What the North London Derby Means to Tottenham and Arsenal Fans

Tony MabertContributor INovember 15, 2012

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26: Gareth Bale of Tottenham Hotspur is challenged by Theo Walcott of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur at Emirates Stadium on February 26, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

When Arsenal host Tottenham Hotspur for their Premier League clash at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, it will be the latest installment of one of English football's biggest rivalries. 

Like so many of the best derbies, this ongoing duel is rooted in much more than the cliched "local bragging rights". The circumstances in which the two clubs find themselves in 2012 make the significance of this fixture very current as well as historical.

Separated by just a few miles of north London road, these two clubs will meet for the 169th time in all competitions this weekend since their first meeting in 1909.

Back then, the geographical divide between the two clubs was much bigger, with Arsenal then based in Woolwich, south London. That all changed in 1913 when they upped sticks and moved across the river right into Tottenham's backyard. 

The two clubs did not meet for the first time as neighbours until 1920, however, due to circumstances which remain controversial until this day. When the Football League's hiatus due to the First World War ended in 1919, Arsenal chairman Henry Norris negotiated his club's promotion from the Second Division up to the top-flight at the expense of Spurs, despite the Gunners having only finished fifth in the second-tier the previous season. 

After winning their way back up at the first attempt, Spurs faced the interlopers dubbed "Woolwich Wanderers" as their nearest opponents for the first time, and since then, the rivalry has continued to strengthen.

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There were times, such as in their title-winning "Glory Glory" era of the 1950s and '60s, and when they won cup competitions with regularity at home and abroad during the early 1980s, that Spurs could claim to be top dogs in north London.

But, for the most part, it is Arsenal who have always been the more successful club.

For decades, Tottenham fans could at least console themselves with their rich tradition of exciting, attacking football while their neighbours in the more-salubrious borough of Islington were rarely praised for the aesthetic qualities of their play, even if it did garner more trophies.

That all changed in the mid 1990s when—at a time when Spurs were crushingly mediocre at best and battling relegation at worst—Arsene Wenger inherited one of the most regimented teams of the modern era from George Graham (via Bruce Rioch) and turned them into the most cosmopolitan and attractive side in the country.

For a decade, Spurs lived in Arsenal's shadow more than ever as Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars were among the foreign stars who won three league titles and four FA Cups in such thrilling fashion. They did so alongside English players like Tony Adams, Ian Wright and former Spurs captain Sol Campbell, whose name remains mud among Tottenham fans to this day and is sure to be defamed once again by the away supporters at the Emirates on Saturday. 

That run between 1997 and 2005 included two doubles and an unbeaten title-winning campaign, and they were even 15 minutes away from becoming the first London team to win the European Cup in the 2006 Champions League final, before losing 2-1 to Barcelona in Paris.

But, since then, Arsenal have been overtaken by clubs with deeper pockets and have become accustomed to seeing their best players leave every year, just at a time when Tottenham have progressed into their best period in three decades. 

Spurs themselves reached the quarterfinals in their first, and so far only, participation in the Champions League in 2010/11, and they would be sitting at Europe's top table again this season were it not for Chelsea's triumph in the competition, rendering last season's fourth-place finish irrelevant.

As such, both clubs know how important it is to finish in the top four, and with Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs firmly out in front, there is only one remaining place up for grabs.

This is potentially a pivotal season, with UEFA's incoming financial fair play regulations making access to the wealth on offer in the Champions League more vital than ever. Securing that lucrative right would not only boast one club's prospects but directly harm those of their local rivals.

For the last two decades, Arsenal have always known that, even if they were not necessarily challenging for trophies, at least they were still better than Tottenham. Now, the Gunners side, which has lost Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri over the past 18 months alone, can no longer take that for granted.

Spurs, for their part, will see this season as perhaps their best opportunity to finish above Arsenal for the first time since 1995—the last time they prevented their neighbours from celebrating St Totteringham's Day, the movable feast which honours the moment in a season when the Gunners can no longer be overtaken by them in the table.

It may be a rivalry that has been prominent in English football for a century, but it remains as important today as it has ever been.


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