Jack Holmes explores the history behind one of English football’s fiercest rivalries, the North London Derby
In terms of rivalries in England’s top-flight, few can match the prestige and passion of the North London Derby.
Sure, Liverpool versus Manchester United is a seismic encounter fuelled by past glories and regional conflict, but most of the intensity stems from the two battling to be the nation’s top dog. When Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur showdown, it’s all about local pride and old grudges – the game thrives whether or not there’s silverware at stake.
Spurs were born from the needs of Hotspur Cricket Club, who were looking for a sport their members could play during the hostile winters. Founded in 1882, the side was originally called London Hotspurs, yet had to change their name just two years later, as there was already a team who styled themselves as such.
Their fiercest foes were founded in 1886 by the workers of Woolwich armaments factory south London. The club – known at the time as The Royal Arsenal – were the first team from the capital to turn professional, with the Gunners securing promotion to the first division in the early years of the 20th century.
Despite their initial success, they would go bankrupt in 1910. The men from Woolwich were only saved when two local businessmen, Henry Norris and William Hall, took charge of the side. Unfortunately, the duo could not help them stave off relegation that season.
Dropping back down to the second tier would have a significant impact on Arsenal’s finances; unless decisive action was taken, the club would slowly drift away from England’s elite. Three years after demotion, Norris and Hall decided that to save the club they had to uproot the side and move them north to Highbury.
The Gunners’ new ground was situated only four miles away from White Hart Lane, the home of the Lilywhites. This change in location did not sit at all well with the Spurs faithful. Newspapers in and around Tottenham published stories labelling Arsenal ‘the Woolwich interlopers’, the tabloids warning fans not to trust the new neighbours.
The move created huge animosity between the clubs, which can still be felt today. Spurs supporters can regularly be heard singing the delightful chant, ‘F**k off back to Woolwich, north London is ours!’. That the fans often refer to Arsenal as ‘Woolwich’ demonstrates just how unwelcome they are in this end of the city. It’s clear why the clubs swiftly became enemies, though their rivalry would reach new levels further down the line.
The blue touch paper was lit following the resumption of first division football in 1919, the First World War having caused a four-year hiatus. In the 1914/15 season, Spurs finished bottom in the top-flight, whilst Arsenal placed sixth in the second-tier.
In normal years, this would have meant relegation for Tottenham, who’d have joined Arsenal in division two. However, the FA chose to reopen the top-flight by expanding the number of competitors in the league to 22.
As per usual, the top two teams went up from the second division. Chelsea, however, avoided dropping down, despite finishing 19th in tier one. They were spared after it transpired the clash between Manchester United and Liverpool had been fixed, that match having confirmed the Blues would finish in the relegation zone.
The new system meant one more team would either escape relegation from the top-flight or be handed promotion from the second division. Tottenham thought it was only logical they would be saved and stay up, with several sides from the second division applying to take the final spot.
It had already been agreed the league members would decide the matter, when Liverpool’s owner and the chairman of the committee threw a spanner in Spurs’ works, the duo vouching for sixth placed Arsenal due to their longstanding membership of the league.
The sides’ meetings have been littered with infamous moments that have only deepened their loathing of the other
Shortly after, club representatives cast their vote. The Gunners duly won, collecting eighteen compared to Tottenham’s eight, thus relegating Spurs and promoting the former. The controversy did not end there, numerous individuals claiming Arsenal chief Henry Norris had used underhand tactics to persuade other members to vote for his team.
Prior to these events, the North London Derby had still been a good-natured rivalry. It had been given a new edge, transforming games between Arsenal and Tottenham into heated, fiery encounters, much like its Merseyside equivalent. The hatred that was created a century ago shows no sign of letting up in the modern era, the two sets of fans never forgiving each other for the bad blood that ran between their predecessors.
Over the last hundred years, the sides’ meetings have been littered with infamous moments that have only deepened their loathing of the other. Sol Campbell’s transfer from White Hart Lane to Highbury in 2001 perfectly captures the hostility that fuels the clubs’ feud. The centre-back was captain of Spurs at the time of his departure, and without doubt their best player. Campbell was their hero, the Lilywhites’ leader – in an instant, he became their greatest enemy.
After 315 appearances for Tottenham – and a public declaration that he would stay with the side – the England international did the unthinkable and moved to the red side of north London. He was labelled ‘Judas’ by the fans for whom he had once been an icon. If Spurs supporters had forgotten why they abhorred the Gunners, this high-profile switch ensured gave them new reasons to despise their neghbours.
The pair have enjoyed differing levels of success since the rivalry began, with Arsenal going on to become England’s third most successful club. Tottenham have also enjoyed the taste of glory on the odd occasion, though they’ve likewise spent time in the wilderness as they fought to climb out of mid-table mediocrity.
However, there is a talk of a power following Mauricio Pochettino’s arrival at Tottenham, which has seen Spurs wrestle power away from Arsenal during a testing period in the Gunners’ history. This has only worsened relations between the two fan-bases, with their rivalry now more intense than it had ever previously been. Only time will tell which club has a brighter future.