Monday, 11 April 2011

The campaign for real rivals

[NB: this article also appears in the latest issue of Clap Your Hands, Stamp Your Feet]

Be honest now: do you miss derby games against Luton?

No, me neither. The news story a few weeks ago about a march through Luton by the racist thugs of the English Defence League (which was founded there) reminded me of the element among the Hatters’s support that always made derby days so deeply unpleasant.

The good news is that there’s a real chance that Watford and Luton Town will never meet again in a competitive football match. Luton are three whole divisions below us now, and every season they spend in the Conference weakens their finances and fanbase.

In the meantime, we’re free to start a new rivalry. After all, there’s no law that says two football teams have to be yoked together for all eternity, and there are plenty of cases where rivalries have shifted as circumstances changed. For instance, Nottingham Forest realised years ago that they weren’t going to meet their near-neighbours Notts County very often, and turned their attentions to another County in the next, um, county. Forest v Derby is now a bitterly contested, um, derby in the East Midlands, while Notts have fostered a more realistic rivalry with Mansfield Town.

So what does it take to create a new derby? I’d suggest that the two key elements are proximity and frequency. The perfect rivals are close enough for the two sets of fans to meet in everyday life, and of a similar standard, so that the two teams play each other most seasons. A bit of history helps as well, of course.

On that basis, let’s take a look at the five clubs that are based closest to Vicarage Road and assess their qualifications to be our new rivals:


Distance from Vicarage Road:
9.01 miles
Previous league meetings: 0
Pros: It really isn’t that far from Watford to Barnet, and they’re even in the same county. They have a similar nickname (Bees) and strip (yellow and black) – it’s almost as if they aspire to be us.
Cons: Two cup ties (the only competitive meetings between the two clubs) aren’t enough to build a rivalry on. Unfortunately for Barnet, they’re only a few places higher up the pyramid than Luton, and the chances of the two teams ever meeting regularly are remote. Maybe they could take the Hatters off our hands, though…
Rivalry rating: 1 (out of 5)


12.07 miles
Meetings: 60
Pros: Like the Hornets, Brentford (another bunch of Bees – what is it with north-west London clubs and stinging insects?) have strong roots in their local community. As the only team in the western half of London outside the top two divisions, they’re sorely in need of a proper derby match. Oh, and Griffin Park has pubs on all four corners of the ground.
Cons: Fans who started supporting the two clubs since the 1970s will have few memories of previous meetings to draw on. There’s no sign of hostilities being renewed, either – though it only needs Watford to have one bad season or Brentford one good one.
Rating: 3

Queen’s Park Rangers

12.18 miles
Meetings: 105
Pros: After the war, large numbers of bombed-out residents of Shepherd’s Bush were rehoused on the newly build South Oxhey estate, on the southern edge of Watford. As a result, Watford-QPR matches in the 1960s were extremely ‘tasty’. It was a proper rivalry, in other words, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t be revived. Especially as we’ve played Rangers more than any other league club, as far as I can make out. Their sugar-daddy owners are a further reason to dislike them. And I haven’t even mentioned their manager…
Cons: That manager could be on the verge of propelling them out of the Championship and into the Premiership. If that happens, and they stay up in their first season, it may be a while before we play them again.
Rating: 4


14.40 miles
Meetings: 16
Pros: In our Division One days, we had a satisfyingly good record against Arsenal, and the 1987 FA Cup quarter-final win at Highbury remains my all-time favourite away game. These days, of course, we’re nothing but poor relations, but that’s no bad thing when it comes to stoking the fires of enmity. Also, there’s no shortage of Gooners in the Watford area, so there’s plenty of scope for banter.
Cons: Sadly, the chances of Watford and Arsenal ever meeting regularly are remote. In any case, the Gunners’ long-established rivalry with Spurs isn’t going to end any time soon.
Rating: 1


14.46 miles
Meetings: 18
Pros: Yes, I was surprised to find that Fulham is the fifth-closest club to Watford, too. I’m really struggling to find anything to hate about them, beyond the obvious – and even the way Mohammed Al-Fayed bought success for Fulham pales in comparison with the more recent exploits of the owners of Chelsea and Manchester City. Noble history, glorious riverside location… Nope, I’ve got nothing.
Cons: See above.
Rating: 0

So there you go. QPR and Brentford look like our best bets, with the Rs front-runners, provided they don’t get promoted at the end of the season.

Obviously, I’m not expecting the boys at the back of the Rookery to sway their anti-Luton chants for anti-Rangers ones just like that. But over time, as new fans join the ranks who’ve never seen Watford play Luton, chances are they’ll turn their attention to another club. And why not? At least you can spend an afternoon or evening in Shepherd’s Bush without having to worry about getting your head kicked in.