Watford, founded in 1881, and Luton, founded in 1855, have had a long time to dislike each other. Helping build the early seeds of animosity was the fact that they played frequently during their early years, first in the Southern League and then in the Third Division South when it was formed in 1921. The rivalry intensified between the 1960s and 1980s though, particularly towards the end as at this period both teams were in the top tier of English football, so the stakes were that little bit higher. The ferocity of the rivalry, also known as the M1 Derby or Beds-Herts Derby, has cooled a little since but the two clubs still do not exactly get along.
The Rigby-Taylor Cup was introduced in 1953 to give Luton and Watford an organised competition for their – at the time – fairly friendly rivalry. It helped rekindle the competitive feeling between the two as prior to this, the clubs had last faced off competitively in 1937. The initially two-legged, then single-legged event was not a huge success though during its 10-year existence. For three years it had to be cancelled due to fixture congestion and the final edition was cancelled due to snow. This was probably a slight relief for Watford who, despite playing all the matches at home (except the second leg of the first edition) lost the cup four out of six times.
Footballing rivalries typically involve two clubs that find themselves in close proximity to one another. Being just north of London, Watford have several teams that would make for viable rivalry candidates. Rather than heading 16 miles south-west though, where you would find the likes of Tottenham and Arsenal, Watford’s main rivals lie 16 miles north. Across county lines, you will find the Bedfordshire town of Luton and their stadium on Kenilworth Road.
With the two clubs so close, you are rarely too far from supporters of both clubs and this adds a layer of intensity to their encounter. A short trip combined with this being a high-stakes clash also means a large away following regardless of the type of fixture.
The last thing you want is a heavy defeat at the hands of your rivals but complete thrashings are not too common in the M1 Derby. Luton secured a 5-0 win in the old Division Three South, representing the biggest victory in this fixture, but that came all the way back in 1926. In more recent times, Watford enjoyed a 4-0 win at their neighbour’s own yard during a Division Two game in 1997. That game could have been a lot worse too as the Hatters found themselves four goals down after just half an hour! Skip forward to the year 2022 and Watford secured another 4-0 derby win, this time at their own ground.
Other key encounters from this rivalry include the 1984 Division One battle at Kenilworth Road. Luton did their very best to get Watford captain Wilf Rostron sent off that day following a series of rough challenges and it worked. This meant the Hornets’ skipper missed the FA Cup final, which they subsequently lost 2-1 despite being favourites. This was payback for Luton who were eliminated from the Cup that same season by their rivalries during arguably the most entertaining match these two have ever played. The Hornets edged a seven-goal thriller after extra-time that day in front of 20,568 fans thanks to a late goal from Mo Johnston.
It is also worth going back to 1964 when both clubs faced a season-defining match during Luton’s final home game of the season. The Hatters proved victorious that day courtesy of a 2-1 scoreline. Not only did this guarantee their survival but it had the added benefit of ensuring Watford would not be promoted to Division Two.
Finally, for non-footballing reasons, a League Cup encounter in 2002 is a notable one in the history of these two clubs. Sadly, the clash was marred by hooliganism. Not only was there mass disruption and fighting before the game but there were several pitch invasions prior to kick-off, which delayed the start of the game. After the match, prosecutions were brought against 29 supporters, 25 Luton fans and four from Watford.
Representing Both Clubs
In some of the most intense footballing rivalries, players will avoid playing for both teams, largely to avoid the backlash it will inevitably cause. They can sometimes get away with it if there has been a sizeable break in between but even then, many Liverpool fans have still not forgiven Michael Owen for moving to Manchester United, for example. There is not quite this level of animosity between Watford players that wind up at Luton, or vice versa, however.
In fact, there is a fairly long list of players to represent both clubs. Some of the more recent examples include Andre Gray, Jamie Hand and Wayne Andrews, who actually began and finished his career at the two clubs! Perhaps the most interesting example though is former midfielder Matthew Spring. The Harlow-born man began his career at Luton, playing 250 games for the Hatters before a brief stint at Leeds United, followed by a move to Watford. After 45 games for the Hornets though, he moved back to Kenilworth Road where he played another 58 times!
Although a minority of fans were not too keen on Spring for his chosen career path, the Luton fan base on the whole was relatively welcoming of his return. At matches you could hear them singing, “Oh Springy, Springy, he used to be a scummer but he’s alright now.”
In addition to players representing both clubs, there have been two managers in charge of both teams. Neil McBain, who was player/manager of the Hornets between 1929 and 1937, managed Luton briefly between 1938 and 1939. The only other example is Rob Edwards who moved to Kenilworth Road just 53 days after Watford gave him the sack!
How did Luton fans react to hiring not only a Watford manager but a failed one that lasted a mere 11 matches? There were a few grumbles here and there but it was not met with any noticeable opposition. Most Luton supporters viewed the appointment on its own merits and were not too bothered about the Watford stint, after all, it was hardly like he was a Hornets legend. The situation was perhaps best summed up by Luton Town CEO Gary Sweet who said, “Let’s be honest, jokingly, if we avoided everyone with a connection to our adversaries our choice would be somewhat more limited and we can’t ignore the joint movement of some players over the years, and indeed this season.”
As of the end of November 2023, Watford and Luton have faced off 122 times with their very first encounter dating all the way back to 5th December 1885. Watford were able to secure a 1-0 win that day but this did not prove to be a sign of things to come. Luton enjoy a significant advantage in this rivalry (55 wins to 38), not helped by Watford’s nine-game winless streak between 1933 and 1937.