When Watford played Barcelona – and the story of a shirt

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by Lionel Birnie

A year or so ago, I paid an uncomfortable amount of money for a match-worn Watford shirt that was being sold on eBay. It’s a beautiful thing. Manufactured by Umbro for use in warm conditions, it’s made from an airtex cotton material punctured with little holes. The badge and Umbro logo are embroidered onto the chest, the lettering spelling out the name of the sponsor Iveco is pressed into the fabric, and a felt number eight is stitched to the back.

I started to do a bit of detective work on the provenance of the shirt and, according to a very well-informed source, it was almost certainly worn by Maurice Johnston for the opening game of the 1984-85 season against Manchester United at Old Trafford. It was also, more likely than not, worn by Johnston during the pre-season trip to Majorca, where Watford played Barcelona for the first – and so far only – time.

As an aside, I had not realised that Watford had worn a version of this cotton airtex shirt in the 1984 FA Cup final but close examination of photographs taken at Wembley show the texture clearly.

* * *

Anyway, the story of how Watford came to play Barcelona in the now-demolished Luis Sitjar Stadium in Palma in August 1984 has always amused me.

Not long after the FA Cup final, which Watford lost to Everton, Graham Taylor told John Ward, his first team coach, that he was taking a break with his wife Rita and daughters and would not be contactable for a couple of weeks. Taylor left Ward in charge with the instructions, ‘If anything comes up, handle it.’

A few days later, former Watford player Gerry Armstrong, who had joined Real Mallorca a year earlier, rang the club with a proposal. How would the Hornets like to take part in a pre-season tournament in Majorca with Barcelona, Real Mallorca and Rapid Vienna?

Ward asked Bertie Mee what he thought. Mee replied to the effect, ‘The gaffer left you in charge. What do you reckon?’

Thinking that an all-expenses trip to Majorca to check out the hotel and training facilities, hear more about the tournament and catch up with Armstrong was not a bad offer, Ward made the trip to the Balearic island.

Armstrong showed Ward round Palma. The hotel was great, the training facilities first-class, there was a good amount of money on offer for taking part, and the chance to play Barcelona was not to be sniffed at either. Ward accepted the invitation.

By the time the trip came round, things had changed a bit. Rapid Vienna had pulled out and were replaced by Universidad, a side from Chile. Watford's schedule was to play two matches on consecutive evenings – Barcelona, then Real Mallorca. The hotel and training ground Ward had been shown had been allocated to Barcelona and Watford were on the other side of town, a little too close to the tourist traps and nightspots. There was nowhere convenient to train and no swimming pool. 'The games are kicking off at 10pm because it’s so hot even in the evening and it’s what they do over there,' Ward said when I interviewed him for Enjoy the Game. 'I’d not known that. Basically, I'd got it all wrong.'

To make matters worse, Taylor's nemesis Terry Venables had been appointed manager of Barcelona and the game against Watford was to be his first fixture in charge. The two managers had spent the best part of five years sniping at one another in the press. Venables criticised the Vicarage Road slope and Watford's long-ball game, Taylor hit back with barbs about Queens Park Rangers' plastic pitch and reliance on the offside trap. It added an extra bit of needle to the match although Taylor recalled, 'I had no problem with Terry, and I don't think he had a problem with me. Yes, I made comments about the plastic pitch and I didn't like their offside trap, but there was no nastiness involved. Where I think the rivalry got stoked up was by Terry's supporters in the press.'

With the First Division campaign kicking off against Manchester United a week later it was not the ideal way to fine-tune for the season. Temperatures were so high during the day that they couldn't do much in the way of physical conditioning work. The matches were played late in the evening and it was well past midnight by the time the players got back to the hotel. By the time they'd wound down from the match it was the middle of the night.

* * *

There were around 22,000 spectators in the stadium to watch Watford play Barcelona on Friday, August 17.

Barcelona were a big club but they weren't quite the globally-admired colossus they are today. They'd not won the Spanish title in a decade and were yet to win their first European Cup.

Terry Venables was a respected coach and had just guided QPR to fifth place in the First Division but it's hard to imagine Barca making such a recruitment today. Their star player was the German midfielder Bernd Schuster and their big summer signing had been Scottish striker Steve Archibald, from Tottenham. As it turned out, they went on to win the league championship during Venables' debut season.

Taylor used the game as an opportunity to experiment with a European-style formation, although his hand was partly forced because a couple of his key defenders were not 100 per cent fit. Wilf Rostron played as a sweeper behind a back three of David Bardsley, Lee Sinnott and Kenny Jackett. Les Taylor sat just in front of them as a deep-lying midfielder. Nigel Callaghan and John Barnes played wide with Maurice Johnston, George Reilly and Luther Blissett operating as a front three, Blissett taking up a position just behind the other two.

Things got off to the worst possible start. In the first minute, Sinnott slipped in the penalty area and handled the ball. Schuster scored from the penalty spot. Rojo scored a second for Barcelona, Johnston pulled one back before half-time and the second half was seen out at little more than walking pace at times, with the score ending 2-1 to the Catalan side.

'I just remember it being so hot and humid,' said Les Taylor. 'We were a week away from the start of our season but the Spanish League didn't start until September so they didn't want a high tempo game. It was too hot anyway, we were breaking out in a sweat just jogging. Even though it was ten o'clock at night, it was still very warm and it was difficult to play in those conditions. I remember trying to mark Schuster but he would drop really deep to get the ball and then pop up on the edge of our box without us realising how he'd got there. He was always a step ahead and you could see his quality.'

* * *

The next night, Watford faced Real Mallorca and again lost 2-1. Playing in front of their home crowd – around 30,000 – Mallorca were keen to win the game and played in a more competitive, and more cynical, spirit than Barcelona had done.

At some point one of the Mallorca players spat at George Reilly as they jostled for position at a corner. Reilly reacted by administering a forearm smash. The referee approached the Watford bench and told them to substitute Reilly or have him sent off.

'The centre half spat in my face, and it smelled of garlic, I swear,' said Reilly. 'I dropped him one and the linesman hadn’t seen it. The crowd were booing me. Graham substituted me and said, "If you ever do that again you’ll never play for this club again." I said, right, so if I spit in your face now, what are you going to do? He said “What?" I said, "Smell this. It’s garlic. He spat in my face." He didn’t fine me or drop me. He knew when the provocation was too much.'

* * *

While they'd been in Majorca, stories had appeared in the press about Maurice Johnston, who was agitating for a move to Celtic.

Gerry Armstrong recalls the story. 'Maurice said to me, "I've done a story for one of the papers, it’s coming out on Sunday." Graham hated his players talking to the press. So I said, "What sort of story is it? Is it a bad one?"

'Mo said, "Well, I’ve had a bit of a go at Graham."

'I said, "Oh you haven’t. Well, you’re in trouble now. He’ll come back at you. If you want to leave, you have to play it his way and he’ll make it happen for you but he has to look out for the club’s interests so you have to do it his way. If I was you, I’d try to stop the story."

'He said he'd tried to stop the story but the paper was still running it, so I said he should have a word with Graham before it came out.'

Watford flew home from Majorca on the Sunday. Whether Taylor saw the tabloid story or not, he did recall being handed an envelope containing Johnston's formal transfer request when they got on the coach to go to the airport.

Taylor said, 'Thanks Maurice. It's Sunday and I don't work on Sundays so I shall open it tomorrow.'

* * *

On the plane, Taylor and Ward sat next to each other. Ward was wincing because the trip had been a disaster for one reason and another. Back-to-back matches in hot conditions, little time to train and prepare for the Manchester United match, and with a rumble of discontent over the players' bonus structure for the coming season.

Ward braced himself. 'Graham had been fantastic, and never said a word to me,' he said. 'I felt terrible about it. The players haven’t really kicked off but they weren’t too happy about it. No one knows I’ve planned the trip but I’ve heard the odd grumble. I’m just keeping my head down because I know what’s coming.'

Taylor buckled his seat belt, leaned over and said, 'Well, Wardy, I don't think we'll be doing that again.'

'It was so simple,' said Ward, 'but it was the biggest put down I’ve ever had. He had hated the trip but he’d put up with it because he knew he’d let me get on with [planning] it. I’d got it wrong but he hadn’t given me a hard time about it. It was the mark of the man.'

* * *

'It was a difficult summer in many ways,' said Taylor, when I asked him about the months following the 1984 FA Cup final. 'We'd had this cup run and the game at Wembley and the result had not gone for us, and more than that, the performance had not been the sort of performance we expected of ourselves.

'I was more than interested to see which way it was going to go the following season. Would we suffer a hangover from the cup final? We had this situation with Maurice as well. He had scored such a lot of goals in a short space of time that it was going to be very difficult for us to keep hold of him. I loved managing him in many ways because he kept me on my toes, but I knew I could not prevent him from going to a club like Glasgow Celtic. He was a Scottish boy and they would be playing in European competition, which we couldn't offer him at that time because we hadn't qualified.

'In a lot of ways a move to Celtic suited us because it meant he wouldn't be playing against us for another First Division club, so I wasn't unhappy about the idea of him going there but we had to do the transfer in the correct way. I had to make sure the club's interests were looked after and that meant getting the best price we could for him. And I couldn't have a player saying this, that and the other in the newspapers. But Maurice was a mischievous lad, I couldn't keep him totally under control.'

What about the suggestion that Watford's players were agitating for better bonuses.

'I do remember that after the cup final the players felt they should have been rewarded and I do remember the negotiations going on longer than was perhaps ideal. I wanted players to concentrate on the football and I didn't like discussions about money getting in the way of that.'

As Nigel Callaghan recalled: 'All through pre-season Taylor wasn’t happy because someone had questioned him and there was too much talk about money. By the time we came to the first game of the season away at Man United, GT was saying, "This was the worst pre-season we’ve ever had. If you’re not absolutely on your game they’re going to murder you, and it’s on TV and we’re going to look stupid." He wasn’t happy at all. But we drew 1-1. I got the goal in the last minute. We murdered United for most of the match, we were the best side that day and a draw was the least we deserved. We were on Match of the Day that night.'

When I asked Taylor if he remembered telling the players it had been the worst pre-season ever, he laughed. 'Quite possibly. That sounds like the sort of thing I'd say every now and then, but sometimes it was just to get the players up on their toes, especially with a game like Manchester United away on the first day. We lost heavily at Tottenham on the first day one season [1985] and we just weren't right and we paid the price, so it can happen.'

* * *

And that brings us back to the shirt. Maurice Johnston's shirt, worn in that game at Old Trafford, probably, and against Barcelona, possibly. He was my favourite player back then, and his transfer to Celtic, when it came, stung, although Luther Blissett's return from Milan eased the sense of rejection.

The shirt is neatly folded, in a box with a few other gems collected over the years. How did the shirt find its way onto eBay? I don't know, and the seller wouldn't say when asked, although he did sell No. 10 and No. 14 from the same set at around the same time. But knowing the story behind it makes it feel like much more than just a piece of memorabilia. It's a piece of airtexed history.

With thanks to Neil Dunham.