Ambition, invasion and a dead parrot: Why Arsenal vs Tottenham is more than a game

Arsenal have been annoying Spurs for years: they’ve moved in on their turf, stolen their captain, imitated their style and even managed to get them relegated. For the May 2006 FourFourTwo magazine, Mat Snow investigated the rivalry – with a little balancing help from a Gooner or two...

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Every football club and its supporters like to nurse a sense of injured innocence, a myth of victimhood which can be trotted out to justify any unsporting act on or off the pitch.

For Arsenal, it is Manchester United, the Northern bully using its institutional weight to crush its plucky Cockney rival. For Man United, the capital-M Media is determined to stitch them up every chance it gets. For Liverpool, the whole known universe conspires to do down the red half of self-pity city. 

As for Tottenham Hotspur, it is Arsenal, the carpet-bag club which moved in on their manor, tried to siphon off their fans, stole their top-flight status, hijacked their keeper, lured away their captain and, perhaps most gallingly of all, pirated their style.

Arsenal hate Spurs for the usual reason: because they’re there. Spurs hate Arsenal because they shouldn’t be there in the first place

All paranoid nonsense, of course. Except for the last one. Spurs have a case. Where most local rivalries are about no more than that, locality, Spurs’ disdain of Arsenal carries the extra charge of morality.

Arsenal hate Spurs for the usual reason: because they’re there. Spurs hate Arsenal because they shouldn’t be there in the first place.

On April 22 2006, a capacity crowd will witness the final encounter between Arsenal and Spurs at Highbury, whereupon the junior club decamps a few hundred yards back in the rough direction of where it was founded, in the bowels of the arms industry south of the Thames in Woolwich.

From dar-as-sina ab, meaning place of manufacture, the very word 'arsenal' is derived from Arabic, so the move to the Emirates Stadium marks a return to the club’s etymological roots too. (As a teenager living in London, Osama Bin Laden followed Arsenal. Fact.)

Spurs players prepare to play at Highbury for the last time

The club which shouldn't be there

In between its flit from the death factory in 1913 and up-market move this summer to a converted rubbish recycling plant handily situated for the King’s Cross red light district, Arsenal have cultivated an air of Establishment pomp.

Just as a fly-by-night finance house will adopt the trappings of pillared and pedimented permanence to camouflage the fact that it’s no better than a clip-joint or casino, so Arsenal marbled its halls and filled its boardroom with blazered Old Etonians.

“Good old Arsenal!” its fans in flat caps would cheer during the club’s era of dominance in the 1930s – aptly known as the Great Depression – but it was good and old in the same way as a Georgian-style executive development is good and old: a thin veneer of sprayed-on class that may fool snobs but not connoisseurs.

For that hugely successful transformation, Arsenal owe everything to bent businessman and Tory MP, Sir Henry Norris. Readers of FourFourTwo will already know something of this hulking crook in bowler hat and pince-nez; an expanded version is to be found in the book Rebels For The Cause: The Alternative History Of Arsenal Football Club, by Jon Spurling, who, being a Gooner, can hardly be accused of anti-Arsenal bias in his interpretation of the facts. (As for yours truly, my sympathies are obvious; But in the finest traditions of FFT, Arsenal’s side of the story will be treated with all the fairness it deserves.)

Norris was a self-made and very well-connected property developer who knew who to lean on, whose wheels to grease and where the bodies were buried. Already a director of Fulham FC, his ambition was to command a London super-club.

Woolwich Arsenal had a mud-heap pitch, a fan-base restricted to an inaccessible corner of Kent, and a load of debt. Like Chelsea nearly a century later with Abramovich, the Woolwich Arsenal board nearly bit his hand off when Norris made his approach. 

While retaining his directorship of Fulham, Norris became Arsenal’s chairman and tried to merge the two clubs

While retaining his directorship of Fulham, Norris became Arsenal’s chairman and tried to merge the two clubs to play at Craven Cottage, crucially north of the river. The League weren’t having it, nor his follow-up plan for each club to maintain separate identities while playing at the Cottage.

Plan C was to relocate Arsenal to Highbury, just far enough south of Tottenham and Leyton Orient to have a chance of attracting the masses of potential fans in the inner suburbs just north and east of the City of London.

1912: Woolwich Arsenal before becoming Arsenal

The underground railway station at Gillespie Road – renamed Arsenal in 1932 – would deliver the punters direct to the turnstiles, guaranteeing gates that would justify Norris’s £125,000 investment (£50m today) in the hitherto dead-end club.

Plan C provoked outrage from all quarters: fans of Woolwich Arsenal, Spurs, Orient and even Chelsea united in condemning a scheme that would abandon one set of supporters and undermine the other three.

The Tottenham Herald caricatured Norris as a spike-collared Hound of the Baskervilles prowling round the Spurs roost, and mounted a campaign to keep the “interlopers” out. “They have no right to be here!” the local paper thundered, a sentiment echoed by Spurs fans ever since.

A vision backed by determination for fruition

Norris, a ruthless politician as well as a malignantly visionary strategist, was not going to be over-ruled by the FA a third time. He packed their inquiry with allies and got the vote.

Next, he squared local residents fearful of a riff-raff invasion every other week, and, thanks to a personal testimonial by his old pal the Archbishop of Canterbury, reassured the Catholic Church that the six acres of land belonging to St John's College of Divinity he proposed buying as the site for the club would observe the Sabbath and be free of liquor.

Arsenal played their first competitive game at Highbury, against Leicester Fosse in the Football League Second Division, on September 6 1913.

1901: Tottenham's FA Cup winning team

What of Spurs? Originally a cricket club, Hotspur FC was named after the rebel son of the Earl of Northumberland, whose family had owned Northumberland Park and other land around Tottenham.

Sir Henry Percy, nicknamed Harry Hotspur, was immortalised by Shakespeare as the chivalrous anti-hero of Henry IV Part One (his catch-phrase: “By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap/To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon”). The aristocratic cavalry to Arsenal’s roundhead artillery, the gulf in class between the two clubs goes right back to their roots.

The first London team to win the FA Cup – as Southern League amateurs, to boot – Spurs joined the booming Football League in 1908 and were promoted to the First Division in 1909. From that peak they slid until bottoming the table at the end of the 1914-15, when the Great War intervened.

Ending, meanwhile, the last pre-War season fifth in the Second Division, upon the return of peace Woolwich Arsenal would not expect to resume League football in the First Division. And yet they did – at Tottenham’s expense.

NEXT: Theories and conspiracies