In the latest of our series on local rivalries, David Harrison attempts to convince the sceptics that Watford v Luton is as bitter and passionate as they come
Yeah, OK. It’s not exactly The Old Firm, but believe me, it all gets pretty agitated around these parts. It’s a rivalry with no name, which frustrates the hell out of the headline-besotted press. To such a degree that they tried dubbing it, pathetically, “The M1 Derby”. Just like Arsenal v Leeds then.
There is no geographical subtlety to either fan base. Both are fairly straightforward town clubs, drawing the bulk of their support from the immediate vicinity. The stretch in between broadly delivers allegiance on a Hertfordshire v Bedfordshire county basis.
Neither is it over-burdened with history. In times past, Watford’s traditional rivals were habitual Third Division (South) opponents, Northampton Town. Pre-war encounters with the Cobblers, I’m reliably informed, featured unrestrained scrapping on all sides of The Vic. Luton had also been regular opponents, but were promoted in 1937 and consequently disappeared off the local radar until they came back down in 1963.
My first experience of the whole Hornet-Hatter thing was as a very small boy, late that season. Watford were pushing for promotion from the Third Division, Luton were struggling to stay up, and we needed a result over there to stand a chance of promotion. We lost 2-1, making the first contribution to what would become a tediously repetitive series of results. But in a 20,000 crowd there were absolutely no problems.
No, today’s distinctly acid Watford and Luton rivalry really dates back to an evening in 1969. There was an unpleasant post-match incident in St Albans (at that time a tumbleweed-ridden border town, claimed by both factions) and it all kicked off from there. But the players had started it. No, really. The game earlier that evening had attracted an extraordinary Kenilworth Road crowd, in excess of 25,000. We were already up and Town were in the process of narrowly failing to join us in the ascent to the old Second Division.
Three players were sent off (and this at a time when one dismissal per season constituted a club disciplinary crisis) in a pulsating match so hugely atmospheric that, 30-odd years on, I can still vividly recall the sensations associated with being there. And being absolutely terrified in a teenage kind of way.
This new-found animosity bubbled under the surface through the Seventies, with the clubs again going their separate ways – Watford’s this time unremittingly downwards. The clubs did not meet at all between March 1972 and Boxing Day 1979, by which time both were back in the Second Division and the town was in a veritable frenzy of anticipation. Luton won 1-0. Never mind, there was still the Easter Saturday return at Kenilworth Road. Luton won that 1-0 too.
By the following season, the Graham Taylor revolution at Vicarage Road was well under way and we were ready and well equipped to meet the challenge posed by David Pleat’s hideously attired side. Luton won both games 1-0. In 1981-82, however, Watford finally crashed through football’s glass ceiling and burst into the top flight, proudly achieving second place in the Second Division. Behind Luton. You’ll be getting the picture by now.
But there is more to it than football. From my vantage point, Watford v Luton is “Enjoy the game” v plastic pitch; Elton John v David Evans; family enclosure v members only; blue-chip sponsors v Universal Salvage Auctions; Gianluca Vialli v Joe Kinnear. The Forces of Light…
Luton would not be the most picturesque town you’ve ever visited, just as Kenilworth Road serves as a reminder of how football grounds were prior to the Murdoch-funded gentrification of facilities. But I suspect that’s the gag, from a Town perspective. It is all a bit grubby but it’s home, warts and all. And they do love their club. They also believe their average Watford counterpart to be a total lightweight, suffering from severe delusions of grandeur.
Although Taylor and Pleat went out of their way to defuse the antagonistic Derby Day atmosphere, it was at best suppressed – never remotely extinguished. Those two apart, the clubs have hardly helped. Luton once came over to play a supposedly light-hearted, goal-laden testimonial match. To general astonishment they employed a stifling offside trap and went home seemingly delighted with a turgid 1-1 draw.
Much more recently, Watford lifer Nigel Gibbs appealed in the local press for fans to give a fair crack of the whip to ex-Hatter Kerry Dixon, mysteriously signed by the then Watford manager Glenn Roeder. Gibbs proceeded to somewhat qualify the sentiment by confirming that his feelings for Luton would render such a move a complete personal impossibility, but “fair play to Kerry” anyway.
Dixon’s dismal goalless spell at Vicarage Road could hardly be termed a success, but he fared markedly better than at least one of his predecessors who had worn the shirts of both clubs. Graham French was a hugely talented winger who moved from Watford to Luton and subsequently spent time behind bars following “an incident with a shotgun”.
A shotgun would have come in handy following referee Roger Milford’s appalling decision to send off Watford skipper Wilf Rostron in the 1984 encounter. Rostron, as a result, missed what would have been the undoubted high-point of his career – captaining his side in the FA Cup final. Needless to say, that game did not damp down the antagonism between the fans.
It’s a rivalry that gets deep under the skin, provoking irrational behaviour from the normally balanced. A friend travelled 200 miles back from college for a Watford v Luton Cup replay, emphatically against parental instructions. Unable to find anywhere to spend the night, he effectively broke in to the family home and slept under (yes, that’s under) his own bed, to avoid detection.
Without a thought for the consequences, another fan confidently informed his own infant daughter that no tree, or indeed greenery of any sort, could survive in Bedfordshire. The poor child was at secondary school before rounding on him, pointing out that Dunstable, or somewhere equally ghastly, appeared every bit as verdant as “our” side of the county boundary.
And so it simmered. Until now. Watford’s embarrassingly easy 4-0 win in the last meeting at Kenilworth Road was another nail in the competitive coffin and with Rushden’s promotion, Luton have found themselves opponents far better suited to the role of deadly rival. They’re just up the A6, they’re in the same division and although Diamonds are clearly the more impressive outfit, they side can provide Town with an altogether more realistic windmill at which to tilt.
Which, of course, leaves Watford free to concentrate on opponents representing something closer to the aims and aspirations of their own managerial team. Someone like... ooh, Juventus perhaps?
From WSC 181 March 2002. What was happening this month