Ian Wright at the centre of an argument at White Hart Lane in December 1992
Published: 15 November, 2012
by DAN CARRIER
ON Saturday, close friends and neighbours across Camden and Islington will ignore phone calls from one another, or if they do answer, potentially unleash a barracking that bucks the way they conduct themselves towards their chums for 363 days of the year.
The answer for putting good relations and politeness on ice for a couple of hours stems from the fact it is the north London derby – Spurs travel down the Seven Sisters Road to Ashburton Grove to take on Arsenal.
And to celebrate the occasion, football writer has Ian Welch has put together a new book that chronicles match reports from the 166 times the two clubs have met each other.
Reading like an almanac of the heights of glorious success and the depths of derby day despair, the compilation – drawing on match reports from the archives of the Daily Mirror – offers summaries of the meetings between the two clubs.
The story starts in 1887, and the first game between the two wasn’t a derby at all: Arsenal were still plying their trade in Woolwich, south London. The game was played at Tottenham’s ground in Northumberland Park. The Tottenham Weekly Herald reported that: “The Spurs began to attack but 10 minutes from the start the Arsenal scored a lucky goal...” Spurs hit back, scoring twice, and “had it not been for the splendid defence of F Beardsley in goal, the final score would have been much larger.”
Relations did not get off to a good start as Arsenal arrived late for kick off – so the match had to abandoned with 15 minutes left on the clock due to fading light.
The teams had to wait more than 10 years to lock horns in real competition. The first league game
was held in 1909 and Woolwich Arsenal ran out 1-0 winners.
The rivalry has a little bit of extra spice not just because of the geographical proximity of these two leading clubs: the fact that Woolwich Arsenal started life in Plumstead and moved to Highbury in 1913, as part of a property speculation deal, irks Spurs fans to this day.
As if encroaching on what was already Spurs territory, the bad feeling got worse when Arsenal were invited to join the First Division after being relegated in the last season before the Second World War. Club chairman Sir Henry Norris lobbied vigorously and the FA gave the Woolwich wanderers Tottenham’s place in the top flight – on grounds of “longevity” so spurious it would never happen today.
More recently, the debacle over Spurs losing a must-win game at West Ham in 2006 after a bout of food poisoning and handing their Champions League spot to Arsenal further increased tensions.
Though utterly unconfirmed, rumours surfaced that Spurs asked the FA, completely within the rules, for the game to be delayed due to the illness sweeping through the side. But the FA bosses were at Arsenal's ground about to watch their game and made the decision Spurs must play, whilst enjoying the hospitality of the Arsenal board. Whether this is true or not, the fact such rumours surfaced gives the fixture that much more spice.
As the book illustrates, derbies are not always very good games: they are often riddled with errors and nerves as the fans crank up the tension on the pitch. In 1975, Arsenal beat Spurs by a solitary goal at Highbury in a game that wasn’t a sell out, perhaps due to the era of hooligans on the terraces and the fact that neither side were performing well.
Let’s hope Saturday’s game is better than this: “During the match with Arsenal, Spurs piled into frantic action with no discernible tactics, formation or marking... “The accurate passing could be counted on one hand, leaving enough fingers for a rude gesture.”
But for each forgettable derby, there are others that standout: Spurs fans will cherish April 14 1991 when they stopped Arsenal from getting a Double in their sights by smashing them at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final, Gazza hitting a free kick that will long be recalled as one of Wembley’s finest moments. Arsenal fans will no doubt recall clinching the title at the Lane, on two occasions, as my Arsenal-supporting colleagues at the New Journal never fail to gleefully remind me.
And while if you win, it always feels like the best game ever, and if you lose, the most disastrous afternoon you could wish for, a few showdowns have rightly been seen as classics for the neutral.
The 4-4 draw at the Emirates two years ago, when Aaron Lennon capped a fine Spurs fightback in the last minute, was one of three 4-4 thrillers the clubs have shared, the other two being in the 1960s.
We’re also thrown a few of those figures that statistics geeks of north London will enjoy: the player who has appeared in most north London derbies is David O'Leary. The Arsenal centre back appeared 35 times, with Pat Jennings making it 32, followed closely by both Steve Perryman and Gary Mabbutt, both on 31.
Arsenal have the measure in the league, winning 60 to Tottenham’s 47. Overall the head to head count stands at Arsenal 69 wins, Spurs with 52, and draws 45.
Above all, the north London derby has become a staple part of what makes football special – Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow have their big games, and the Spurs v Arsenal showdown is in the same bracket.
• Arsenal vs Spurs: Classic North London Derby Games. By Ian Welch. Football Football Rivals £8.99