The story of how the son of Watford’s chief executive Eddie Plumley ended up playing between the posts in the 1987 FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham was one the most intriguing of the entire Graham Taylor era. I had heard some strange rumours about it and the fact that Steve Sherwood was absolutely convinced he was fit enough to play only added to the intrigue. I’d put to John Ward the rumour that Graham Taylor knew he would be leaving in the summer and so didn’t want to reach the cup final and Ward dismissed it out of hand. It certainly seemed an odd conclusion to draw. Perhaps Taylor wanted to protect Sherwood from being criticised as he had been following the final in 1984. That seems more plausible but Sherwood had given the clear impression that although the criticism after Wembley hurt he was bursting to play in another high-profile cup tie.
I’ve spoken to some fans who were adamant 16-year-old David James, the youth team goalkeeper, should have played but that seemed to me to be a comment made with the benefit of a large dose of hindsight based on how James’s career turned out.
Gary Plumley was running an estate agency in Newport and I headed down to his office to meet him. I was a bit apprehensive beforehand because some of the players from that semi-final had not been terribly complimentary about him. I left feeling that Plumley had been put in a very difficult position and he did his best. We can’t know whether the result [4-1 to Tottenham] would have been different had Sherwood had his hand strapped and braced himself to push the pain barrier but it’s certain that playing an unknown goalkeeper did Watford no favours that day.
I was running my own business, a wine bar and restaurant in Newport. One day, Dad rang me from Vicarage Road. He said, ‘Graham’s just rung me.’ Tony Coton had broken his thumb already. They are up at Bisham Abbey [From speaking to all the other players and Graham Taylor, it’s clear he means Lilleshall here because that’s where Watford were training before the semi-final and when Steve Sherwood was injured he went to Stafford hospital].
Graham Taylor wants to know if you will sign on as cover. I said ‘yes’. Steve hadn’t broken his finger at that time.
So they contacted you before Steve Sherwood had broken his finger?
Yes. Wanted me to sign as cover because they didn’t have a back-up goalkeeper.
It was a bit of a shock but it’s never going to happen is it, that’s what I thought at the time. But we [Gary and his dad, Eddie, Watford’s chief executive] met under a bridge on a roundabout just off the M4 where I signed Football Combination forms which would mean I was eligible to play for Watford.
I still had to speak to Newport because although I had more or less retired I’d come back to Newport and had re-registered in that season. So that’s where my registration was [with Newport County]. I’d played once or twice in the reserves before playing in a league game for them. I had to get the club’s permission from Newport.
The press said you were a wine waiter but what was the situation?
I owned a wine bar. It was called Roman’s because the village where it was, Caerleon, had some Roman remains. It was the place to be in Newport. Chianti wicker bottles with candles in, with the wax all dripping down, very fashionable at the time. It was right down in the village and it was the place to go.
I’d been out to Hong Kong for a year and came back with some cash and someone said to me we’re thinking of opening a wine bar, do you want to get involved. I wasn’t a chef. The other partner was a chef. I was the front of house. I played football out in Hong Kong, had a season out there. I’d left Newport County in 82-83, I went to Cardiff as cover for Andy Dibble. Then I became their goalkeeper the following year when Dibble went to Luton.
What were you doing football-wise when you got the call from Watford?
I was playing for Ebbw Vale in the Welsh League and it was good fun. The pressure was off. I played for Newport against Chester that season and then that was it. I chucked the boots in the back of the cupboard. Then this phone call came out of the blue.
Your Dad was chief executive at Watford so did you know a fair bit about the club?
If I wasn’t playing of a weekend, I’d go and spend the weekend at my folks and go to the game. I knew the club. I knew the directors from being in the boardroom. It always has been a very friendly club. It’s been like family to me there.
So you signed these forms thinking you’d be cover and nothing would come of it.
That’s right. I drove up and met somewhere near Swindon way. It was as much as surprise to dad as me. Dad said they had to have someone for cover. All they had was a young 16-year-old. Well, I didn’t know it was David James and no one knew what a career he would go on to have. At that time I think they realised that if he had a bad game it would finish his career before it started. From what I understood, they had asked Pat Jennings and Pat said he wouldn’t come out of retirement for it, even as cover. All the keepers [in the league] were cup tied or registered to other clubs. The deadline had passed, so what do we do?
That was how I understood it. Perhaps they thought, ‘Well, whose career can they finish?’ [Laughs]
Once you’d signed the forms, what did you do?
On the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I went in to train with the Newport team. I was fairly fit anyway but I was just making sure I was sharp, just in case.
About 1pm one day I got to the wine bar and there was a message ‘can you ring your dad immediately’. I knew instinctively what it was about. I just had this feeling something had happened. Steve [Sherwood] had hurt his hand too – dislocated finger.
A week before the second phone call, we [Gary and his wife] had been discussing what we were going to do on the day, whether we’d go to Hertfordshire and go up to Birmingham on the coach with mum and dad, or whether we’d just drive up to Villa Park and meet them there. I said, jokingly, ‘Well, I don’t know about you but I’m playing.’ In hindsight, I couldn’t have prepared any better. Instead of worrying about it, I was a bit tongue in cheek about it.
Anyway, I rang dad back and I knew straight away what it was. There was a guy at the end of the bar, a regular, who was a Spurs supporter. The phone was in the bar. I came off the phone and I punched the air and he said, ‘What’s up?’ I told him I had to go and join the Watford team. He said, ‘If that’s the case, I want two tickets.’ I got him two tickets and left them on the door. When he got up there, they’d gone. Someone had obviously got there first and said, ‘Two tickets in the name of Gary Plumley,’ and taken them.
What happened then?
I went home. We were living with my in-laws at the time. They were having their house extended and we were building our house. So we were living in the bungalow at their house. When I got home, no one was in. My wife and mother-in-law were out. There’s no mobile phone. No one was around except the builders, and I wasn’t going to tell them.
So I left a note saying I’d gone to Bisham Abbey [sic, Lilleshall]. I rang from some services and Debbie said, ‘Stop messing about, where are you?’
I joined up with the lads. I trained the following day and I did various TV interviews.
I didn’t even have any boots. Tom Walley got me a pair of new boots. Before I went up, I dropped into a sports shop in Newport and got some gloves.
I didn’t sense any problem because I wasn’t in that frame of mind. I was positive. But at that time I wasn’t playing, I didn’t expect to be playing at all, I was training because they needed a goalkeeper. Tony was out, Steve had hurt his hand and couldn’t train so I was just training with them at that stage. I knew Sherwood was a doubt, but you can strap fingers together and be okay. I still didn’t think I was playing. I didn’t think about it, I just did it.
The two training sessions we had, everything went to plan as far as I was concerned. I didn’t feel a complete stranger. I knew people. I wasn’t aware of people whispering and nodding towards me. I didn’t get a sense of that at all. You may tell me differently.
Who did you know?
Steve Sims was a mate of mine. We were together at Leicester when I was an apprentice.
So when did you know you were playing?
So, I went up on the Wednesday, trained on the Thursday and Friday.
We went down on Friday, late afternoon, to our hotel at Aston Villa. There was a training pitch next to the hotel. We went to warm up in the morning – that’s the Saturday morning of the game. We were going through free kicks and corners against us. I had one eye on Steve because I could see him on the other side of the field going through his fitness test. I could see him chucking himself all over the place.
I thought up to that point that I was going to be in and Steve was not fit. But there he was chucking himself around. I was devastated because I was preparing myself to play. When I saw that, my head went down. I got back in the room and got in the bath. I was rooming on my own, because I was the last one in. The phone rang and it was Graham – ‘Can you come to the room when you’re ready.’ Off I trudged. He sat me down and he said, ‘I’ve been impressed with how you handled yourself these couple of days on and off the field. I can’t believe how positive you’ve been so I’ve decided to play you.’ Then he said ‘Keep it to yourself.’
I didn’t know what to say. The rest of the lads could see from Steve’s body language he wasn’t playing. I had been through all the emotions. Down, up, down again although the result was the real down point.
I didn’t know until after the game that Steve Sherwood was so adamant he was fit.
What was the day of the match like after that?
The biggest problem was I hadn’t played in the team before. They didn’t know my game. I can understand them wondering what I was going to do behind them.
On the coach to the stadium, I knew I was playing, and I think everyone knew I was playing but I didn’t say anything.
When we got off the coach, who did I see, but my friend from the wine bar. I said to him, ‘I’m playing.’ I then sorted out his tickets. I didn’t see them until I got back to the wine bar in the evening.
It was a strange thing but I can’t remember going out onto the pitch before the game. I probably did but I don’t remember.
What was the atmosphere like in the dressing room?
I had played for Cardiff against Watford. The Watford dressing room, Graham had a thing where the room used to sound like a room of caged tigers. You used to hear it and wonder what was going on in there. They’d be in there in their boots doing jogging on the spot, then they would sprint and ‘roar’ and in the opposition dressing room you’d think ‘what is going on in there?’
Before the game [the semi-final], it didn’t happen, which was strange. Whether they’d stopped it or not by then I don’t know, but it was a very quiet dressing room. I don’t remember the team talk. Everyone came and shook my hand and gave me a pat on the back and wished me luck before we went out. It didn’t seem a confident dressing room, which perhaps in the circumstances is not surprising.
The supporters were great. We warmed up at our supporters’ end. They were terrific to me but I wonder how many of them knew beforehand I’d be playing.
What about the game itself?
The game started and you’ve only got to have something go wrong… once I was on the pitch everything melts away and it was a game of football. I was focused, concentrated. I didn’t feel worried. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than the game. I felt confident. I had got myself back up after being up and down for a couple of days.
But you only have one thing go slightly wrong. The first one [goal] I was sure it was covered, but as it came across, I was trying to wrap myself round, only to knock it down to Paul Allen to toe poke it in. That was the last thing you needed.
But even then, I’d played enough games to dismiss the first one and get on with it.
The second goal was a deflection off John McClelland and the third one was a real hit and hope job and it went in. Okay, so you stand up, but I was caught halfway in between and the ball went in the corner. The fourth one, I don’t remember that one.
After the game, I was as sick as a pig. I was devastated. I was there to do a job, which was to get to the final.
What was the mood like afterwards?
I did as much as I could. I did the best I could. Alright, things didn’t go our way and I don’t think we’d have won if we were still playing now because things weren’t going right for us.
I was the last in the shower. I sat there and I just hung my head. Players all came past and said, ‘Never mind mate.’ Pat on the head and everything. I was asked to go in the press conference. I didn’t want to go. I can understand why they wanted me but I was devastated, not just for me, but for the rest of the team.
Had I stopped the first one, the lads in front would have gone ‘Okay, well let’s not worry about him, he’s going to be fine.’
What happened after the game?
I went home. The journey home to Newport was horrible. Someone had taken my car up to Villa Park for me so myself and Debbie drove back. I didn’t want to go back to Watford with the lads and stay with my parents, which I could have done. I went back to the wine bar, and I didn’t really want to go back there either.
Did you feel like it was fair to be asked to play in a game like that, out of the blue?
I’d never played in a game as important as that. Well, we [Newport] drew 2-2 in the quarter-final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup out in East Germany and lost 1-0 here so they were big games but this was bigger.
I felt I could do the job. If I didn’t I wouldn’t have done it. I’d have said no, but I was confident.
The first goal was going across me and then it bent back and I was stuck halfway. Then they perhaps thought instead of pushing up they protected me a bit more and we invited pressure. I think the first one was the important one.
Did you hear the suggestion that you only played because you were the chief executive’s son?
The connection was there – Eddie Plumley and Gary Plumley – but I was a goalkeeper. I’d played okay at Watford in the past. But if Graham felt I couldn’t do it he would have played Steve Sherwood.
There was an occasion years ago when dad was secretary at Coventry. Because I could, I went and trained there in the school holidays. Gordon Milne or Noel Cantwell I think was manager at that time. Apparently they wanted to sign me on schoolboy forms but I said I didn’t want to. I had the fear that people would say it was because I was the secretary’s son. But I didn’t get that at Watford.
I had two good days in training, I felt. I never dropped a ball. Had that connection not been there I obviously wouldn’t have been in the frame, I know that. But I don’t think Watford had too many choices.
So was that your last game of football?
My last professional game, yes. I played charity matches, but I didn’t play again. I was going in another direction. I was going into the business. My wife was into horses. So I shelved the football so we could be together at the weekend. She was into showjumping. For four years she was number one lady rider in the world. [Debbie Johnsey rode equestrian events for Great Britain at the 1976 Olympics].
Do you feel like you were the scapegoat?
I never felt I was the scapegoat. Graham told me Steve was fit, but he said he was playing me because he was impressed with me. That’s how I felt going into the game – that he was choosing to play me, not that I was the last resort.
John McClelland said he took the goal kicks for you…
John McClelland took a free kick for me. I had jumped up for a ball that had looped up into the air. Paul Allen collided with me after I’d caught the ball. Momentarily I was knocked out and John took the kick for me.
At half-time at the Holte End, I ran in from the Holte End to the tunnel, I got cramp in both my calves. I limped up the tunnel and had to have a rub on the calves at half-time.
How do you feel about it now? Obviously the team didn’t get the fairytale result…
Like I said, I was asked to play because the team needed me and I was happy to do it. I did my best but it didn’t work out. I remember my wife was heavily pregnant. The game was on about the 11th [April] and on the 30th my wife gave birth. My wife was in the stand, watching the game. She was heavily pregnant and I had visions of her giving birth in the executive box. That was my first child.
I look back and think, I gave my boots away. I’ve still got the shirt. I’d left it at Villa Park but the club sent it to me. I wasn’t there for photos and a shirt, believe you me.
Did you get paid for the game?
I did. It was expenses and enough to buy a fridge. We bought a fridge with the money. It’s still working and we still use it. It’s in the garage. We’ve got two of these fridges and one of them I call the Watford fridge.
Were you aware of the different versions of events there are surrounding this story?
I don’t know who knew what when. I can only say what happened to me, what people told me. I didn’t know the full situation, how many avenues they’d investigated. I didn’t know at the time Jennings had been asked. I didn’t know Steve was so certain he was fit. I didn’t know the young keeper was David James. No one knew that. You can look back with hindsight and say he went on to play for England, he might have been a good bet but no one could have known that at the time.
Is it a happy memory for you or a bad one?
It’s both. It’s strange. I genuinely wanted us to win, of course I did. I didn’t want to let in four goals and lose the game.
Graham wrote me a hand-written letter some weeks afterwards. I had some letters from Watford fans, Spurs fans. They were all nice letters. But Grahm wrote to say, ‘If you work out how many FA Cup semi-finals there have been, multiply that by the number of goalkeepers, then take out the goalkeepers who have played in more than one semi-final and it’s a very small band of people to have played in one and you are one of those. It’s a shame the result didn’t go well, but well done.’
That was nice of him. He didn’t have to do that. He could have just left it but that was Graham. He took the time to write.