The north London derby tends to make for enthralling encounters. It seems to produce consistently excellent football, drawing the best (and occasionally worst) out of of both teams. However, how ferocious is the animosity between the sets of fans?
The rivalry between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur does have some special ingredients to it. Many derbies are inspired purely by proximity—fans are naturally tribal and simply hate other teams based solely on the fact they’re operating in the same geographical area. In the case of Arsenal and Spurs, there’s slightly more to it.
The rivalry has political origins. Although the clubs met for the first time in 1887, their rivalry really caught fire in 1913. It was then that Arsenal moved from their original location in Plumstead to Highbury, thus encroaching on what Tottenham perceived as their territory. Despite the fact Arsenal were in the division below, the two sides met regularly in local competitions during the First World War, fostering an inevitable rivalry.
However, things really escalated in 1919. After the war, it was decided the First Division was to be expanded by two teams, and the league held a general meeting to decide who would be accepted. Chelsea and Tottenham, who had finished in 19th and 20th play respectively, felt they had cause to be spared relegation and allowed to remain in the league along with the two promoted clubs from the Second Division. However, Arsenal (who had only finished in sixth in the Second Division), bid for the place for themselves.
Arsenal beat Tottenham in the vote, and the two clubs swapped divisions. Arsenal had waltzed into Tottenham territory and sent the club into the lower division. Spurs cried foul play, and the enmity intensified. Spurs’ demotion did not last long; they returned to the top flight after winning the Second Division title in 1920, and derbies took on another level of potency thereafter. There’s nothing to inspire antipathy like a grudge.
However, that was almost 100 years ago, and many of today's fans are not even fully aware of the details of that story. While Arsenal’s encroachment may have been the initial cause of the dissension, it has undoubtedly evolved since then.
When Pat Jennings moved from Tottenham to Arsenal in 1977, it was an unpopular decision but one the Spurs fans seemed relatively happy to stomach—and not just because they believed the goalkeeper was approaching the end of his career.
However, when Sol Campbell made the same move in 2001, he incensed the Tottenham fans. Slurs were made, effigies were burnt and Campbell was widely vilified among Spurs fans. That speaks to an acceleration in the tension between the two clubs. Familiarity, it seems, has bred yet more contempt.
Competition is a key element in determining the strength of any rivalry. That’s definitely been a factor in turning up the heat in the north London derbies.
Every season, Arsenal fans look forward to celebrating what they have dubbed "St Totteringham’s Day"—the day in the football calendar when it becomes mathematically impossible for Spurs to finish above them in the league. Gunners fans have been able to mark that occasion every year since 1995.
However, in recent seasons, the clubs have come closer together. A decade ago, Arsenal were a dominant force in the Premier League, regularly challenging for the title while Tottenham were caught in the mire of mid-table.
The fortunes of both clubs have changed somewhat since then. Arsenal chose to build a new stadium and had to cut their cloth accordingly. That, combined with the emergence of financial superpowers such as Chelsea and Manchester City, left them trailing the front-runners back in third or fourth position. That placed them into direct competition with resurgent Tottenham, who have begun to challenge fairly consistently for the Champions League qualification places.
That has led to some epic struggles in recent years. The balance of power in north London is finer than it has been for sometime. Arsenal remain on top, but there have been occasionally signs of a wing in Spurs’ direction.
For Gunners fans, that’s an unpalatable thought. For Spurs fans, it would be the sweetest of achievements. That hunger to get one over the rivals drives the hostility to new heights.
However, there are some elements that are, perhaps fortunately, absent in this particular feud. One thing to say is there is no great separation between the types of fans each club has acquired.
The rivalry between Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, for example, is based partly on the social divisions that historically existed between the two sets of supporters. Boca are from the working-class, dockside barrio of the same name, whereas River originate in the more plush surrounding of the suburb Nunez and are nicknamed the Millionaires. It’s easy to see where the resentment stems from.
The same is not true of Arsenal and Tottenham, whose supporters come from a very similar social demographic. It’s also not a rivalry that shares the sectarian fervour of that between, say, Celtic and Rangers. Both sets of fans are multi-ethnic because of London’s racial diversity.
Unfortunately, the encounters between the two teams have been punctuated by some unsavoury incidents. In the 1970s and '80s, Tottenham were targeted by some anti-Semitic chanting because of the large Jewish community that exists in that area. This has led to many Spurs fans controversially reclaiming the term “yid” as a badge of pride.
Sadly, there are still some highly unpleasant songs sung that make reference to that fact. That’s inexcusable, but it appears to be the behaviour of a misguided minority. For most fans, this issue is not a consideration in the rivalry. For one thing, Arsenal also have a significant Jewish fanbase. There is no real religious divide. True supporters know this rivalry is really about the competition on the field.
That’s where this battle really springs into life. Arsenal and Tottenham are both clubs with rich traditions who pride themselves on playing enthralling brands of attacking football. In the north London derby, goals tend to flow. Their rivalry may not be the fiercest in world football, but it has a good case to be the most entertaining.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and is following the club from a London base throughout 2015/16. Follow him on Twitter here.