It won’t come as a surprise even to those with just a passing interest in English football that Arsenal’s biggest rivals are undoubtedly Tottenham Hotspur. Tottenham are Arsenal’s opponents in the north London derby, which is one of the most (in)famous football derbies in the world and dates back over 100 years.
How Did the Rivalry Start Between Arsenal & Tottenham?
The fierce competition and mutual animosity between Arsenal and Spurs originated in local Tory councillor Henry Norris’s decision to move the Gunners from south London to north London, in order to create a much larger catchment area for fans, as well as to merge with Fulham, to save the club from bankruptcy.
However, the FA declared that if the two clubs were to merge, they would have to start over as a “new” club, and effectively be relegated to Division Two. Norris saw this as an unthinkable proposition and therefore decided instead to purchase the club and look for a suitable place in north London to move the club to, settling on a school sports pitch in Highbury.
This was very close to Tottenham, and both Spurs and Chelsea objected to this move, but the league were powerless to stop Norris. This geographical proximity led to resentment amongst the Tottenham supporters, but it was a while before the rivalry truly grew in intensity. After World War One, Arsenal managed to controversially sneak into the newly formed 22-team First Division, ahead of Spurs!
This expansion to 22 teams meant that two new teams were selected to join the First Division, one of which was 19th placed Chelsea, who would have been relegated, and the other place was left to a vote. The candidates were Tottenham, who had finished 20th in the First Division, and then Barnsley, Wolves, Birmingham, Arsenal, Hull City and Nottingham Forest from the Second Division.
Arsenal had placed sixth in the league, yet won the vote convincingly, a controversy that led to allegations that Norris bribed or made a backroom agreement with the Football League chairman, his personal friend, John Mckenna, who made an impassioned speech at the AGM which effectively decided their promotion. This move created a rivalry in north London that has lasted over a century and continues to be fierce to this day; it was clearly something that Spurs fans weren’t quick to forget.
More Recent History of the Rivalry
Since 1950, with the exception of the 1977/78 season, Arsenal and Tottenham have both played in the top division of English football, meaning that north London derbies have been very regular, maintaining the intense rivalry between the two sides.
This is highlighted by the conclusion of the 2021/22 season, in which Spurs effectively leapfrogged the Gunners, securing fourth spot on the final day of the Premier League. Spurs only needed a draw at Norwich but they hammered them 5-0, leaving Arsenal to settle for fifth place, resigned to another season without Champions League football.
Sol Campbell Switches Sides
The rivalry has also been stoked by various controversial episodes, such as Sol Campbell’s decision to join the Gunners from Spurs in 2001 on a free transfer. The move led him to be labelled “Judas” by some Spurs fans, some of whom had become especially worked up because Campbell had previously declared that he would never play for Arsenal. He became one of only 15 players ever to make the switch, showing just how rare and frowned upon it is.
This move led to plenty of anger in the terraces and it boiled over to the point that a group of Spurs fans were caught chanting highly offensive songs towards Campbell and subsequently banned. Customs, such as the celebration of St Totteringham’s Day, the day in the league season when it becomes a mathematical impossibility for Spurs to end the campaign above the Gunners, have also helped to maintain the rivalry.
Notable North London Derbies
Arguably Arsenal’s greatest achievements over their rivals, or at least their greatest boast, is the fact that they have lifted both the Premier League and the old First Division trophy at White Hart Lane. The first of which came in the 1970/71 season, in which the Gunners only needed to win or see out a goalless draw to secure the title. The Gunners were unable to break the deadlock until the 87th minute, in which Ray Kennedy headed home the winner.
The second occasion came in the final game of the 2003/04 “Invincibles” season, in which Arsenal only needed a draw to not only lift the title but secure their astounding achievement of going unbeaten for an entire Premier League season, something they managed to achieve in their big rivals’ backyard. However, Spurs didn’t make it easy, as although the Gunners were 2-0 up at halftime, Tottenham managed to pull it back to 2-2, but that wasn’t much of a consolation.
It is not just Arsenal that have enjoyed great north London derby victories. For Spurs fans, their 3-1 victory over the Gunners in the 1990/91 FA Cup final is iconic, especially Paul Gascoigne’s magical freekick. It is a particularly enjoyable memory because Spurs went on to win the trophy itself. Another famous Tottenham derby victory was the second leg of the 2007/08 League Cup semi-final, in which they defeated the Gunners 5-1, ending an eight-year spell in which they had been unable to win a singular north London derby, doing so in stunning style.
What Other Rivals Have Arsenal Had?
Alongside their geographical rivalry with Tottenham, Arsenal established a fierce rivalry with Manchester United over the years, especially during the reigns of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, as they went head-to-head across a period of 17 seasons. The two managers had both led their teams to titles between 1996 and 2004, creating a rivalry founded on mutual success, with each side battling to outdo the other.
Both managers brought world-class players to the forefront of English football, creating some infamous individual battles between the two teams, none more prominent than that of Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane. The two played against each other across nine seasons, with eight of these culminating in one of the pair lifting the Premier League trophy, and their midfield battle was characterised by incredible determination, unmatched skill and aggression, which was highlighted by the famous Highbury tunnel bust-up in 2005.
This rivalry has, however, recently diminished, due to the dwindling success of both teams, and has effectively been replaced by Manchester City and Liverpool, Klopp versus Guardiola, in the eyes of pundits and neutral fans.
Arsenal have also had a strong rivalry with fellow Londoners Chelsea, especially since the Blues rose to the top of the Premier League in the 2000s, with key games, such as the 5-3 Arsenal win at Stamford Bridge, as well as the 2018/19 Europa League final, adding to this.
This London rivalry was further intensified by controversial incidents, such as Ashley Cole’s transfer to Chelsea in 2006 and the 2007 Carling Cup final, in which a fracas saw Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor and Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel all sent off. There is, however, no substitute for the intensity between Arsenal and Tottenham, as they are firmly the Gunners’ biggest rivals.