As the gap between Watford and Luton becomes ever wider a vacancy arose for a new foe, one the fans could get their teeth stuck into at least twice a season and one played out within the same league. Step forward AFC Bournemouth.
“We don’t play Luton anymore so we need to dislike someone on a comparable level to us,” said Watford season-ticket holder Stephen Baldwin.
It’s not a loathing based on geography: its 108.5 miles from the front door of Vicarage Road to the entrance at the Vitality Stadium, after all. It all seemingly stems from the Championship fixture at the Goldsands Stadium, as it was then named, in January 2014.
“Mark Pugh dives to win a penalty when there’s no contact,” recalls Watford fan Chris White of the incident in the 69th minute of the 1-1 Championship draw. Even the partisan blog Cherry Chimes felt Pugh went down easily.
“No doubt Watford fans viewed it as a dive, and it did look very suspicious having seen the replay,” they wrote.
Manuel Almunia saved Lewis Grabban’s penalty but the incident left a bad taste for the away fans. It was still relatively fresh in their memories when Callum Wilson went down in the Vicarage Road box under the challenge of Gabriel Tamas in the September. Again, the spot-kick was missed, this time by Ian Harte, and Craig Cathcart came off the bench to net the equaliser.
Bournemouth fans, already reeling from the hiding a hat-trick from Troy Deeney helped dish out in their previous visit to Vicarage Road in 2013, started to build up a bit of ill feeling themselves. “Our fans feel resentment for the 6-1 thrashing at Vicarage Road in our first away game [in August 23], the fact Tamas was never sent off for fouling Wilson, with the subsequent penalty miss and Tamas’ replacement scoring the equaliser,” wrote Bournemouth fan Sam Somers.
This penalty business started to become an issue.
“They seem to get penalties as frequently as Arsenal finishing fourth,” wrote the author of the Watford Status Twitter account.
Things were starting to get ridiculous when Wilson took another tumble, this time under the challenge of Cathcart in the Championship fixture between the two sides around this time last year. Yann Kermorgant, the third different penalty taker, made no mistake from the spot. Wilson was also at the centre of the drama much earlier in the game, an incident which saw Gabriele Angella controversially sent off after just 26 seconds of the crunch match. Bournemouth fans were equally unhappy with Daniel Pudil’s tackle on Eunan O’Kane.
“The sending off was ridiculous and cost us the game when I think we’d have beaten them,” wrote Watford season-ticket holder Allen Coldrake.
Angella had the red card rescinded but that was no good to Watford. The damage had been done. Bournemouth had the momentum in the promotion push.
“Every time we have played Bournemouth there have been big decisions going in Bournemouth’s favour,” wrote Harry Cresswell.
Just to prove Cresswell’s point, Bournemouth were awarded yet another penalty, the fourth in as many games against the Hornets, when Etienne Capoue was adjudged by Michael Oliver to have tripped Adam Smith. Heurelho Gomes came to Watford’s rescue and saved Glenn Murray’s penalty.
“Watford felt Bournemouth were always on the end of favourable refereeing decisions which, apart from the [Angella] sending off and another penalty against Middlesborough is utter nonsense,” wrote Gareth Davies, a freelance writer and contributor to Bournemouth’s matchday programme. Davies cited the “horrific tackle on O’Kane which went unpunished” as an example of the Cherries not always getting the rub of the green.
Matters just snowballed and intensified after the Angella red card, culminating in a thrilling battle for the league title last season. The race went right down to the wire and Watford missed the chance to go up to the Premier League with the Championship trophy and the bragging rights after conceding a 90th-minute goal against Sheffield Wednesday in the final game of the season. Atdhe Nuhiu would have been the toast of the Bournemouth fans who couldn’t believe their luck when news filtered through at the Valley of the late, late drama at Vicarage Road.
“It was our own fault,” wrote big Watford fan Chris White. “But if there was ever a moment, as a Watford fan, I wanted the ground to swallow me up, that was it.”
“Their fans gloated a lot on social about winning the league and as much as it shouldn’t, that annoyed quite a few, I think,” added fellow Hornet Matt Crowther.
Watford fan Ollie Price doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. “I just thought it was a bunch of people wanting to argue with Bournemouth fans because they won the league and we didn’t,” he wrote. “Personally, I wouldn’t call it a rivalry.”
The last-day title triumph sparked what Paul Holden, who went on the pre-season tour to Germany, described as a “media love in of Bournemouth”.
Eddie Howe was in the Monday Night Football studio, with Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, fairly soon after the champagne had been cracked open.
“Watford fans feel that Bournemouth have had unfair media coverage and even if we’d won the Championship last year they would still have been the lead story,” wrote Tim Rose when asked by us just what it is about the Cherries that irks some Watford fans.
The rather unedifying scenes in the home changing rooms of the Bournemouth chairman having his backside slapped by his own players during the rather over exuberant celebrations also got up the noses of some people we spoke to. Imagine Gino Pozzo or Scott Duxbury cavorting around like that.
“The media fail to realise, when they wax lyrical about their poor little sob story about rising from the bottom division, is that they’ve had some rich Russian bloke that has pumped a load of money into the club,” wrote Allen Coldrake. “All we hear about from Harry Redknapp is what great football they play and what a genius Eddie Howe is. They can’t defend – and that could still cost them.”
There is, wrote Paul Holden, “no mention of them having the highest Championship wage bill [last season].”
Bournemouth face a fine of £10m for breaching the regulations during their promotion-winning campaign to the Premier League. The Football League announced that the club exceeded the maximum permitted loss of £6m for Championship clubs.
“The funding of the club by the owner appeared unfair,” wrote Watford supporter Tim Braybrooks.
Rookery season-ticket holder Stephen Baldwin argues the dire financial situation the Pozzos and Scott Duxbury inherited when they took over the club in 2012 is overlooked. “People don’t realise the strife we were in as a club,” he wrote. “The lack of acknowledgment over what the Pozzos have done is hard to take. Bournemouth have lots of cash and have been bankrolled out of trouble.”
Cherries fan Neil Taylor asked if the rivalry is the upshot of the fact Bournemouth “stole all the headlines and became media darlings because of what we did and thus Watford felt they had their noses put out of joint because no one really talked about them and what they had achieved? If I was a Watford fan I know that would have p*****me off.”
Chris White feels “the way Bournemouth are described in the mainstream media doesn’t match up to reality”.
“Remember those articles at the start of the season?” he wrote to us. “Watford were attacked for being owned by multi-club Italians who were destroying our heritage. Yet ‘plucky’ Bournemouth were feted with their ‘brilliant young English manager’ who has ‘an exciting team who are a joy to watch.'”
Some Watford fans point out there are no extra points awarded in the Premier League for artistic merit, although Paul Holden does admit to having “a secret admiration for their attacking style”.
Bournemouth’s more progressive, free-flowing approach has netted them one more goal than Watford. On the other hand, they have conceded 16 more and won three less games. The Hornets are in ninth, Bournemouth are 15th.
“I have massive respect for Watford and would swap places with you guys in a heartbeat this season,” wrote Bournemouth fan Neil Taylor. “Though we do feel cheated that we weren’t able to compete on a level playing field due to the crippling injuries we suffered early on in the season, would we be better off without those injuries? I’d like to think so but we’ll never know.”
Bournemouth have been hit hard by long-term injuries to Callum Wilson, Max Gradel and Tyrone Mings. Some Watford fans took great pleasure in the Cherries’ mounting injury list.
“I do love to see them lose,” wrote Matt Crowther. “Maybe it’s just wanting us to really prove by a big margin that we were the best team to be promoted.”
Neil Taylor reports that “a few AFCB fans think some Watford fans are obsessed with us for some unknown reason”.
“We’ve had a fair few Watford fans slagging off the amount of penalties we got last season or accusing our players of diving etc, yet in return AFCB fans have highlighted a fair few cases the other way, so it’s really what I would call petty banter,” wrote the season-ticket holder at the Vitality Stadium.
Watford, barring a calamitous end to the season, have virtually assured one of the three promoted clubs will stay up. The other two, Norwich and Bournemouth, are very much in the relegation shake-up.
“We’ve stepped up a level while others are hanging in there,” wrote Watford Status. “Why focus on them when we’ve got a team to adore? They were like a fly buzzing around your head last season, but this season it’s all about the Hornets. We are still in for a place in Europe. We don’t need to focus on surviving like they do.”
Then there was the nonsense over the loan signing of Juan Manuel Iturbe who, according to reports on the south coast, turned down a move to Watford in January and opted to sign for Bournemouth. A more accurate version of events is that Quique Sanchez Flores and Duxbury met the Argentine first but apparently didn’t like the cut of his jib so his agent whisked him round the M25 and down the M3.
“The Juan Iturbe U-turn signing didn’t help matters,” added Bournemouth fan Sam Somers. “The jury is still out on that one.”
Amid all the banter on social media, the posturing and the bragging rights, the rivalry is largely good natured and is not laced with hatred.
“I actually quite like the rivalry as it’s all to do with football and not crowd trouble,” wrote Harry Cresswell. “I think it’s a rivalry which will go on for some time – as long as we’re both in the same division.”
Matt Crowther even admits he “likes their manager and good young English players.” Tim Rose went one step further: “I’d be quite keen for Eddie Howe to manage us in the future – not that it will ever happen.”
There will be at least two members of the crowd on Saturday with differing degrees of divided loyalties. Luther Blissett, of course, played for both clubs, although you suspect his colours will be firmly pinned to the Watford mast. Kelly Somers, a content and broadcaster / presenter at Bournemouth, is a big Watford fan.
“Three points on Saturday will be slightly sweeter than say three points against Stoke,” wrote Tim Rose.