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02/03: Reports:

Worthington Cup First Round, 10/09/02, 7.45pm
Luton Town
Far enough
By Ian Grant

It could've been worse. You don't want to hear that, I guess...but it could've been worse.

I mean, local rivalries are a wonderful, vital part of football, and they help us to define the whole experience. The press might've sniggered at the chants of "Are you watching, Luton Town?" at Wembley...but, for us, they were merely a way of making it real, a tangible reference point. Parochial? Yeah, perhaps. We all cling onto familiar things sometimes, though.

The sheer intensity of the occasion - chants of "SCUM! SCUM! SCUM!" directed at people from a town just a few miles away - is a Lilliputian absurdity, of course. If it mattered that much, we'd have invaded the bloody place a hundred years ago. But the atmosphere is perfect for football, for raising an often extremely ordinary game to ludicrous levels of emotion and passion. It doesn't make much sense...but it makes for memories, grudges, legends. It makes history.

(Can you sense a "but" coming?)

But this is far enough, surely. When a Worthington Cup First Round tie requires hundreds of police in riot gear; dogs, horses, helicopters, tanks (oh, I'm only joking about the tanks...but give it a couple of years, eh?); closures of parts of the town, complex evacuation procedures, a UN exclusion zone around the ground...when that happens, merely to prevent the whole thing disintegrating into violence and chaos, then we've gone far enough. Like I say, it could've been worse. For a while, you wondered if the game would even start, let alone finish.

Police vans are parked all along Vicarage Road, and the stadium is blocked off completely to contain trouble at the Red Lion corner. We retreat to avoid the rising tension among the gathering crowd behind the police line, taking a safer route around the allotments. We arrive, entering the Rookery to see a mob from the away end marauding in front of the lower Rous. The atmosphere is poisonous. The mob surges, recedes, surges again, bored by the lack of resistance. A lone lunatic attempts to jump into the Rous near the halfway line to fight, taking no notice of the children around his chosen target; the corner flag is used as a missile; someone takes a kicking; a group of self-appointed moral defenders charges up the touchline from the Rookery to take on the invaders. It's madness. There are no police inside the ground.

Eventually, long overdue, the boys in luminous yellow arrive, and restore a very fragile order. Heaven only knows what bedlam they've been removed from attempting to control outside. Oh, don't get me wrong...the lack of police on hand to deal with the trouble inside the stadium was ridiculous, inexcusable. It beggared belief, especially considering that the vast majority of visiting supporters had already passed through the turnstiles. But you cannot get away from the fact that they needed to be everywhere last night, that even a vast police presence was stretched and broken in attempting to deal with the significant minorities from both clubs that'd rather settle things without the assistance of the players.

It's bollocks. It's nothing to do with Watford, nothing to do with Luton, everything to do with posturing, bullying, knuckle-headed, ugly, puerile violence. Well, do it somewhere else. The police handled it extremely badly, but there's responsibility all around. Enough.

Naturally, there was no attempt to observe the planned minute's silence for today's anniversary. It would've been completely futile. Somehow, that small, shameful detail seems to sum it all up...the complete self-obsession, the ignorance, the f***ing stupidity....

Oh, sod it...enough from me too....

After a delay of fifteen minutes, football again. Thank God...although that feeling didn't last long, really. In the grand tradition of these things, it's obligatory for the winning side in a derby game to be lauded for commitment and heroism and stuff, while the losing side is roundly condemned for the complete lack of same. It's all or nothing, no shades of grey.

So, I'll make myself tremendously popular by quietly suggesting that we played reasonably well in the first half, until our world fell apart with the second goal. I'd even go so far as to say that our attitude was rather good, our tactics generally sound, our outlook positive. Coventry aside, this was perhaps our most assertive, purposeful opening. Were it not so, the contrast with the first fifteen minutes of the second half, when we were simply embarrassing, would not have been so marked.

It doesn't matter, I suppose. But I'll report on what I saw, and I saw a Watford side that matched Luton for aggression and determination, yet retained the clarity of thought to move the ball about quickly and sharply when free of the scraps and battles. With the exception of Paul Robinson, booked for a petulant, retaliatory foul, we appeared particularly keen to concentrate on our football rather than the identity of our opponents...and, with the line-up and formation forced upon us, that seemed entirely right to me. We tried to control the game...and, to a great degree, we succeeded.

The final ball was terrible, almost without exception. That, ultimately, is what failed us here, in that possession was never converted into chances, and we began to pin our hopes on the success of one of Tommy Smith's nippy runs rather than anything more methodical. It didn't quite happen...although he did appear to be hacked down by the last man after seven minutes, one of several things that seemed to escape the referee and his assistants. Stephen Glass had a dangerous free kick blocked, Jamie Hand drove five yards wide from distance.

Not great, then. But far from disastrous. On the contrary, it struck me that we were settling in well enough, playing with patience and yet also with sufficient tempo to threaten. Aside from an extremely tame off-target effort from Howard and a brief flurry after twenty minutes, Luton were thoroughly contained. We were doing the job, and a goal would've sealed it.

Instead, the goal came at the other end, from nowhere. As Jamie Hand and Micah Hyde got sucked into a series of extremely robust challenges in midfield, we lacked cover when Spring emerged from the mess with the ball. And he strode forward, with no particular option but to go for goal from long range. He did so, and it was an absolute screamer, belting past a very stranded Alec Chamberlain and ripping into the top corner to disbelieving groans from the Rookery. And, having made such a professional start, we were suddenly facing a steep uphill struggle.

Even then, we continued to dominate, with Tommy Smith looking particularly lively. Again, the quality of the final ball was poor, and prevented us from striking back quickly. But we'd yet to collapse into the desperate, woeful clouting and clumping that so disappointed after the interval, and there remained a belief that the game was far from finished.

But we couldn't afford the second. Worse, it was an absolutely terrible goal to concede, for Spring's neat through-ball was thoroughly routine, and it required only a timely interception or careful marking from Sean Dyche to see off minimal danger. Instead, he did neither, allowing the ball to run through and turning slowly to find that Howard had already sneaked goal-side. Even so, it seemed that the striker took an eternity to pick his spot without being challenged, and Alec Chamberlain's rush forward was more in hope than expectation. He finished low inside the near post, and finished us too.

From there, downwards. A steep uphill struggle turned into a very rapid, tumbling descent. Whatever was said in the dressing room at half-time, the players re-emerged ready to explore the most extreme depths of depression. God help us, we can't go lower than this. For this was the nightmare come true - an error-strewn, terrified calamity of a team that was in serious, tangible danger of allowing Luton to recreate the famous four-nil scoreline. And, really, if Perrett hadn't headed over from close range at a corner early on, it might well have happened. It doesn't bear thinking about.

No pressure on Anthony McNamee at all, then. But even his arrival changed nothing for a while. Indeed, it arguably made things marginally worse, as every pass (and I use the term loosely) was aimed in his general direction (and I use that term loosely too), in the absolutely-bloody-desperate hope that he'd do something magical to save us. But on the basis that he stood about a one-in-three chance of even touching, let alone controlling, any of these passes, it really did become absolutely bloody desperate. We weren't merely in danger of losing a local derby, we were heading for complete oblivion.

On that basis, I have to say, again at the risk of making myself tremendously unpopular, that the final result was something of a relief. A hugely frustrating relief, granted...but, as long as that hideous fifteen minute spell is still fresh in my memory, a relief nonetheless. In the end, we managed to salvage something of ourselves from the wreckage, enough to survive for another day. It could've been worse.

And, yeah, Anthony McNamee changed it, with a bit of help. For it was his pass that released Dominic Foley after sixty-three minutes, and the creation of our first clear-cut chance gave us some of our belief back. Foley ran through and, true, he might've done better...but, really, I'd prefer to credit the goalkeeper, as Emberson spread himself superbly to block the shot. Suddenly and instantly, the Luton goal was under threat, and Neil Cox sent a slightly deflected drive skidding wide before Sean Dyche looped a header onto the roof of the net from the resulting corner.

We remained desperate...but now we seemed to be more focused on ways out of the despair, rather than ways of burrowing further into it. So Micah Hyde was howled at for retaining possession for an eternity after seventy-five minutes, fighting his way across the midfield from left to right with no support and no apparent plan. And yet he created space for himself in the end, turning to curl a cross into the box and find Dominic Foley with a couple of yards of his own. The header was quite excellent, cushioned perfectly and floated gently into the bottom corner. COME ON.

So, we lost. But not without being reminded of what local derbies should be about. Although our attempts at completing the comeback were far from convincing, you could taste it, imagine it, demand it. Frustrating and depressing as the failure to turn that moment into reality might be, it's not half as bad as the complete, enveloping blackness that had previously threatened us. True, we still endangered ourselves, and a great, high hoof found Sean Dyche allowing Howard to get away again, with Alec Chamberlain pulling off a wonderful save to deflect the shot around the post...but for the most part, we were piling towards the Rookery, roared on, hopeful.

By the end, Jason Norville and even Sean Dyche had joined Dominic Foley and Tommy Smith in attack, and we were simply chucking the ball into the box by whatever means presented themselves. Unsurprisingly, the most effective means proved to be Anthony McNamee...but we left a series of crosses at the near post uncontested, something of an ongoing theme. When Dominic Foley managed to anticipate one of them, he dived in to head wide, just avoiding being strangled by his shirt in the process. We were running out of time.

Then, a moment to haunt us. A corner in injury time, swung over towards the far post. There, Jason Norville, four yards out, shirt being pulled again...but you don't get those very often. And you can still feel the celebration waiting to let rip as the ball comes across him, and he tries to put something in its way, and it brushes across his chest, and it's gone....

And it is gone. And, whatever the result, thank heavens for that. Maybe next time, there'll be some semblance of sanity and order, some kind of restraint and respect, some feeling of security for people who just want to watch a football match. Maybe, the whole thing won't be hijacked. Maybe, we'll win.

Yeah, maybe.

Maybe, by some happy miracle, we'll never play each other again.