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Motorway madness

The derby between Luton and Watford has not been of national significance for a long time, but that hasn’t diminished its intensity. Neil Rose reports on a fixture so highly charged that the clubs will happily give up TV money in a bid for some peace

The very idea of the “M1 derby” may seem risible to outsiders, but for Luton Town and Watford, their clashes are anything but a laughing matter. So much so, in fact, that Luton have turned down a much needed £60,000 on offer from Sky to televise the first league meeting of the pair in eight seasons.

While it may not have the profile of Rangers v Celtic, Luton v Watford has the nastiness. I have never experienced uglier atmospheres than at these games, so when the fixtures came out in the summer it was no surprise to see the January 2 clash quickly moved to a midday kick-off. When Sky came calling, they wanted to move it back to 5.15pm and the police somewhat surprisingly agreed.

Part of their reasoning was apparently that attendances tend to fall when games are televised, but with Kenilworth Road only holding 10,000 and Luton enjoying a renaissance, a sell-out is certain, TV or no TV. Still, the change was announced on the official websites.

Within two days, Luton had backtracked. A statement said: “Bedfordshire Police are always willing to police any match here at Kenilworth Road and that policy is unchanged. However, both clubs have discussed the impact of the later kick-off and its implications of possible problems away from Kenilworth Road. Therefore it has been mutually agreed that we will revert back to the original kick-off time of 12 noon.”

There is, unfortunately, good reason to expect trouble. The last time the two met – in a Worthington Cup match at Vicarage Road in 2002 – there was fighting at a pub before the match and battles on the pitch that delayed kick-off by 15 minutes and saw a minute’s silence to mark the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks abandoned. It was not helped by a slow police response – all the officers were outside the ground and it took some minutes to quell the violence inside. And as ever though, these things need to be put into perspective: there was a huge following of 4,500 Luton fans at the game and only 50 or so made their way onto the pitch.

More than a year later, 20 men – mostly Luton supporters – were convicted as a result of the two incidents, sent to jail for periods of up to 15 months and given lengthy football banning orders. The Football Association investigated, too, but ultimately decided that the court action sent out a sufficiently strong message without any further sanctions against the clubs.

The two clubs’ roller-coaster fortunes in recent times mean they have only been in the same league for six of the past 18 seasons, but absence, if anything, has made the heart grow more vicious. In the last League fixture at Kenilworth Road in 1997, an upwardly mobile Watford under Graham Taylor embarrassed a weak home team, going 4‑0 up in no time, and taunts over that result in small part sparked the riot.

There is no doubt that the rivalry has got out of control and if anything Luton fans tend to be the aggressors. But there are also those in Bedfordshire who remember support from Watford when Luton faced going out of business in 1999 – Taylor himself made a small but symbolic contribution to the fans’ fighting funds.

That 2002 game at Vicarage Road, when it eventually started, saw Luton upset a team then a division above them. The first Hatters goal in a 2-1 win was a sensational 40-yard strike by midfielder Matthew Spring, who this season arrived – via an unhappy year at Leeds – at none other than Watford.

Others have travelled those five junctions down the M1, such as Alec Chamberlain and Kerry Dixon, but Spring’s move cuts Luton fans far deeper. He came through the ranks at Kenilworth Road and seemed destined for great things before his career plateaued. The nightmare scenario for January 2 – and not just in the footballing sense for Luton fans – is of Spring returning to score a last-minute Hornets winner.

From WSC 225 November 2005. What was happening this month

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