My first ever trip to Dean Court left me in no doubt that games involving AFC Bournemouth and Watford were always going to be slightly out of the ordinary.
The year was 1995 and I’d travelled to Dorset to see Watford in a League Cup 2nd Round 2nd leg tie. The evening got off to an incredible start when sat in the car at the stadium, my travel companions and I heard the news that OJ Simpson had been acquitted in one of the most infamous court cases in history. The verdict sent shockwaves throughout the world, so it was no surprise that the story was the talk of the terrace that evening, but the evening was still to take on another surreal and memorable twist.
The game ended in a draw and Watford triumphed in a penalty shoot-out. Watford players and staff celebrated on the pitch, among them a young Kevin Phillips. Mistaking the Watford hit-man for a supporter, a local policeman accosted Phillips and was seen man handling him off the playing surface. His mistake was soon pointed out and Phillips avoided a night as a guest of the Dorset constabulary, but it was a bizarre sight and the first in a long line of intriguing story lines to feature the Hornets and the Cherries.
The story really began to hot up in 2013 after Bournemouth were promoted to the Championship. Watford were coming off the back of a Play-Off Final defeat to Crystal Palace and were expected to mount another strong promotion challenge. Early in the season the newly promoted South Coast side were humbled 6-1 at Vicarage Road and all seemed to be going as Watford fans had hoped. It was however to prove something of a false dawn; Watford were never really part of the promotion race and Bournemouth have seemingly been extracting revenge for that eye-catching defeat ever since.
The following fixtures between the two were constantly mired in controversy, with Watford being reduced to ten men in two successive trips to Dean Court and Bournemouth awarded a staggering five penalties in the last four meetings between the two (including the most recent Premier League fixture). The mini saga came to a head at the end of the 2014/15 season when a late Sheffield Wednesday equaliser at Vicarage Road gifted Bournemouth the Championship title.
It might have gone un-noticed throughout the wider footballing world, but a tangible rivalry has developed between the two clubs. Whilst some of the mud slinging on social media is regrettable and unnecessary, I welcome anything that adds a bit of spice to our fixtures, especially having seen the story develop at close quarters.
I’ve seen some argue that they don’t understand the recent rivalry, some going so far as to call it an obsession – albeit mutual. I on the other hand think it’s what football is all about. Yes, the fire may well have been stoked by some of the perceived poor decisions that have gone against Watford in recent fixtures, but when you clear away the distractions, you are oft with two evenly matched teams on a similar trajectory, slugging it out for the same thing. It’s the very essence of being a sports supporter and I love it.
This season, the stakes have been raised further still. Both clubs have made a reasonable start to the Premier League season, but both will still harbour the same stark target. Avoid relegation. A key part of achieving this aim is taking points from the teams around you – for Bournemouth this means teams like Watford, for Watford this means teams like Bournemouth. These games matter, and when you take into account the recent history of this fixture, the weekend’s game was always going to be a big one.
Being a Bournemouth V Watford fixture, there was of course controversy and incident. Glenn Murray opened his account with one of the simplest goals you’re ever likely to see – a precise cross met perfectly by the big forward’s big forehead. In truth, Watford were struggling, perhaps missing the midfield skill and guile of José Manuel Jurado, who was missing through injury, so it was somewhat fortuitous that Artur Boruc, in goal for Bournemouth, misplaced a pass that allowed Odion Ighalo to stroke the ball into an empty net. Watford improved in the second half, Ben Watson crashing a half volley against the bar, but it was in the 85th minute where the game roared into life. A melee in the Watford penalty area saw a heap of bodies on the floor and an inevitable outcome; another Bournemouth penalty. Watford supporters were incandescent as Glenn Murray stepped up to take the spot kick, which was promptly saved by Heurelho Gomes. The Hornets faithful celebrated the salvaging of a point as if it was a Cup Final victory, and with good reason. The battle of Bournemouth had been safely navigated and the spoils shared.
The rivalry continues to simmer away nicely and this latest encounter was a timely and ultimately enjoyable reminder that like it or not, these games matter.