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02/03: Reports:

Worthington Cup First Round, 10/09/02, 7.45pm
Luton Town
"Ee Ay Oo-un"
By Matt Rowson

A very big part of me wanted to remain detached and restrained about this game.

Apart from anything else, I'm not really going to provide anything new or original by going for the jugular and ripping our local rivals to pieces. There's going to be plenty of that on any number of forums (from fans of both clubs) between now and Tuesday in any case, let alone on the evening itself.

A bit of objectivity never hurt anyone, after all. And perhaps in contemplating the fact that this is merely the Worthington Cup First Round tie against lower division opposition that trundles around invariably come this time of year, I could score some subtle points without having to be too aggressive.

But you see that doesn't really work either. Because hatred of Luton Town isn't a standpoint that many Watford fans are able to adopt or withdraw from at will. It's not a decision as such, and I'm sure the same is true for Them. Nor is it anything to do with being a "true" Watford fan... there's no exam on Luton-hating to sit before you get your Junior Hornets badge or Season Ticket, whatever some would have you believe.

Nor, I believe, is aversion to Junction 11 something that's coded into our genes. The truth is far more straightforward. We hate Luton, for the most part, because of how we are educated.

Luton was a dirty word in our house as I was growing up. I was singing about hating Luton Town before I even knew what or where Luton Town was, let alone ever went to the place or saw the team. I have lingering visions of my brother as a toddler in a pushchair, excitedly entertaining his audience with his new found capacity for speech. "Ee Ay Oo-un" entered the repertoire at a frighteningly early stage.

Such Pavlovian reinforcement was exercised almost as powerfully in reverse... I remember when Dad reacted to some aggravated squabbling by myself and my sister by withdrawing his offer to take us to the circus that evening (if this sounds particularly Victorian, by the way, it shouldn't. I'm not bloody thirty yet, okay?). Our response was to bellow down the stairs that we both supported Luton, although we withdrew the insult and apologised later.

So almost since birth, many Watford fans have been fed the subconscious association of Luton with the truest definition of evil (similar, in fact, to the way Hollywood has developed the United States' vision of itself as an incorruptible, valiant defender of the earth, somewhat topically, but that's a rather long digression).

And such sentiment can only have been backed up by experiences since. The mutual loathing up and down the M1 is a self-fulfilling prophesy to a certain extent. Any Watford fan who has ever run the gauntlet from Luton railway station to Kenilworth Road cannot fail to have had their resolve strengthened by the experience. Similarly, much as the last sentiment the majority of the nation's football fans will associate with Vicarage Road is aggression and intimidation, if your only experience of the place is on derby day you can probably be forgiven for seeing it in a totally different light. (Except, of course, that this probably makes you a Luton fan. In which case, nothing is forgiven).

I've always felt that we've had it particularly lucky as far as the local rivals that fate has dealt us is concerned. It's not as if you've ever had to try particularly hard to find a reason to justify despising the town or the team. The former is as ugly, charmless and spiteful a place as you could ever have the misfortune to visit. As for the football team, the list is enormous... the plastic pitch, the away-fan ban, David Evans, David Pleat, David Kohler, David Preece, Mick sodding Harford, the grubby, poky little ground, Hartson, Oakes, Dixon... Additionally, WSC's season preview saw the fans of Rushden, Rochdale, Hull, Darlington, Mansfield and Plymouth naming Luton as the side to dislike in last season's lowest league division with the word "arrogance" mentioned more than once. Given that supporters of many clubs in Div 3 named their own club as the one they hated most, this is no small achievement.

Luton have had a slow start to the season, somewhat in contrast to the airy predictions of a promotion charge mooted by Joe Kinnear amongst others over the summer. Hatters fans are growing increasingly suspicious of Kinnear's freely offered promises and opinions, those relating to imminent transfers proving fruitless with increasing regularity. Biggest problems have been an immobile defence and a midfield that has been too eager to abandon its defensive duties. The losses of both Matthew Taylor and Jean-Louis Valois over the summer left a significant weakness down the left hand side and, although Luton's league standing improved marginally with Saturday's comfortable win over Chesterfield, the feebleness of the opposition rather than a resolution of identified problems seems to have been a key factor here.

The goalkeeping position for the Hatters is not a clear one; Ben Roberts, on-loan from Charlton, has impressed since arriving for his second loan spell but nobody seems too sure whether the Addicks will allow him to be cup-tied. If absent, a recall for Carl Emberson seems likely, the former Walsall man having been demoted after some particularly nervous outings earlier in August. Emberson's regular rival, Mark Ovendale, is out following a hip operation.

At the back, the two central positions are likely to be taken by two of Aussie Chris Coyne, former Rochdale stopper David Bayliss and Russell Perrett, ex of Pompey and with a penchant for the Tony Adams trick of attacking the near post at corners. On the right, Emmerson Boyce is a decent fullback but apparently could do with working on his crossing... on the left, Sol Davis has done well since joining on a Bosman from a frustrated Swindon Town. Davis has the job of replacing Matthew Taylor, who left for a 650% pay increase at Portsmouth. The original candidate for this job, Alan Kimble, has quickly disappeared from the picture since his summer arrival... never the quickest of players anyway, Kimble is, at thirty-six, not the defender that Joe Kinnear left at Wimbledon. Marvin Johnson is still knocking around too, and is somehow only thirty-three. On the right, former Fulham and Newcastle man Alan Neilson is an option, but he has recently been booed by his own support, saying something for his nervous start and the fact that the curse of the slow-witted is not confined to Watford.

In midfield, a relatively successful formula seems to have been adopted, featuring captain and all-round aggro merchant Kevin Nicholls at the back of a four-man diamond. Croat Ahmet Brkovic has been playing on the right and former Chelsea man Paul Hughes on the left - not a natural left footer, this is still seen as the Hatters' main area of weakness. Matthew Spring is likely to play the advanced role... much touted and occasionally courted by clubs in higher divisions, Spring also has a reputation for laziness on occasions. Unlikely to be permissible on Tuesday. Other midfield options include Steve Robinson, yet to convince following his summer move from Preston, but ex-skipper Aaron Skelton and Adrian Forbes, scorer of Norwich's obsolete goal in "the Nordin Wooter game" two years ago, are both out injured.

Up front, the bulky Steve Howard should partner former Stoke striker Dean Crowe, who is likely to break out wide. Another option, back at Kenilworth this summer, is the ever-lovable Tony Thorpe, himself cheating the sands of time at only twenty-eight, he is likely to be the only survivor of 4/10/97 surviving in the Luton side (Spring was a non-playing substitute). The perpetually promising but injury-prone Andrew Fotiadis is another option, and one time next-big-thing Carl Griffiths is also back in the reserves after twelve months out.

One overriding sentiment that I remember from the spells when we had really, really poor seasons was how much the derby games seemed to matter. So it is now with Luton, who having taken reputedly two to three hundred to Cardiff a couple of weeks ago have sold out the Vicarage Road end for this one. Unfortunately, there are not the portents that led up to the game in October 1997, where Luton's young and injury-hit side were lambs to a hugely enjoyable slaughter. The four and a half years since we last met represents the biggest breather in hostilities since the seventies, and it would be a shame to let them head back up the M1 with anything.

It's only eight years since they last beat us, after all.