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Nationwide League Division 2, 14/2/98
Watford 1(0)
Team: Chamberlain 4, Gibbs 3, Palmer 2, Page 3, Millen 2, Mooney 3, Slater 4, *Hyde 4*, Lee 4, Johnson 4, Robinson 3
Subs: Noel-Williams (for Slater) 0, Ward, Lowndes
Scorers: Robinson (52)
Luton Town 1(0)
Scorers: Johnson (81)
Christmas present
Report by Ian Grant

It's like you're a small kid and you've sneaked a look under the tree on Christmas Eve, only to find the biggest bloody present you've ever seen with your name on it. You want it now, you can't wait until morning, you'd be prepared to stand guard all night to make sure it was still there the next day. That present? Watford taking the championship, Luton sinking into the Third Division.

The worst excesses of the local rivalry remain inexcusable - particularly from the perspective of living in another town - but football is about the contrasts between victory and defeat, success and failure. Just as past failures, notably relegation from the First Division, were made more bearable by the parallel experiences of That Lot From Up The Road, so the joy of this season's successes can only be amplified by the gloom that's descended on Kenilworth Road. (Rivalries are no fun - and they should be fun - if you have to feel guilty about doing a bit of gloating.)

Add the possibility of Palace and Portsmouth succumbing to gravity's pull and it's almost too much to bear - no cloud, all silver lining. "It could be me..."

Right now we're teetering on the brink of fulfilling our part of the bargain. We've got all the pieces of the jigsaw, it's just that they keep getting eaten by the dog and lost under the sofa. Hence Stuart Slater's more than welcome return at the same time as Peter Kennedy suddenly joins the wounded.

Kennedy's absence was the major factor in our inability to do the double over the Hatters. While I'd argue that his all-round play in many recent games has been over-rated, we did miss that cutting edge in front of goal. Worse still, with Tommy Mooney shifted into an attacking role, Steve Palmer and Paul Robinson got themselves in a right old state on the left side of defence, particularly in the first half.

The problems before the break were nearly all of our own making. That Nigel Gibbs was left alone with two Luton strikers as the rest of the Watford team trundled enthusiastically forward for a corner provided a neat summary of our unfocused commitment. Graham Taylor rectified that particular situation, calling Robinson back to cover, but he couldn't do anything about the individual lapses that nearly let the away side take the lead.

Keith Millen was the first culprit, caught waiting for a pass to arrive (such an elementary error - and I should know, I've done it myself enough times) and allowing Oldfield to steal in for a run at goal - Alec Chamberlain spared his defender's blushes with yet another wonderful save, pushing the shot round the post just as it looked to be rolling past him. To make matters worse for Millen, he should've opened the scoring himself by that stage - he'd headed tamely wide following fine build-up play from Gibbs and Slater after fifteen minutes.

The pattern of the game was familiar enough - Watford pressing, the visitors hitting back with more threatening counter-attacks. For all the possession, Watford created just one more chance of note prior to half-time, Slater shooting narrowly wide after Micah Hyde caused mayhem with a wildly sliced volley.

But let's not be over-critical. We were more inventive than of late - there was more movement, more width and considerably less optimistic passing. The major gripe was that we failed to break down Luton's persistent offside trap - but that has as much to do with available personnel as anything else, since I'm sure that Wayne Andrews would've relished the challenge.

However, in seeking to find a solution to our lack of goals, we have tended to leave ourselves exposed at the back. For example, the Luton break that caught Palmer and Robinson stranded upfield as Oldfield strode forward - Richard Johnson's awareness prevented the worst case scenario but not a shot across the face of goal.

The closest brush with calamity came in first half injury time. An innocent through-ball resulted in a near-disastrous mix-up between Robert Page and Alec Chamberlain. The defender managed to head over his advancing goalkeeper - only Oldfield's surprise prevented him reaching the ball to turn it into the unguarded net and it trickled inches wide. From the consequent corner, Thorpe was left unmarked and his close-range header brought a tremendous one-handed save from Chamberlain.

The second half proved to be more open, something that suited the home side rather more than the cagey ducking and diving of the first period. With drama at both ends, the game became a rousing local derby. Luton announced their early intentions with a period of pressure immediately after kick-off but it was Watford who slowly took control.

First, Stuart Slater went close, cutting in from the right wing and driving a low shot that brought the best out of Davis in the Hatters' goal. Then the home side took the lead. As a Watford set piece was cleared, the ball was played back in and Luton's offside trap was finally exposed - Robinson collected the pass and thumped it home, the world stood still for an instant as everyone waited for the linesman's flag and we all went kerrazy as the penny dropped.

I'm not sure where my confidence came from - I'm usually far too cautious, especially when it comes to local derbies - but I couldn't see us letting the lead slip. Perhaps it was Luton's inability to take advantage of our charitable first half defending, perhaps it was that we began to play quite well, perhaps it was the calming effect of the warm sunshine - I thought we'd win it, I really did.

Not even Thorpe wriggling his way through and firing a shot just over nor a thumping free kick that was blocked by a Watford defender disturbed my sense of tranquility. We looked to have weathered the worst. Paul Robinson had returned to doing what he does best, hurtling around the field putting in tackles so hard there's an audible intake of breath around the stadium (one of these, executed as the ball ran away from him during a run through the midfield, was so astonishingly - yet fairly - brutal, that his opponent must've seen his life flash before his eyes). With Robinson affording him a little more protection, Steve Palmer recovered some of his composure. The other defenders seemed to have put an end to the earlier disasters.

At the Vic Road end, our attacking potency was fairly closely linked to Stuart Slater and we became less of a threat as he tired. It is mighty good to have him back, though - to have someone whose natural instinct is to get wide and run at defenders can make such a difference to the rest of the side. But just one more chance came our way, Mooney picking up on a defender's mistake and charging towards goal, only to be foiled by a cruel bounce from a gigantic divot as he was lining up a shot.

And then they equalised, which came as rather a shock since I was busily counting my chickens. A high clearance was volleyed back into the area - it was a harmless enough shot until it was deflected goalwards at the last moment by Johnson's intervention. Chamberlain stood absolutely no chance.

That was the last meaningful action of a chaotic but stirring encounter. If it reflected the two sides' seasons in any way, it was thus - recent home matches with That Lot have seen Watford scrambling fortunate late equalisers to save face, this time it was the other way around. For that, and for the fact that the 4-0 still looms large as the last decisive result between the clubs, we should be grateful.

Report by Matt Bunner

Most derby games end in a draw. It's inevitable. Doesn't matter that we're streets ahead in the division and that Luton are dicing around the relegation area. It was always going to be a draw.

I can't remember the last time I sat in the Vic end. Because of the interest all Upper Rous seats had gone, I took the opportunity to grab a seat behind the goal. The immediate impression was the quality of the paper aeroplanes coming from the back. I think there was a dead-heat between two that were a couple of yards from the edge of the penalty area. Anyway, once I had lusted after the girl from Oasis radio and wished for the first time that I was a mascot, the game started. I was amazed that Palmer was trusted with left back role - one of the few times I've questioned Taylor's tactics - I would have expected Mooney and Robinson as the left siders with GNW or Lowndes upfront with Palmer on the bench. On this occasion Taylor got it wrong as was proved in the first half.

The first action came from Palmer's pass to leaden-footed Millen and consequently Oldfield nipped in and we were faced with ANOTHER one-on-one and thankfully the same result occurred as Chamberlain brought off another magnificent save. Our efforts at this stage were confined to a free header for Millen after good work from Slater and Gibbs. The header was a marvellous defensive clearance except that it was at the wrong end! There was plenty of industry from our boys but this lead to us occasionally pulling ourselves out of position, leaving spaces for Luton to break. A good run from Slater saw his shot blocked and Hyde's hugely sliced volley creating another shot for Slater. Comically, the best chance of the game from a clearance from Davis. Page had it covered, but in thinking Chamberlain was still placed near his goal, he inadvertently headed it over Chamberlain and towards the net. The ball trickled inexorably as Oldfield tried to get to it, but luckily the ball brushed wide. That wasn't the end of the episode. From the resulting corner, the smallest player on the pitch, Thorpe, had a free header that was excellently saved by Chamberlain. Immediately after the half-time whistle blew.

The second half saw more control from Watford as they started to use the ball on the ground. Hyde was playing well and was the focus for much of our play. Slater received the ball and jinked past two defenders and then fired in a shot that the Luton 'keeper did well to push away. Minutes later, a delicate chip from Johno produced a deft chest pass from Lee to Robbo who found himself in acres of space and in a stadium that was silent. Once the green light had been given from the linesman, Robbo coolly rammed home the goal. I clapped a bit and shouted "Bravo!". After that we attacked superbly and had enough chances to score three. Hyde was through immediately after the goal, but his lack of pace prevented addition to the score. Mooney then had a wonderful chance to bury Luton but he dwelled, then dwelled again, negotiated a divot and then lost the ball. If he had looked up there was a Watford man coming into the area SCREAMING for the ball. A simple pass and 2-0 would have resulted. However, it was still 1-0.

Being a derby and 1-0 up, there's always the chance that they'll get a jammy equaliser. Low and behold they got one. Somebody mis-hit a shot that bounced into the area and Marvin Johnson, not knowing what day of the week it was, stuck out a boot and wrong-footed Chamberlain. Immediately after, Thorpe had a curling effort just wide. Apart from GNW wasting a golden opportunity to cross for Lee in the dying seconds, that was about it.

1-1. Inevitable really.