There is no doubt that the North London Derby, Arsenal vs Tottenham, is one of the most famous and fierce derbies in English football. And considering the size of each team’s fanbase, it’s probably one of the most famous derbies in the world.
So let’s take a look at the North London Derby: its origins, history, and some key players and games you’ll want to know about to more properly understand — if it’s possible to “understand” the psychology of football supporters — the world of Tottenham v Arsenal.
Derbies = Madness
I have friends on both sides of the North London Derby, and I can honestly say that when the subject of that other team comes up, I enjoy, and kind of loathe, watching my friends go just a little bit crazy. One friend will make some sweeping statement about “that other lot” without bothering to exempt our mutual friend from the discussion — although if I make a comment, sure, they’ll mention that s/he isn’t like “the rest of them.”
I’ve not been to a North London Derby, but I have been to others, like the East Anglian Derby, Norwich vs Ipswich Town, in which I watched otherwise reasonable and calm residents on the streets of Norwich chant “scum” at visitors from Ipswich. And I’ve seen a Steel City Derby, Sheffield Wednesday vs Sheffield United, in which insults I had to Google were tossed back and forth among citizens of the same city.
In the case of Tottenham and Arsenal, a lot of the animosity goes to their stadiums being just four miles away from each other in North London. But many Spurs fans honestly believe that since they were in North London first, Arsenal should go back where they belong. That Arsenal moved there in 1913 doesn’t seem to increase the logic of their thinking.
Tottenham and Arsenal Histories
As we always do with our derby series, let’s start with a brief history of each club, adapted from our guidebook, A Groundhopper Guide to Soccer in England. And we’ll start with Tottenham because, sure, they were there first.
They were founded in Tottenham, a North London neighborhood, in 1882 and took their nickname from Sir Henry Percy, nicknamed Harry Hotspur, who lived around there. Harry, a character in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, was also said to be fond of fighting cocks, so in 1910 a player made a nine-foot statue of a cockerel. It stood on top of their old stadium, White Hart Lane, from then on and now adorns the new place.
Spurs, along with Manchester United, were the only club to win trophies in each decade from the 1950s through 2010. Their glory days were the early 1960s, when they became the first club to win the League and FA Cups (“doing the double”) in the same year in the 20th century. That was 1960–61. They won the FA Cup again in 1962, then the UEFA Cup (now the Europa League) in 1962, becoming the first English club to win a major European trophy.
Their last trophy was the 2008 League Cup, but their last League title was 1961, and their last FA Cup was 1991. For many years since then, they have failed to get it done, and they finished behind Arsenal in the league for decades until 2016–17. Gunners fans enjoyed taunting them with shirts and stickers reading “Mind the Gap.” Arsenal fans also created an annual holiday, St. Totteringham’s Day — the day when it’s confirmed Spurs will finish behind Arsenal again. It hasn’t been celebrated for a while. After the 2020-21 season, Spurs have finished ahead of Arsenal five straight times dating back to 2016-17.
This relationship is shifting, though. Spurs spent three of the last four seasons in the Champions League, and even made the 2019 final (losing to Liverpool), while Arsenal toiled in the Europa League each of the last four years. Only Spurs will play for European glory in 2021-22, as they are in the first-ever Europa Conference League while Arsenal failed to qualify for any European competition.
Arsenal were the first club from the South of England to join the Football League in 1893. Since then, they have won the league thirteen times, the FA Cup a record fourteen times, and two (minor) European titles. They were the first London club to reach the Champions League final, which they lost to Barcelona, 2–1, in 2006.
They also hold the top-flight record for going forty-nine games unbeaten from May 2003 to October 2004. This included the entire 2003–04 Premier League season, making them only the second team in top-flight history — and the first since Preston North End in 1889 — to go a whole season without a loss. This team is known as the Invincibles.
Perhaps the most amazing fact is that they have been relegated only one time, in 1913 — more on that in a bit, as well, as Spurs fans will be angry already at the reference. They went back up the following year and have been in the top division of English football ever since.
The club was founded in 1886 by munitions workers at an arsenal in South East London — hence the name, their Gunners nickname, and the cannon motif all around. In 1913, facing financial difficulties, they moved to North London.
As noted, Tottenham were already there, and did not want or welcome neighbors. Things got worse when in 1919 the newly expanded First Division voted in Arsenal over Spurs, which Spurs fans have claimed ever since was because of bribery.
Arsenal are these days in a bit of a slow-motion transition, though in which direction is unclear. The reason for this is the same reason they are currently so big and widely supported: Arsène Wenger, whose shadow seems to still linger over the club though he retired in 2018. The Frenchman became manager of an already-successful club in 1996 and took it to new heights: two league-and-Cup doubles, four FA Cups, and the Invincibles season. He brought in an attacking style; revolutionized training, tactics, and diets; and led the club into their palatial new stadium in 2006 … and then he largely stopped winning things.
Since 2004, “all” they have won is five FA Cups, and the last five years they didn’t even finish in the top four. Hell, they’ve also finished behind Spurs in the league five years running, which has turned the whole “Mind the Gap” business between the supporters on its head.
In May 2018 Wenger retired, but under his replacement, Unai Emery, Arsenal finished fifth in the league and went out of the FA Cup after just two games. However, they did make the final of the Europa League. They lost that one to Chelsea, and their fans still don’t seem happy.
Former player Mikel Arteta took over in 2019 and got them an FA Cup trophy — their record 14th — which got them back in the Europa League for 2020-21 despite finishing eighth in the league, two spots behind Tottenham. They made it to the semifinals, where they lost on aggregate to Villarreal, the eventual champions.
North London Derby Historical Results
As of this writing following their matchups in the 2020-21 season, there have been 201 meetings between the clubs, though some of the earliest weren’t North London derbies because Arsenal hadn’t moved yet. Still, the results table shows 82 wins for Arsenal, 66 for Spurs and 53 draws.
Another reason this is such an intense rivalry is they play all the time. Since 1950, there was only one season they weren’t in the same league: 1977-78, when Spurs were in the Second Division. In the Premier League alone (since 1992), and owing to some additional run-ins in the Cups, there have been 67 North London derbies!
Since 1992, Spurs have only one league win at Arsenal, a 3-2 triumph in November 2010. Their only other away win in those years was 2-0 in the League Cup in December 2018 — part of an overall trend in which results have swung their way. Since the start of 2014-15 season, the record in all competitions shows Arsenal with two wins (both at home) and Spurs with five and six drawn.
The tables look the same. After Arsenal finished on top for 22 straight years, Spurs have flipped that script every year since the 2016-17 season.
Notable Players in the North London Derby
There are obviously many considered heroes on one end of that four-mile stretch and villains on the other, and eight players have actually played for both teams in the derby. But let’s pick one player who went each way as an example of how high the emotions can run.
Sol “Judas” Campbell
Campbell, a center back, joined the Spurs youth system in 1989 and made the first team in 1992, eventually making 255 appearances and being club captain before leaving in 2001 — for Arsenal. Just making that switch would be hard enough for Spurs fans to swallow. What made it worse is that Campbell, whose contract was up that summer, said he was staying at Spurs, told a club magazine he’d never play for Arsenal, hinted he might leave to play Champions League football, and then out of nowhere signed for Arsenal.
Here is his return to White Hart Lane the following season, wearing the hated red.
This guy speaks pretty well for Spurs fans:
Emmanuel Adebayor and That Celebration
Adebayor played for Arsenal from 2006 to 2009, then left for Manchester City. In his fourth outing there, they hosted Arsenal in a game that quickly got very emotional. A couple of Arsenal players say Adebayor slapped or stomped on them, and Arsenal fans hurled all sorts of abuse at their former man. So, when he scored, he did the following (note one of those stomps shows up here as well):
He was punished for this by the FA and later apologized, but also said “there’s only so much abuse a man can take,” especially when it goes from partisan to racist.
To make matters worse between him and Gunners, he later signed with Tottenham! Here he is scoring a penalty for them at The Emirates, and Arsenal fans making some suggestions as to his character and something he might consider doing.
Noteworthy Games in North London Derby History
Here is a sampling of historic games between Arsenal and Tottenham.
May 3, 1971: Arsenal Win the League at Tottenham
Last game of the season and if Arsenal wins, they capture the league. That they are at playing at White Hart Lane made it that much more intense.
December 23, 1978: Arsenal Romp at the Lane
Don’t worry, Spurs fans, we’ll show some you like, as well!
1983: Spurs Return the Favor
See, Spurs fans? Enjoy this one.
1991 FA Cup Semifinal: Gazza Strikes
Probably the biggest stakes they’ve shared on a day, as even when Arsenal were winning the league, Spurs couldn’t. This was for a Cup Final at Wembley. This one features the current Match of the Day host Gary Lineker, as well as the legendary Spurs and England player Paul Gascoigne. Oh, I say!
Spurs went on to win the Cup, as well.
April 25, 2004: To Celebrate or Not?
Arsenal’s unbeaten Invincibles rolled into White Hart Lane needing just one point to claim the league title. Security asked them not to celebrate too much should they get it, but as you can see here, Thierry Henry’s contempt for Tottenham changed that script a little.
November 13, 2004: Nine-Goal Thriller
White Hart Lane sees the highest-scoring North London Derby in history.
January 22, 2008: League Cup Beatdown
It’s the second leg of the League Cup semifinals, after the first leg ended 1-1 at Arsenal. The second leg was quite the opposite:
January 4, 2014: Walcott With the Score Update
Arsenal were on their way to an FA Cup win when they beat Spurs 2-0 at home in the Third Round. But late in the game, Arsenal’s Theo Walcott hurt his knee in front of the Spurs fans. Which came first — them throwing coins and bottles at him, or him reminding them of the score — probably depends on which color you wear.
Former Arsenal man Ian Wright sure enjoyed it, though.
April 30, 2017: Last Time at White Hart Lane
By this time, tides were turning in the North London Derby, and Spurs had found a youngster named Harry Kane who could do some things. This was the season Spurs finished ahead of the Gunners for the first time in 22 years.