Is The Watford-Luton Town Rivalry Still Alive?

Every sports team has a rival, but in football derbies and rivalries take on a new form. The local clashes command a voice of their own and many tell a story. Not just a story of football matches, but rather a history of communities, the development of identity, and the human need for paradox. There will always be a light and a dark side, a right and a wrong, a good and a bad. Football articulates this better than most walks of life.

Let’s use the Merseyside derby to explore this further. Liverpool and Everton sit about a mile away from each other as the crow flies over Stanley Park; however this rivalry is about so much more than proximity. Everton were founded in 1878, 14 years before Liverpool Football Club, and played their home matches at Anfield from 1884 – owned by club Chairman, John Houlding. Houlding was a Conservative party member and was soon to become a city counsellor and Lord Mayor of Liverpool, having already made his money as a brewery owner. This was at odds with several Everton board members, who were members of the Liberal party and opposed Houlding’s politics. The friction came to a head in 1892 when the board believed Houlding was extorting the club due to high rent, costs concerning land around Anfield, and development plans. Subsequently, Everton moved to Goodison Park and played their first competitive match against Nottingham Forest in a 2-2 draw on September 3rd 1892. This left Houlding with an empty stadium and thus he formed his own side: Liverpool Football Club – he tried to call them “Everton F.C. and Athletic Grounds Ltd” but this was rejected for the Football Association. The first meeting between the two teams took place in 1894 with Everton winning 3-0 and has since seen 224 derbies in total, with Liverpool leading 88-66.

Further north of Merseyside you get the Old Firm derby between Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers. This again brings a new meaning to “rivalry” as support is divided by religion (Catholic – Celtic – and Protestant – Rangers), Northern Ireland politics (Loyalist – Rangers – and Republican – Celtic), national identity (British and Scottish – Rangers – or Irish – Celtic), and social ideology (Conservatism – Rangers – and Socialism – Celtic). Inevitably, this is not a derby for the light-hearted and it is common to see Celtic flags flying the Irish tricolour, whilst Rangers fly the Union Jack and Protestant Orange.

The final example I wish to use takes us to Milan, Italy. In 1899, the Milan Cricket and Football Club was formed. However a schism occurred due to a dispute over signing foreign players, as such Football Club Internazionale gained its name and was created in March 1908 under the premise that “we are brothers of the world”. AC Milan also possessed a largely working-class fan base, whilst Inter were seen as the club of the Milan Bourgeoisie. Although the class distinctions are mostly a thing of the past, the intense rivalry persists as both clubs call the 80,000 seater San Siro stadium home.

Now Watford FC and Luton Town may be 19 miles apart, but when your alternatives are Wycombe Wanderers and Arsenal it’s simple to see why. Having first met in 1885 as Watford came away 1-0 victors, the rivalry developed and intensified as the clubs grew in stature. Watford won the old Division Three in 1969 and came up against Luton Town in late April. Three players were sent off and the fans clashed often and violently. This hooliganism peaked in 2002 as the clubs met in a League Cup fixture; fighting took place in Watford town centre, the railway station, on the way to the ground, and Luton fans invaded the pitch several times. After a 15 minute delay to kick-off, Luton went on to win the match 2-1, but it will be remembered for the 29 prosecutions, of which five were from Watford. Fortunately for the police, this local derby has not taken place since 2006 due to Luton Town’s downturn in fortunes. And although most if not all Watford fans have enjoyed the demise, the reality is that most if not all would also like to see their local rivals rise from the ashes. This is because of what I mentioned in the first paragraph: paradox.

Local derbies are the fixtures towns and cities shut down for. They are the matches we crave as fans; the first fixtures we look for in June when they are released; the games where legends are born and fans are made. I am not advocating the violence that comes with the rivalry but we live for passion, and little else can evoke such joy and despair like football can. Watford and Luton Town fans have been deprived of such emotion that only a local derby can provide, and I for one am looking forward to the old foes meeting again.