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Watford 4 Luton Town 0 (23/10/2022) 24/10/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
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1- “Just the football today Matt.  None of your political bollocks”.

OK, Nige.

It’s been hammering it down all night.  We aquaplaned once on the way down – before we passed Luton else the overwhelming portent, strong as it already was, might have seen us turn around again.  For all the “only way is up” stuff after Wednesday, for all that our form is erratic in a way that ought to always give us a straw to cling to after a soul-sapping defeat we approached this fearing the worst, in more than one respect.

I remember this being described somewhere, many years ago, as “the sort of derby that the locals get very agitated by but nobody else gives much of a toss about”.  Harsh but fair.  Thing is…  it’s been sixteen and a half years since supporters were able to watch this fixture in the ground, and the previous a further eight years before that.  Many of the people in Vicarage Road today won’t have seen a derby game in person before;  fewer still were here the last time we won this one in front of fans with John Barnes and Worrell Sterling doing the damage in April 1987 (I kept a diary in 1987, the entry features the word “murdered”).

Which is several ways of saying that it’s been a long time, even if I am old enough to remember.  And maybe there’s a degree of having forgotten how to do it.  Does it even matter quite so much any more?  I’ve always felt that derbies in general and this in particular have an importance that’s inversely correlated to the current prospects of the perpetrators – far more vital in the years when both teams were on their uppers.  But now?  We’re supposed to hate Luton of course and vice versa but… in the absence of any meetings at all I’ve been far more exercised by competitive rivals like Bournemouth and Palace.  How is this going to work?

The potential for trouble is uncertain and unknowable for similar reasons.  Nobody who was here in September 2002 will have taken anything for granted but the provisions and club instructions seem, understandably, to have straddled the twin concerns of not wanting to leave anything to chance – there is, as promised, a police presence much heavier than usual – and not wanting to provoke a situation by stepping back thirty years to the kind of feel that probably contributed to only 14,000 being at that game in 1987.  Treat people like idiots and they’ll behave like idiots, and so on.  Those responsible will probably argue with some justification that they got the balance right but I’ve used Daughter 2’s presence as an excuse to err on the side of caution – colours hidden until inside and so on – despite the fact that she could probably flatten a visiting troglodyte with a withering glance at 30 paces.

2- As far as “how do we do this again?” is concerned, Luton appear to have gone out of their way to help matters by wearing a kit with orange sleeves (only a Thing for three seasons in the early eighties, it transpires, but at a critical formative stage in my development such that it provokes unexpected and involuntary revulsion).  They could have gone further by fielding Kirk Stephens or Steve Foster in the back four (now both in their sixties but, one is tempted to suggest, no worse than the present incumbents on this evidence, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).  It’s not orange, it turns out, but a sort of red and blue combo but then I am getting on (see above).

Cathcart, Kayembe, JP for Pollock, Louza (sigh) and Asprilla.  Fine.  Good.  Best available.  Nonetheless, we spend a long time drinking Side Pocket in the Upper GT with Dad, braving the inevitable at the last minute to the extent that Felix suggests he thought we’d been arrested.

The script is abandoned from the off.  “League form goes out the window on derby day”, I seem to remember (which I think used to mean that the two sides would bludgeon out a nervous, ugly, charmless 1-1 draw irrespective of circumstances).

But surely the script here was for Luton to be On It.  To have nervous prey in their sights, pampered Premier League wannabes who demonstrably don’t like it up ’em and to come at us like wild dogs accordingly.  That’s what I’d expected.  That’s what I’d feared.  Instead the visitors seem… woozy.  Anaesthetised.  Certainly Keinan Davis being able to receive the ball, control and turn unchallenged well inside Luton’s half in the first minute was not on my bingo card…  no more is the amount of space being afforded us in wide areas.  An attack is recycled to Sarr who, whisper it, perhaps has another chance to really flourish now that he’s once again, as on his best days with Troy and Geri, Not The Only Threat.  Luton are already standing off him;  he angles a pass out to Hassane Kamara on his first gallop.  The full back could build a housing estate on the amount of space afforded to him;  instead he flings a cross near post to which is met acrobatically and creatively by Keinan Davis in a sort of scorpion kick.  1-0 after 2 minutes, and Vicarage Road loses it’s shit.

Luton come back at us.  A shot is blocked, Alan Campbell rolls the follow-up narrowly wide of Daniel Bachmann’s right hand post from the edge of the box.  He wasn’t getting to it if it was a foot closer to him, and perhaps we’d have ended up with the traditional 1-1 after all if that had gone in.  Craig Cathcart, a pillar of magnificence all early-afternoon, comes marching out of the penalty box at this escape to berate João Pedro for dereliction of midfield duty.  The Brazilian has had a wobbly start on his return to the eleven, but within two minutes he turns on a sixpence to leave Alfie Doughty blinking stupidly and facing entirely the wrong direction. JP disappears up the right wing and Luton’s prospects disappear with him – they’ve already had their best moment of the game.

As Bilić’s post-match comments reflect, this is a master class in a fine old chestnut.  We earn the right to play.  We earn the right by working our nuts off all over the pitch… gone is the lack of energy of Wednesday night, here’s Hamza Chaudhury, who doesn’t miss a beat for 75 minutes, hammering into a challenge, here’s Edo Kayembe chasing down possession well inside the visitors’ half.  Here’s Dan Gosling being exactly the kind of canny bastard you need in a derby game. We earn the right to play, and then we play them off the park.

JP’s trick-and-spin-and-go thing is the game’s trademark.  Keinan Davis’ is a monstrous, terrifying all-round performance that will yield two assists on top of his goal – he’s the next to do a twisty spinny thing, before barrelling towards the goal leaving markers in his wake.  They might as well be trying to tackle a tank.  He slams a contemptuous shot towards the bottom corner which Horvath does well to push away.

We’re confident and assertive all over the pitch, and the fact that we’re not capitalising feels like mere detail – even when Adebayo beats the flapping Bachmann to a deep cross before heading over.  There’s an inevitability here, a lack of jeopardy.  Shortly before the break we get the second… it has some fortune about it but we’ve earned that.  João Pedro’s deep, looping cross from the left looks like a f***-up but it isn’t because JP did it.  Davis and Sarr are both hammering in on the far post waiting for it to drop – Davis it is who gets part of his head to it, somehow deflecting it back across the box onto Troost-Ekong’s toe and thence into the net.  The Watford supporting centre-back didn’t enjoy that at all.  We end the half with our foot noisily on the visitors’ throat, pushing hard for a third.

3- There are two obvious points of comparison.

The first is a game that ended with the same scoreline 25 years ago this month.  It was a hugely significant result in many ways;  most obviously at the time the fact that it ended a ten year stretch without a derby win in a period densely populated with such encounters – the same 2-0 win mentioned previously having been the last.

But more than that, it was symbolic of a parting of the ways.  This was evident at the time – I’d arranged a trip back from working abroad so as not to miss it – the more so with the benefit of hindsight.  Luton and Watford had been competitive rivals since the start of the eighties when I began watching – normally in the same division, promoted to the top flight together in 1982, relegated three years apart and then relegated again, together, in 1996.  We weren’t to know how long-term the separation would be at the time, but it was already clear that with GT at the helm, with Division Two being flattened and an injury-hit Luton struggling near the foot of the table – though relegation would take another year – the clubs were on different paths.

There was a concern that a big win for the visitors here of the sort that we’d been dreading since Wednesday at least, would represent the end of this break – a symbolic return to the clubs competing as equals.  This may yet prove to be the case – but as it is the game’s outcome has our opponents clinging to the fact that they remain above us in the League.  For the first time in twenty-five years.  How were they for you?

The other obvious comparator is Wednesday evening.  On that occasion the boot was on the other foot…  we had the bad start and then fell apart.  We looked flat, without energy, without inspiration.  Also without our little magician in midfield.  Who could have guessed that three days on we’d see Kayembe and Choudhury rampaging to such a victory.

In that second half we dominated possession but were… over-deliberate.  Tentative.  Forced.  Luton’s start to the second half here was similar…  an improvement, a bit of pressure and possession but always with an air of reluctant obligation.  Half-time substitute Gabriel Osho sent a diving header wide from a corner before looking up as if to ask “there you go, I tried.  Can I go home yet?”.

4- In a report describing (spoiler alert!) a magnificent thumping of our local rivals based on comprehensively both outfighting and outplaying them, it’s a shame to have to reflect on being let down by elements – some might say a minority, but it’s a significant minority – of our support.

Those responsible were housed in the Rookery, the home of the 1881 and so often the source of positive stuff.  But today, there was simply no excuse for the easy ride given to Ethan Horvath after our third twelve minutes in.  Others might claim mitigation in the shape of, you know, other things to sing about and celebrate.  Perhaps I’m a sadistic bastard for cherishing the evisceration of Danny Coyne with the “dodgy keeper” chant all those years ago.  Whatever.  Must do better.

The third goal was formed of the efforts of our two star performers amongst a sea of star performers.  Davis we’ve already talked about – here he contributed an assist without touching the ball, bounding after possession (at 2-0 up mind you) until he found a loose thread, Horvath nervily getting rid and finding only João Pedro.  The Brazilian was utterly mesmerising at the apex of the midfield, this is what our glittering forward line was supposed to look like.  Swaying past challenges that were too far away, holding off challenges that were too close.  Others have complained at Luton’s niggliness, but I’d have found it hard to resist kicking people after being repeatedly made to look like a tosser.  No mistakes from JP here, he took a touch and precisely as much time as he could afford before hammering the ball between the miserable Horvath and his near post.

The game was over.  Except it wasn’t, obviously, since quite how many it was going to be remained an open question.  The visitors had perfunctory shots from distance, but we always felt the more likely… Kayembe did his traditional “nearly scoring” thing, forcing a save from Horvath who had, in fairness, been largely blameless before the third goal and recovered well afterwards.  He denied Davis a second by intercepting a wicked left wing cross destined for the big striker’s forehead at the far post and pushing it over.

Shortly afterwards Davis was off after twisting painfully near the technical areas and falling like an oak tree.  It looked like a bad injury, but he jogged down the tunnel after treatment and was later seen moving easily enough around the dugout.  Vakoun Bayo was his replacement, and Daughter 2 demonstrated her accelerated development with the dogmatic prejudice of a veteran, insisting that the striker was “still rubbish” based on his poor showing at St Andrews despite since redeeming himself several times over.  Unabashed by her scepticism Bayo tees Isma up for the fourth, the Senegalese leaving three opponents on their backsides with a series of shimmies before clipping a fierce low shot past Horvath into the bottom corner.

It could and perhaps should have been more.  Yáser Asprilla must have been the last thing Luton needed off the bench… when you’re 4-0 down to your local rivals you really don’t want to be made to look stupid by someone who looks about 12.  Asprilla might have been the only man in yellow to end the match unhappy having failed to break his duck after several close calls, at least one denied by the keeper.

Meanwhile Gabriel Osho won the “which one of them is going to get sent off?” prize with a moronic lunge at Ken Sema.  Harry Cornick, a wide attacker with a stupid Scott Oakes tribute haircut, would have been my pick after an increasingly stroppy battle with the normally placid Sema.  Referee Bobby Madley had done a pretty decent job of keeping things lively but sane – there had been a few sympathetic looking decisions towards the end of the game, but churlish to protest too much.  4-0 it ended, which for historical reasons was almost preferable to a 5 or 6 that would have better reflected the game.

5- Of course it still matters.  Of course it does.

If it didn’t before the game, the longer-term psychological impact of the afternoon on both the many visiting supporters who left early and those who stuck it out to the end (and, as an aside, were mocked by some nugget behind me for acknowledging their team positively at the end as if “supporting” is somehow inferior to angrily pointing and wailing in the face of defeat like wot we do) guarantees a resumption of hostilities going forward.

They away end had made the mistake of giving airtime to “Watford get battered…” before the game;  normally the laziness of Song A by Team X at Team Y being reflected back the other way would be tedious and unimaginative but here the refrain being eagerly and tirelessly rammed back down their throats was the first track on the afternoon’s soundtrack, closely followed by the crowd-pleaser “it’s happened again, it’s happened agaaaaain….”.   If you’re not going to make a racket in such circumstances then, well, when are you really…  but good to see Vicarage Road stepping up to the mark with its noisiest performance for some time, the more so given the discombobulating midday kick-off.

And so we head into a relatively gentle looking run of games before the break in good spirits and with another opportunity to establish something resembling a run of form.  Nobody should be under any illusions that everything is “sorted”…  challenges remain, and after all we only won today because of the lurgy that decimated Luton’s options*.

But we’re all perfectly entitled to stick our fingers in our ears and LALALALANOTLISTENING, for a few days at least.  This was an utter joy in it’s own right.

See you at Wigan.

Yoorns.

* allegedly.  arf.

Bachmann 5, Gosling 5, Kamara 5, Troost-Ekong 5, Cathcart 5, Kayembe 5, Choudhury 5, *João Pedro 5*, Sarr 5, Sema 5, *Davis 5*
Subs: Bayo (for Davis, 69) 5, Mario Gaspar (for Choudhury, 75) 5, Kalu (for Sarr, 84) 5, Asprilla (for João Pedro, 84) 5, Pollock, Morris, Okoye

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Comments»

1. Harefield Hornet - 24/10/2022

Brilliant – was looking looking forward to reading that. Illness aside I think the reason we pissed this was their team and fans turned up expecting an easy win. They were blown away by the quality we do we actually possess when they put their minds to it – and the early goal knocked them for six. Nathan Jones can whinge all he likes about squad depletion but we’re missing 8 ourselves . I’m now full of Paracetamol and Ibufren after slipping over on some wet stairs while going completely apeshit when the 2nd went in just before half time. No fool like an old fool but I’ve seen too many of these games over the years for it not to matter – I just need to realise I’m not 18 any more . You Horns!

Matt Rowson - 24/10/2022

Ah, but a worthy war wound. I’m still at the stage of implausible denial.

2. davejackson - 24/10/2022

An absolutely brilliant report to match the performance of the team.

Matt Rowson - 24/10/2022

aw, shucks… 🙂

3. RS - 24/10/2022

* Decimate to reduce by a tenth (one in ten) a bit like us not having Louza; Nate??

Matt Rowson - 24/10/2022

very good

4. Chris - 24/10/2022

Always a great read, a much longer read after revisiting the January 2006 report. Btw, you’ve got the reference as September 2003 but it was 2002 (hangs head in shame, yes this is fanzine)

Matt Rowson - 24/10/2022

Thanks Chris. I PROMISE that I realised and corrected that before I read this (but only when I re-read, cos I remembered that the minute’s silence for the anniversary of 9/11 was cancelled before that game)

5. Graham French - 24/10/2022

Great report Matt. I didn’t go, but was I bouncing around the kitchen (thankfully without injury!) watching on Hive. Turning point? Too many false dawns to be sure, but everything crossed for that, & for a speedy & full recovery for Imran.

6. Neil M - 24/10/2022

Bit mean of you not to give 5’s to Pollock, Moore and Okoye. Loved the game and result, it makes me wonder where that sort of performance has been all season but it’s the reason I keep watching after 40 years. Love your reporting.

Matt Rowson - 24/10/2022

Thank you Neil 🙂


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