It’s 28 April 1984. As Watford take on local rivals Luton in a Division One match at Kenilworth Road, an incident takes place in the 40th minute that will have serious implications for the visitors and their skipper. From a footballing perspective, the world of Wilf Rostron was about to collapse around him.
Rostron had been on the end of a tackle from Luton’s Paul Elliott, and the ensuing tangle of legs and an alleged kick from Elliott triggered a confrontation that Watford captain needed to avoid. Already walking a disciplinary tightrope, Rostron was about to topple over the edge.
Retaliation was not the smartest move by Rostron; yet, despite a lot of pushing and shoving taking place, most observers expected referee Roger Milford to give both men a talking to. When the official ordered the duo from the field, the implications for Rostron were huge.
For the third year in a row, a captain would miss the FA Cup final. “There was nothing malicious in what happened,” explained Elliott. “It was just a bit of a tangle. I will be very sorry indeed if it means that Rostron can’t play in the Cup final.” For Graham Taylor, the decision was too much to take.
Normally a calm and reasoned figure, Watford’s manager lost the plot at half-time and after the match. “I understand Taylor had to be restrained in the tunnel at half-time,” Jack Steggles wrote in the Mirror. “’He went potty. I’ve never seen him so mad,’ one Luton player told me.”
Understandably, it was a story that refused to go away during the lead-up to FA Cup final. All and sundry had an opinion on the matter; Milford, Taylor, players, ex-players, FA officials, journalists, and letter writers. Most agreed that the disciplinary system needed looking at – but this discussion was far from new.
In 1982, QPR skipper Glenn Roeder missed the FA Cup final replay due to a suspension; a year later, Brighton captain Steve Foster missed the original final, with Manchester United’s Remi Moses banned for both matches. Foster took his decision to court, and although he lost his appeal, many argued that the process had to be changed.
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Fast-forward a year, and the FA found themselves having to justify another absentee from their Wembley showpiece. “Although it’s very sad, rules are rules and he is out of the final,” FA Secretary Ted Croker stated. “We have tried to come up with a solution. But after long talks with the Football League and PFA, we have had to accept that the present system is the best one.”
Croker did admit that there would be another investigation into the procedure. “This is the third successive season that a player has missed the final because of an FA suspension. Twice is coincidence. Now the time has come to do something about it.”
The two main proposals discussed involved holding bans over to the next season, and possibly counting bookings in the FA Cup separately to those gained in the league, mimicking the European club competition setup. But sadly, these ideas would be too little too late for Rostron. Amongst the footballing community, the sympathy was in big supply.
Even Milford offered words of compassion, before excusing his actions. “I’m sorry for Wilf Rostron but I had no choice. If a player punches or kicks an opponent, he knows what must happen. Everyone will feel sad that Rostron is missing a once in a lifetime game, but the lad knew what he was doing and saying.”
Time did not dilute Taylor’s view on the incident. “Milford chose to explain his decision and it was so sanctimonious. Milford, I believe, is one of our best young referees, but his explanation was, in my opinion, typical of a referee who had made a mistake. He was talking drivel.” Taylor also felt that Rostron was only dismissed due to the fact that Elliott had already been booked, and Milford didn’t want to send off just a home player in a derby.
“It breaks my heart to think that I will be walking out at Wembley without him at my shoulder,” Taylor added. “He has been on 18 points since January, but we have not tried to cheat the system by pulling him out of games. It all seems so unbelievably harsh. It has spoilt the build-up for me.”
There were rumours that Watford would attempt to move their fixture against Nottingham Forest, scheduled for 7 May, to a different date so that Rostron could complete his suspension before the final. But the Football League immediately quashed that hope. With no appeal procedure in place, Watford’s 28-year-old skipper would spend Saturday, May 19 as a spectator.
Criticism continued to flood newspaper columns. “They said after my case that the situation would never be allowed to happen again,” Foster said. “But it has, and my in opinion, it is only because the Football League and FA cannot get on together.” Jimmy Greaves labelled it “yet another diabolical injustice perpetrated by Lancaster Gate.”
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Some played devil’s advocate, though. The Observer’s Peter Corrigan suggested that Rostron and Taylor had both acted inappropriately. “Watford could be just as instrumental in setting an example of a more appealing nature. They have certainly not done so in this instance and all Watford fans are entitled to be a bit miffed.”
The Express published a couple of letters on the subject, both supporting the Rostron ban. Alice McColl, West Sussex: “Rostron should have enough self-control to be an example to his team. If he can’t behave properly, then why is he captain anyway?” Luton fan Walter Nunn may not have been totally impartial when he stated that “Elliott did not kick Rostron, but Rostron did hit Elliott.”
Midfielder Les Taylor was handed the captaincy, but Rostron would be missed for more than his leadership skills. Without his experience, Watford’s back four was painfully young – David Bardsley (19), Steve Terry (21), Lee Sinnott (18), Neil Price (20) – and Price had a torrid time against Trevor Steven. Everton may well have won the final regardless, but Rostron’s absence hardly helped the Watford cause.
The 2-0 defeat was difficult to take, especially considering the nature of Everton’s second goal. But for Rostron, the disappointment had started before a ball had been kicked. Deprived of an FA Cup final appearance, it would have been no surprise had Watford’s skipper joined chairman Elton John in shedding a tear or two on that May afternoon.
“When the ref blew, I thought the worst I could get was a booking because it wasn’t even a foul, really,” Rostron recalls in a 2018 Watford Observer article. “I had a word with the ref about the way he had been letting Elliott carry on and conducting himself because it must have been his fifth foul, and I said, ‘How many more is he going to commit and you let him off?’ I don’t know if my remark wound him up, but he brought out the red card and sent us both off. I couldn’t believe it.”
If things had turned out differently, Rostron might not have been captain at the time of his suspension; Pat Rice (dropped), Jan Lohman and Steve Sims (injured) were previously skippers during Watford’s second season in the top flight. But what was certain was the despair many shared for the left back after his dismissal at Luton.
No second chance, no right of appeal. Rostron was left high and dry. Some aspects of modern football might be frustrating, but I’m sure José Holebas would agree that this feature of the sport in the distant past is something that we are all glad to see the back of.
By Steve Pye @1980sSportsBlog