Watford vs Luton: Hatred sustains football’s appeal
Watford v Luton
You can pontificate all you like about the beauty of football, but there’s no denying that hatred is a vital ingredient in sustaining its appeal.
My hatred of Luton is based on old fashioned small town rivalry. It’s a rivalry between the main clubs of neighbouring counties Hertfordshire (Watford) and Bedfordshire (Luton). I couldn’t tell you what either county is famous for. As far as I can tell, the main selling point of Hertfordshire is that it is next to London. Luton, on the other hand, has an old Vauxhall plant, and crime, so you could perhaps liken it to Detroit, but without the musical legacy.
I went to school in Tring, which is near-ish to both towns and so had fans of both clubs. We would argue about anything that suggested one town was better than the other. I’d find myself defending Elton John’s music, even though I never listened to it, and I’d counter by critiquing Luton’s Arndale Centre. Only the most deprived would be forced to endure this house of horrors, massively inferior to Watford’s newer Harlequin Centre in every way. Seriously, deriding each other’s shopping centres can become quite heated when there’s genuine hate involved.
If the rivalry between two insignificant towns seems like a bit of joke, that’s because it is. The match itself has been dubbed the M1 derby. How pathetic is that? As a teenager I poured my heart into hating Luton, I thought it was important, but to the press, the most tangible thing to define this game ended up being a road that runs all the way from London to Leeds. However, don’t be fooled into thinking this is some light-hearted rivalry perpetrated by Home Counties’ commuters. The violence in Watford town centre and inside Vicarage before a 2002 clash was evidence that the atmosphere can easily become toxic between these two. I’m not going to talk about the violence though, mainly because I’ve never been involved in any, and because I’m not Danny Dyer.
I was shielded from the hate during my first few years as a Watford fan. Luton were still in the old first division, Watford in the second. But in 1992 Luton were relegated, and the atmosphere changed. I began to learn evocative songs about a hybrid animal featuring the wings of a sparrow and arse of a crow, dumping its load over Luton. Wings of an eagle and arse of an ostrich would have been more impressive, but the sentiment was clear.
I was ready to embrace my hate. The first few games I remember weren’t that intense, but Watford kept losing, including one farcical encounter on a Kenilworth Road mud plain. The TV camera focused on Trevor Putney, who had fallen over, and when he stood up it looked like someone had sprayed excrement in his face, which was appropriate because that’s how I was beginning to feel after another defeat. It was humiliating. Damn you, Scott Oakes, damn you. To make matters worse, I had to sit next to Paul Lewis, a smug Luton fan, in maths.
When the 1994/95 match at Vicarage Road came around I was a bundle of tension, the hatred was flowing through me. This game had the best atmosphere so far, a real cauldron of noise. When misfiring striker Jamie Moralee finally opened his account, nut-megging the Luton keeper in front of the Watford fans to give us a 1-0 lead, the Vicarage Road End erupted. Fans burst onto the pitch to mob Moralee. This is it, in your face, Lewis, you smug bastard. We lost 4-2; I hated Luton so very, very much.
And so it went on, although often ending in a draw, Watford were unable to beat Luton. The breakthrough finally occurred in the 1997/98 season, when Watford, on route to the division two (third tier) championship, thumped Luton 4-0 at Kenilworth Road. All the goals came in the first 30 minutes. That was worth waiting for, or would have been if I’d actually been there. Instead I have to make do with a brief YouTube clip that does nothing to convey what must have been a feeling of unhinged ecstasy in the Watford end. I started watching Watford in 1990 and in almost every season we’ve finished above Luton in the league, but only beaten them twice, and I missed both of them.
And now, look what Luton have done, they’ve disappeared out of the football league just to avoid playing us. The demise of Luton brought the perils of modern football into sharp relief; a real ‘there but for the grace of god, go I’ scenario. Compare the punishment handed out to Luton for financial mismanagement (they started the 08/09 season on minus 30 points) and the penalty incurred by West Ham for fielding an ineligible player who ultimately secured their Premier League status. It’s not right, and as a consequence of their fall I really don’t know when I’ll be seeing Luton again. I used to think that as long as you’re doing better than your rival, you can’t be doing that badly. But, even though Luton are my team’s worst enemy, I can’t derive much satisfaction in seeing them almost go under. I need to see Watford destroy them on the pitch, and for that I must wait.
There are other local teams, perhaps we could switch rivals? Barnet, Stevenage, or Arsenal even? No, it’s good to pick on someone your own size. And besides, I hate Luton.