With Saturday’s London derby between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea approaching, Ed Dove suggests that this imminent clash may be one of the most momentous yet. André Villas-Boas, once of Chelsea, is the current centrepiece in a rivalry that has an enduring past and a vibrant future.
One of the most beautiful things about England’s derbies is their continued renovation. The proximity between the key protagonists, the frequency of competition and the high stakes rewards mean that these fixtures are constantly imbued with deeper subplots and a sharper meaning. The North London derby between Tottenham and Arsenal took on a different complexion following Sol Campbell’s transfer, the West London derby between Chelsea and Q.P.R. has recently become synonymous with racist allegations and pre-match rituals, and England’s headline derby, that between Manchester United and Liverpool, continues to generate its own dirty little subplots and vicious animosity.
Spurs vs. Chelsea was once billed as a battle between London’s faded glory to the North and its nouveau riche to the West. The insertion of André Villas-Boas—sure to be one of Saturday’s key belligerents—has given the fixture an extra, invigorated dimension.
Those new to the game, or with a short-term awareness of football history, may be forgiven for assuming that Chelsea have always dominated competition between the pair. Whilst in recent history that has perhaps been the case (it took Spurs 15 years of Premier League competition to break their duck), the rivalry hasn’t always held that dynamic. It was Tottenham who claimed the FA Cup in 1967 after beating the aforementioned Blues, claiming the same title years later in 1982.
Football writer and novelist Brian Glanville, a true legend of football comment, once suggested that the Spurs side that claimed the record-breaking Double in 1961 was the finest English side he had ever seen. In fact, until the changing pace of the Abramovich regime, it was Spurs—not their London rivals—who were by far the more celebrated of the pair. It’s easy to forget that Tottenham are one of only two English sides to have claimed an honour in each of the last six decades. No mean feat.
The rivalry is painted in a certain light for many in London—those who characterise Chelsea as the new blood, the great pretenders keen to finally bury the faded glamour of Spurs. Others identify jealousy as the root cause of the hatred that has become so visceral: for Spurs, jealousy towards Chelsea’s riches and their current place among the European elite; for Chelsea, envy towards Tottenham’s history, and a club identity that oozes charm and class.
Whilst Chelsea could, perhaps justly, be accused of buying success and status, Roman can throw as much money as he wants at the Blues—they will never be able to by the class exuded effortlessly by the Lilywhites. The reality, however, is that contemporary success and modern status are profound, pivotal parts of the game’s currency. Chelsea’s Champions League win last summer, making them the first London club to do so, has left an indelible mark on the capital’s hierarchy. It is moments like this that truly matter when it comes to the comparison and competition gobbled up by football fans.
And so, to the present day, and this weekend, when Roberto Di Matteo’s European Champions, currently holding the number one spot in the EPL, cross the city to White Hart Lane. Historically, it’s been hard to be totally, and boldly, behind Spurs in this kind of match—they're known to have an uncanny habit of crumbling apart, mid-flight, when the going gets tough. This weekend, though, it is hard to write them off, despite the visitors’ impressive start to the season.
André Villas-Boas has to take major credit for this renewed conviction in the Lilywhites, as the erstwhile Chelsea boss has overseen a renaissance of sorts at the Lane this season. Eyebrows were raised in some quarters when Spurs head-honcho Daniel Levy named AVB as Harry Redknapp’s successor in the summer. His eccentric theatrics and passive aggression at Chelsea had left a sour taste, and many doubted whether the arrogant Chelsea flop would truly be a tangible upgrade over the former boss—a man who had cemented Spurs in the top quarter of the league.
Doubts became fears during Tottenham’s sluggish start to the season—poor results prompted audible discontent among the fans, whilst some muddled decision-making diminished Villas-Boas’s already-tenuous standing before the White Hart Lane faithful. AVB was becoming dangerously easy to dislike, and then it all began to fall Tottenham’s way: Wins against Reading, QPR, and Carlisle were followed by that trip to Old Trafford—an occasion that will live large in Tottenham’s legacy.
It seems that the bright young star of European management, the character who had threatened to become old before his time, is finally finding his feet on English soil. The rise, fall and redemption of the Portuguese managerial wonderkid has been one of the fascinating sub-plots of the last year in the Premier League: the awkward fit at Chelsea, the strained relationships, the petulance, the promise, the dismissal and the aftermath. Imagine his emotions on 19th May 2012 as a Chelsea side, his own only months before, topped Bayern in Munich to claim the Champions League. Vexatious.
This weekend these two great teams collide once more, and the latest episode of a rivalry that began in 1908 will unfold before our eyes. The gulf between the two is smaller now than it has been in recent years, and Spurs, particularly the current incarnation under AVB, are wholly capable of overcoming the Pensioners and closing the gap between the two to two points.
Expect animosity, expect passion, and most of all, expect Tottenham’s managerial wonderkid to write a new chapter in this storied football narrative.