There are some derbies in London that don’t have much fire to them, with Arsenal and Chelsea regularly selling players to one another without all that much fuss. The same is definitely not true of the North London derby, which pits Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur against one another. Things weren’t always like that, with the two teams playing each other in a relatively friendly manner, or as friendly as any competitive game can be, up until 1913. Since then, though, the fire has burned intensely and there have been more than a few standout moments.
It was in 1913 that Arsenal moved from Woolwich, South of the River Thames, to North London, putting them right on the doorstep of a team that already played there: Tottenham. Arsenal winning the league at White Hart Lane in 1971 didn’t help matters, repeating that trick during the Invincibles season 33 years later. There are plenty of Premier League matchups that capture the imagination, but few of them are ‘must see’ events quite like the North London derby. It is a match that tends to have everything, such is the nature of the battle between the sides.
Why It Started
Tottenham Hotspur Football Club was founded in 1882, with the ‘Tottenham’ not being added until two years later. The club was based in North London from the get-go, playing inter-squad games and matches against other clubs during the initial few years of its existence. In 1886, munitions workers at Woolwich formed Dial Square Football Club, renaming to Royal Arsenal in 1887. As two clubs in London, it was inevitable that the pair would meet on the football pitch at some point, which happened for the first time on 19th November, 1887 in Plumstead.
Poor light meant that the match was abandoned before it could be completed, with Spurs leading 2-1 at the time. They met again the following February, but Tottenham weren’t able to field 11 players and were roundly beaten 6-2. The first competitive meeting came in the United League, which saw Arsenal win 2-1 on the second of November 1896. In 1898, 15,000 people attending the match at Northumberland Park, with some climbing onto the refreshment stand to get a better look. It collapsed, causing some injuries, which led Tottenham to look for a new ground at the nearby White Hart Lane.
During those early games things were relatively cordial between the two team, with mere footballing rivalries being what separated them. In 1913, however, Arsenal chose to leave their home in Plumstead to a new ground in Highbury, a mere four miles from Tottenham’s home stadium. Suddenly the two teams were no longer geographically distanced from one another and Spurs fans felt as though Arsenal had moved onto their territory. Arsenal had become Tottenham’s closest rivals; a fact that wasn’t helped by the Gunners winning 5-1 in their first match as North London clubs.
The Rivalry Heats Up
In 1919, the decision was taken to expand the First Division by adding two teams to it. The teams would be decided according to the result of a vote, with Chelsea being allowed to stay on account of the fact that finished 19th and would otherwise have been relegated. The second spot might have been given to Tottenham, who finished 20th, or Barnsley, who came third in the second division, but Arsenal and four other clubs chose to bid for the place. The League President and Chairman of Liverpool Football Club, John McKenna, gave his endorsement to Arsenal.
As a result, the Gunners won the vote by eighteen, whilst Spurs only received eight, meaning that Arsenal were promoted at Tottenham’s expense. Spurs won the Second Division that season, seeing them regain their place in the First Division and reigniting the North London derby in the top-flight. Any suggestion that the bitterness of the rivalry is a relatively modern thing is wide of the mark, with the two clubs engaging in some nasty battles during those early years of the First Division. In fact, the game between the pair in 1922 was so vicious that the teams were censured by the Football Association.
As you might imagine, such a bitter rivalry has seen some truly exciting matches play out over the years. From title deciders to cup matches, Spurs and Arsenal have gone head-to-head in some games that really meant something. They have also done battle in matches that didn’t mean anything at all but still had plenty of fire in them, of course, which is part of the reason why the North London derby is seen as one of the top-flight’s most entertaining matches. Here is a look at some of them:
Spurs 0 – Arsenal 1 (1971)
There is something quite galling about seeing your most bitter rival win the title in your own ground, so the fact that it has happened to Tottenham twice is particularly unpleasant. The first time was on the third of May 1971, with Arsenal needing to either win or draw 0-0 to win the First Division. A goalless draw would have seen Leeds United win it thanks to goal average, which is what was used back then rather than goal difference. Ray Kennedy scored the winner after a chipped cross from George Armstrong, with Spurs trying, but failing, to find an equaliser.
Spurs 3 – Arsenal 1 (1991)
Known as ‘St Hotspur Day’ by Spurs fans, it perhaps says something about the rivalry that them stopping Arsenal from doing something is what stands out for supporters. Arsenal were looking for a second Double, having won one 20 years prior. Paul Gascoigne gave Tottenham the lead in the FA Cup semi-final before Gary Lineker doubled it, with Alan Smith pulling one back for Arsenal before the half-time break. Any hopes that the Gunners had of getting back into the game were scotched by another from Lineker in the second-half, killing their hopes of a Double and giving Tottenham fans a fay to remember.
Spurs 2 – Arsenal 2 (2004)
Arsenal’s 2003-2004 campaign would go down in history, being the first time that a team had gone unbeaten for an entire season in the Premier League era. They had won so many points that they only needed a draw at White Hart Lane in order to win the title, which looked to be the least they’d get when Patrick Viera and Robert Pires put them 2-0 up. Goals from Jamie Redknapp and Robbie Keane salvaged at least a little bit of pride for Spurs, but it didn’t matter; the final score of 2-2 saw the Gunners crowned champions at the home of their rivals for the second time.
Spurs 5 – Arsenal 1 (2008)
When you end up facing your rivals in a match in a cup competition or a game that can see the league title decided, there is something dreadful about it for supporters. The last thing you want is to be part of the reason why your fiercest rival wins a trophy, but when Tottenham took on Arsenal in the League Cup semi-final in 2008 that’s exactly what happened. The first-leg had finished 1-1, but Spurs absolutely ran away with it in the second, smashing the Gunners for five. They went through 6-2 on aggregate, facing another London rival in the final when they beat Chelsea 2-1.