after the match. "You could have been forgiven for thinking, at the end of a sixth round tie which Arsenal had deservedly lost, that this was Buenos Aires or provincial Italy, the fuss that was going on." The scenes were not ideal after Blissett's clincher, but you knew why they had taken place.
"Yes, he (the linesman) was flagging for a penalty to Arsenal," Stevens later relayed. "But I was five yards away from the incident and he was 40. I acknowledged his signal and allowed the game to go on. When the ball was no longer in play, I explained to him that I didn't believe an offence had been committed".
The Daily Express' Steve Curry backed up Arsenal complaints, noting that "the game was handled erratically" by Stevens, but Adams admitted that he was to blame for the third goal. "On Saturday I stopped when I saw a linesman flagging for what we all thought was a penalty," Adams said. "Not only that, I pointed out the flag to Steve Williams and that stopped him in his tracks, too. And while we were waiting for the referee to whistle, Luther Blissett was bearing down on our goal."
With all the fuss that had been made pre-match, it was inevitable that Arsenal and their supporters would have some suspicion about that last minute decision. The sense of injustice is still felt all these years later as I type this though, rightly or wrongly. It's probably time to let it go.