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When the Hatters were ahead

I HAVE a confession to make. When Luton were in the First Division, I was quite pleased when they won a match. So were a number of other Watford fans of my generation because the old post-war rivalries had died.

The Hatters had moved out of Division 3 South and with successive promotions, they had reached the top flight. For us post-war youngsters, who had begun to follow Watford, Luton was a town in Bedfordshire, one of the nearest to us.

It had been an unfashionable club that was mixing it with the fashionable in the First Division (just as we hoped to do one day) and so you were pleased when near-neighbours pulled one over the top-flight sides. Indeed when Luton played Forest in the 1959 Cup Final I was more inclined to hoping that the Hatters win.

The plain fact is that from 1937 until 1963, the derby games were just part of the folklore. We did not play Luton, who operated at a far higher level.

Yes, there was the Rigby-Taylor Cup, presented by the then Watford chairman and competed for annually on a friendly basis, but it was a bit like the modern-day equivalent of Bolton playing Macclesfield. You didn't expect to beat them in a friendly because they had better players.

In fact Luton was the yardstick by which the board was judged and berated.

"We played them every season; they have a poxy ground which is no better than ours but they are playing all the top teams and we are still kicking about in the Third Division," was the usual complaint.

There was envy of Luton, jealousy even, but the level of hate and viciousness, which permeates through the present followings of the two clubs, was not evident.

It was important rivalry but, at the same time, essentially friendly.

Some people say it has become more vicious because fans do not have wars or national service to worry about. "That would get it out of their systems," is the argument.

But if we are to follow that viewpoint to the logical conclusion, there would be some interesting questions. There are football followers who cheer when Manchester United lose to foreign opponents. Does that mean member of the Herts and Beds would have chuckled had they heard the Lancashire Fusiliers had just been run ragged in battle on the western front?

After all Manchester United are an English club taking on foreigners. Quite honestly, if Luton were playing foreign opposition, I would have supported the Hatters. But if, after I retire, I come to Vicarage Road to see a Watford-Luton game, then I will have no doubt that I would want to see Watford win by several goals.

So the feeling is there, but not the vitriolic hate that appears to have gone with it.

Mind you, clubs also play to this tribalism. In the immediate post-war days, you could buy a blue and white scarf and perhaps a supporters' badge and an ex-Army rattle. That was as far as it went and more often than not you would just settle for the scarf.

Unlike now, you did not have shirts, shorts and a tribal headdress to buy to go with it.

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