Refused handshakes and 100-year-old betrayal: Tracking the power shift between Spurs and Arsenal

Ever since local businessman Sir Henry Norris moved Royal Arsenal from Woolwich is South East London to Highbury in the North in 1913, the stories of Arsenal and Tottenham have been intrinsically linked.

Before that time Spurs had been the main team in North London and saw the move as an invasion on what they viewed as their territory.

Six years and a world war later a fierce rivalry was officially born.

The First Division had taken the decision to expand its number of teams from 20 to 22. Chelsea, who had finished 19th in the top flight the season before, took one of the extra spots and logic then seemed to dictate that Tottenham, who had come 20th would be offered the final place in the revamped top tier.

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Instead though their new neighbours Arsenal – who had finished sixth in the Second Division in the previous campaign – were controversially chosen to be added to the top-flight instead after a vote among the league’s teams.

The circumstances around that election are still debated to this day with many alleging that Norris used underhand tactics to obtain the support of Liverpool chairman and league president Jackie McKenna, although nothing has ever been proven.

The Gunners have never been relegated since, and although Spurs bounced straight back the season after but the slight committed on them by their local nemesis was never forgotten.

Through 20 different Prime Ministers, four monarchs and another world war the pair faced off 122 times before the arrival of Arsene Wenger in 1996, with each game representing a chance for the fierce tug of war over the power balance in north London to be wrestled between both sides.

It was this proud history so traditional in English football that helped convinced Wenger to swap a much-loved position with Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan for a far more menacing challenge in England.

22 September 1996 – Arsene Wenger has his picture taken after being announced as the new Arsenal manager. (Photo by Mark Leech/Getty Images)

“Television was black and white in those days but the ball stood out brightly against the grass pitch that looked so beautiful, perfectly mown and maintained,” he recalled in his autobiography.

“It is a dazzling memory: for me it is the definitive image of football. I think that as a child I promised myself I would one day step on to that turf, a promise that of course I never voiced out loud, not even to myself.

“England and Wembley seemed to belong to another planet, another world.”

The reception Wenger received upon his arrival though was far less idyllic than the Wembley pitch he had grew up watching in Alsace.

“Arsene who?” read the now infamous Evening Standard headline to an article that told tales of a “foreign stampede” upon the English game with the influx of overseas management.

Patrick Vieira had already joined the Gunners, while Emanuel Petit, Nicolas Anelka and Gilles Grimandi followed soon after.

It was not exactly as though this type of foreign influx had never been seen before in north London.

At the other end of the Seven Sisters Road, Spurs had already experienced the much-loved Argentinian duo Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa, while diving celebrations of Jurgen Klinsmann had graced the White Hart Lane turf for a spectacular season just two years before Wenger’s arrival.

However, a quiet fear began to develop that in and among the overseas signings, the derby may lose sight of the fundamental rivalry and struggle for supremacy over North London.

Perhaps Arsenal’s most famous foreign import of all though can testify to the fact that that wasn’t the case.

Thierry Henry celebrates his goal against Tottenham in 2002 in a moment that has since been made into a statue

“‘During my eight years there, something came into me,” said Thierry Henry to L’Equipe in 2015.

“I have learned the culture of this club… I learned to hate Tottenham.”

As the millennium turned and time grew away from the famed incident that has sparked the rivalry all those years ago, the intense animosity between the two clubs showed no signs of slowing down.

In fact, perhaps its most dramatic and famous act of betrayal came on July 3rd 2001.

The global press had been gathered to London Colney for what was expected to be the unveiling of back up goalkeeper Richard Wright from Ipswich.

Instead a beaming Wenger shocked the footballing world by walking out to astonished media alongside Tottenham academy graduate Sol Campbell who he had just signed on a free transfer.

Sol Campbell is unveiled as an Arsenal player by manager Arsene Wenger

“Back in those days Arsenal had a better team and we were always trying to catch up. So if we [Spurs] did well against them or got a draw it was a fantastic result” said Campbell, explaining the decision to make the controversial move years later.

“I wanted to win things. It’s all about winning at the end of the day. If everything goes away one day what are you left with? It’s what you’ve won.”

At this point it was safe to say the balance of power was firmly in the Arsenal’s favour.

The Gunners didn’t lose a north London derby for seven years after Campbell’s switch with a few notable high points coming along the way.

Winning the league at White Hart Lane for a second time in the club’s history as they became the first side in 105 years to go a whole season unbeaten in the English top flight.

The game that followed that wasn’t a bad one either.

A seesaw encounter saw Arsenal eventually claim a 5-4 away win through goals from Henry, Lauren, Vieira, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires.

Newly-appointed Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho referred to the high scoring nature of the match as a “disgrace”, in comments that have since come back to bite him.

And so the rivalry progressed with Arsenal firmly established as the dominant force although that did little to soften the resentment felt on both sides.

This peaked as Wenger declined to shake the hand of manager Martin Jol after Spurs refused to put the ball out of play after Emmanuel Eboue had been left writhing on the floor after colliding with Gilberto Silva in the build up to Robbie Keane‘s strike in 2006 that was later cancelled out by Henry.

Tottenham did come close to finishing above their local rivals that season and were in pole position to do so going into the final day.

All they had to do was beat West Ham to ensure the final game at the Highbury stadium that had started the rivalry off all those years before would see Arsenal fail to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in Wenger’s reign.

Instead a team riddled with food poisoning after a questionable lasagne the night before choked and allowed the Gunners to steal in, with an Henry hat-trick in a 4-2 win giving Highbury the send off it deserved before a move to the Emirates Stadium.

A spectacular 5-1 win in the Carling Cup semi final second leg did plenty to sooth Spurs’ wounds, though, on a night that saw Nicklas Bendtner nearly come to blows with Emmanuel Adebayor before turning on his captain William Gallas.

That victory proved to be nothing but a bump in the road though for the Gunners dominance over north London as Juande Ramos, Harry Redknapp, Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood all failed to guide Tottenham to a finish above their local rivals as the colloquially known ‘St. Totterigham’s Day’ became a fixture in Arsenal fans’ calendars.

Perhaps the most significant development in the rivalry since Wenger’s appointment in 1996 then came though as Spurs were able to convince Mauricio Pochettino to leave Southampton and come to White Hart Lane in 2014.

Thus began a gradual shift in the dynamic that had been in place for nearly 20 years.

Mauricio Pochettino and Arsene Wenger shake hands prior to the North London Derby in 2016

Shrewd signings like Dele Alli and Toby Alderweireld allowed the Argentinian coach to build on a squad already containing the likes of Moussa Dembele, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane to form a side capable of challenging for the title just one season after his appointment.

Leicester would go on to be victorious in that 2015/16 season, but going into the last four games, but Spurs, with a five point lead over Arsenal with four matches to play, seemed at least as though they were on course to finally break the spell in the battle for supremacy over North London.

However, another spectacular late collapse that saw them take just two points from their remaining Premier League fixtures. A final day 5-1 defeat to ten man already relegated Newcastle sealed their fate once more.

That was to be the final time, though.

The following season Spurs finished second in the division a comfortable 11 points clear of Arsenal, who failed to make it into the Champions League for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s tenure.

This was to begin a run of four successive finishes above the Gunners for Mauricio Pochettino’s side, but despite this the debate over who was truly the most powerful side in North London rumbled on.

Spurs did consistently perform better in the league and reached a Champions League final between 2016 and 2020, but in terms of silverware it was Arsenal who reigned supreme with two FA Cups and two Community Shields.

The reality is that despite the continued pub conversations that have transitioned into arguments over Zoom it was probably Tottenham who hold the upper hand in the battle for power dynamic in north London as things stand.

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Arsenal – once so dominant in this fixture – have failed to win a single derby since December 2018 and have in fact won beaten Spurs just three times in all competitions since Pochettino was appointed.

A power vacuum in the long struggle emerged last season though, as neither side was really able to enjoy celebrating their league finishes too wildly as Jose Mourinho and Mikel Arteta guided their sides to 6th and 8th in the Premier League respectively.

Now though as both sides enter into Sunday’s fixture with relatively new management the prize of dominance over North London is once again up for grabs.

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