Football's Greatest Rivalries: The Changing Fortunes of Arsenal and Spurs

In North London, there is a rivalry that stretches the length of Seven Sisters Road. At the South of it are Tottenham Hotspur, founded in 1882, two-time English League Champions, the first British team to win a European trophy and winners of the FA Cup eight times. At the other end are Arsenal, recently of Highbury, but now at the Emirates Stadium in Islington. Founded in 1886 but not in North London, and there in lies the birth of the rivalry. Arsenal were founded by munitions workers in Woolwich, South East London as Dial Square before being renamed Royal Arsenal, then Woolwich Arsenal. The famous emblem and nickname of the club, the Gunners comes from the association with the munitions workers.

However, in 1914 after a flirtation with bankruptcy before the start of The Great War, they moved to a ground north of the river and dropped the Woolwich due to the transplant to become just Arsenal. As our current socio-political climate with a mass global pandemic bringing professional sports to a standstill, the first World War suspended all sport until it reconvened in 1919. At the end of the 1914-15 season, Arsenal were languishing in 5th place of the Second division. The First Division was expanded to 22 teams with the two clubs atop the second division, Derby and Preston duly promoted. Yet Tottenham were relegated, with Arsenal promoted in their place.

Woolwich Arsenal FC 1913/1914 (5859715) Framed Prints, Wall Art
Arsenal 1914
Many regard this as the start of the enmity between the two clubs. Since then Arsenal have never been relegated from the top division of the football pyramid. Tottenham suffered a relegation in the late 1970s but been ever-present in the top flight since 1979.

Following this unlikely reprieve, Arsenal prospered during the interwar period and especially in the 1930s, under the stewardship of Herbert Chapman. Chapman's side would dominate, winning five League titles and two FA Cups. Following the Chapman's death in 1934 and the subsquent Second World War, they achieved only moderate success, winning league titles in 1948 and 1953. Unfortunately for the Gunners, after the triumph in '53 they would not win another trophy for 17 years.

The 1950s saw the start of something stirring in White Hart Lane. In 1950, Tottenham won the Second Division title playing a new brand of push and run football managed by Arthur Rowe, and featuring amongst his ranks was Bill Nicholson and Alf Ramsey, two men who would modernise football in the 1960s.

Following the Second division title, Tottenham won the First Division title in 1951. Achieving the feat, at the first time of asking, was a very rare and not repeated until Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in the late 1970s. Spurs would themselves not win another trophy for 10 years, but then the most trophy rich period of their history began.

In 1960/61, Tottenham Hotspur became the first team to complete the league and cup double in the 20th century. A side of genuine pace, grace, finesse and toughness  was epitomised by the leadership of Danny Blanchflower, Dave Mackay, Cliff Jones and Bobby Smith - four players from all four corners of the United Kingdom. Tottenham played a brand of football that made them the envy of the nation and barring some controversial decisions in the European Cup semi-final versus Eusebio’s Benfica may have won the continent’s richest prize.

Jimmy Greaves scored goals for fun and his stats make the former ...
Spurs legend Jimmy Greaves

Yet the taste of continental victory would come in 1963 when the addition of Jimmy Greaves (in 1962) led to Tottenham becoming the first British side to win a European trophy triumphing in Rotterdam 5-1 over Atletico Madrid; Tottenham were the nation’s best side.

By the end of the decade, the tables starting to turn when Arsenal appointed Bertie Mee. Winning the Fairs Cup in 1969 Mee would lead the Gunners to their own double victory in 1971. The league title being won by Ray Kennedy’s 88th minute header in a league encounter versus Tottenham at, of all places, White Hart Lane.

Lean times followed for both sides after the 1971 double victory and barring cup triumphs for Tottenhamin the early 1980s, neither side could break the stranglehold of Merseyside giants Liverpool and Everton. However, the arrival of George Graham at Highbury in 1986 would revive Arsenal's fortunes. A League Cup triumph came in 1987 and then the league title in 1989 in the most dramatic of circumstances winning at Anfield with the last kick of the season to win the title and deny Liverpool themselves of the championship.

A further league title came in 1991, and double cup triumph in 1993 arguably eclipsed Tottenham’s 1991 FA Cup win. There was a growing opinion that while Tottenham would always have the stylish and more talented footballers – Glenn Hoddle, Chris Waddle, Paul Gascoigne – they may win you the odd trophy while Arsenal would get results by way of their famous back line and infamous offside trap.

Tottenham new stadium latest: Paul Gascoigne wants to be part of ...
The man, the myth, the legend - Paul Gascoigne

The advent of the Wenger era with his numerous league titles throughout the Premier League and his constant battles with Manchester United, meant the rivalry with Spurs encountered dark times. While Arsenal fought for English dominance, Tottenham flirted with mid-table mediocrity sometimes helped by the odd cup win like the one which led to Wembley in 2009. Defeating Chelsea brought some relief and again despite fielding players of distinct virtuosity such as David Ginola and Rafael Van der Vaart; Arsenal could state their own in the form of Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and Robin Van Persie and they won titles with these players.

Tottenham was seen as more of a stepping stone, players came to move on to pastures new and a bigger club or earn the move their talents deserved like Michael Carrick to United and Gareth Bale to Real Madrid. It would be another infamous transfer in 2001 which led to tensions between the North London rivals reaching peak levels.

Tottenham Hotspur captain and leader, Sol Campbell, was a free agent and hadn't signed a new contract effectively leaving him free to go wherever he wished. Campbell shocked the football world by leaving for the red side of North London, showing no remorse other than to win titles' which he did twice, and two FA Cups. Campbell has never been forgiven by the white half of the rivalry and labelled a ‘Judas’ for his betrayal.

Sol Campbell claims Arsenal were better than Tottenham Hotspur in ...
Sol Campbell making some friends

Recovering under the leadership of Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs would even come close to title victories twice in the 2010s. Losing to Leicester and Chelsea utilised a mandate of youth and pressing, however Tottenham never won a trophy under Pochettino despite reaching the Champions League final in 2019.

Tottenham have had opportunities to win many a trophy but a combination of negligence from the board in failing to support management with an open cheque book has led to them falling behind Arsenal in terms of bragging rights. Arsenal's, at least until very recently, provided a blueprint for success, a new stadium, funded a squad and garnered silverware.

While Arsenal have been able to move forward and adapt in the new age of football glory, Tottenham’s business model has flatlined and been left standing still. Luckily, Arsenal’s post-Wenger failings – sacking Unai Emery and now employing Mikel Arteta – along with the new chapter of Jose Mourinho at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium means the teams are again on an equal footing. In this post-Covid 19 world, both sides will be able to start this rivalry afresh.

This piece was kindly written for @TFHBs by Jamie Garwood - you can follow him on twitter @JamieGarwood

©The Football History Boys, 2020

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