Mid-table equals failure for Tottenham and Arsenal but these are by no means the worst of times for the north London rivals
The term "Woolwich Interlopers" probably doesn't mean a great deal to the players who will be thrown into a 21st century north London derby. Even a flicker of recognition would be unexpected from Santi Cazorla or Jan Vertonghen. The phrase is probably even lost on Arsène Wenger and André Villas-Boas. And yet it refers to the exact moment when the rivalry between Arsenal and Tottenham spewed forth in this corner of the capital. At the time, it was the talk of the town.
In 1913 the headline writ large on the front page of the Kentish Independent captured the moment this particular football rivalry was born: "Arsenal to move to the other side of London." Unsurprisingly, this early example of a sports franchise being uprooted in the name of ambition was angrily received just about everywhere. Down in Woolwich, birthplace of the Arsenal, they bemoaned the club's soul and heritage being sold off. Tottenham were furious about this threat to their territory, with the Tottenham Gazette taking out adverts to implore its fans not to go near "the interlopers who have no right to be here". Even residents in Highbury turned their noses up at the chaos they expected on their doorstep. "It will be a sad day for the district if these interlopers set up stall around here. A respectable neighbourhood will be transformed into a rabble-infested den of noise and, I fear, drinking," said an article in the Islington Gazette.
Arsenal's modest home before the big move, the Manor Ground, Plumstead, was not much loved beyond the hardy locals who frequented matches. The Liverpool Tribune described it as a visit to the "team who played at the end of the earth". The Newcastle Echo defined it as an "annual trip to hell". A Derby Country player lamented "a journey to the molten interior of the earth's core would be more pleasant and comfortable." Opposition teams were frequently late, and away fans found it a devil to get to.
The protagonist behind the relocation was Sir Henry Norris, perhaps the most important figure in Arsenal's history. He was an imposing man with a walrus moustache and pince-nez that made his eyes both piercing and distorted. A prominent freemason, Tory MP and associate of the Archbishop of Canterbury, he led his life making the most from his heavy political influence, liasing with friends in high places with whom mutual back scratching was a shared pastime, spreading his far reaching tentacles with an unscrupulousness that made people shudder.
Leslie Knighton, Arsenal manager during the early years at Highbury, provided a hair raising account of working with Norris in his autobiography: "I soon found out that everyone was afraid of Sir Henry. And no wonder! I have never met his equal for logic, invective and ruthlessness against all who opposed him. When I disagreed with him at board meetings and had to stand up for what I knew was best for the club, he used to flay me with words until I was reduced to fuming, helpless silence... Later he would whip round and shout: 'Well Knighton, we pay you a great deal of money and all you do is sit there as if you were dumb'... Then Sir Henry would ask my advice, smile, wheedle... and I was falling over myself to help him again. He did it with everyone. Those board meetings took years off my life."
When Norris put his mind to something, he invariably made it happen. He was certain that a move to a more central part of London, to take advantage of a more popular, and better populated, site, would be transformative. Arsenal ended the 1912-13 season relegated, and with a grand total of £19 in the bank. Norris's two-pronged aim was to move, get promoted, and set the club on a course to becoming a power in English football.
This is where his manoeuvring again worked in mysterious ways to put Tottenham noses out of joint. When professional football restarted after the first world war, the First Division was set for expansion from 20 to 22 teams. The two clubs who would have been relegated, Chelsea and Tottenham, who finished in 19th and 20th position, hoped for a reprieve. Chelsea got it. Tottenham were not so lucky. But the infamous twist was that it was Arsenal who were voted to replace them, despite finishing fifth in the Second Division. Allegations of underhand interventions from Norris were rife. Nothing was ever proven.
The first meeting between the sides took place when neither team, technically, was from north London. Arsenal's Plumstead home was then in Kent, while Tottenham was classified as Middlesex. Spurs won a friendly 2-1 in 1887, although the match was abandoned with 15 minutes to go when darkness fell.
The pressure will inevitably be burning – 125 years on – for this latest edition of a prolonged and seething enmity. Such is the judgmental nature of modern football, should either team lose the manager will be tossed into a pressure cooker, his future under intense scrutiny. Mid-table equals failure nowadays. But these are by no means the worst of times in north London football.
Mid-1970s mediocrity afflicted both teams. In 1975 Arsenal finished 16th and Tottenham 19th (Chelsea, incidentally, were 21st and went down in a vintage season for the FA Cup winners West Ham and top London club QPR). A year later Arsenal slumped to 17th. The following season, Tottenham, wilting at the bottom of the table, were relegated.
Not that it helps Wenger or Villas-Boas to tell them that once upon a time, things have been considerably worse in this part of town. They are both charged with trying to impress upon their teams the need to feel free enough to express themselves, to play without fear in front of audiences that can be quick to get on their backs.
"Confidence! It is the greatest asset a man can possess." So preached Herbert Chapman, Arsenal's revolutionary manager of the 1930s. "I am convinced that 75 per cent of players do not give their full value because they lack confidence in themselves. They have not the courage to attempt things which are well within their scope, and there's no doubt that specators are largely responsible for this... Not so long ago a young player told me that when he played in the second team the ball seemed as big as a balloon, and that he could do what he liked with it. In the senior side, however, it shrank to the size of a marble."
Some of today's players would empathise with the sentiment. Nobody dare feel it come Saturday lunchtime.