The North London Derby: A Play In Three Parts

by | Dec 2, 2018

l, Before

I’ve been a Tottenham Hotspur supporter for forty years, now. It’s a polite but distant relationship. I spent the first five years of my life in a flat behind the Angel Edmonton, barely fifteen minutes walk from White Hart Lane, and have been slowly backing away from them ever since. I now live on the South Coast and, whilst I retain an interest, my local team has wormed its way into my affections to a point at which I look out for their results to the same extent as the team that introduced me to the game in the first place.

This introduction took place in an era during which fielding two Argentinians wasn’t that much less alien than fielding two actual Martians might have been, but Spurs themselves have been pretty constant throughout the years since then. Occasional cup winners. More often than not underwhelming in the league but still capable of sparkling just enough to keep that old rascal called hope alive. Voracious for our money and sometimes more financially brittle than a club of their standing should be. Simultaneously flash and financially parsimonious. Spurs sometimes feel as though they’ve never changed, and never minght. It’s me that moved away, not the club itself.

In the dimmest recesses of my memory, the North London Derby has always existed. As a child growing up in the late 1970s, my corner of North London still felt very much like part of the collection of villages so beloved by cliché. In my very limited experience, the world consisted of the local shops, Enfield Town, Edmonton and Chingford, just up the road, and further flung places like Goffs Oak, Billericay, Devon and Scotland, each of which were homes to family or family friends. The irony was that, due to circumstances beyond anybody’s control, I’d been born in an annexe of the Royal Free hospital in Islington, slap bang in the middle of Arsenal territory. I was largely unaware of this until into my teens, though. My first experience of the place’s existence was its inclusion on a Monopoly board.

There is one memory from my childhood that stands out, of a class full of nine year old children on their first day with a young and slightly nervous looking teacher. “So, hands up if you support… Arsenal.” A dramatic, silent pause. No arms rose at all, and there was only silence and, so my memory tells me, perhaps a whistle or two from the back of the class, though there may be a degree of subconscious artistic licence going on there. “Okay”, she continued. “Hands up if you support… Tottenham.” Sixty little hands instantly thrust themselves into the air, accompanied by a couple of cheers.

At that time, Arsenal little more to me than being The Anti-Spurs. It was never explained to me why this should be, though, and I’m pretty certain I never asked. On the one hand, the ebbs and flows of the North London Derby have largely passed me by, over the years. Of course I’ve enjoyed the highs, where they’ve come, and the lows were at first disappointing before coming to be expected, but such is the nature of my dislocation from it all that I’m certain that any negative feelings are considerably more fleeting than they are for those who attend every week. But whilst the distance between Spurs and I has been big enough for the more extreme bipolarity of the highs and lows to have avoided me, there remains a feeling of foreboding that sits in my stomach when the matches come around. I don’t believe that football allegiance is literally “in the blood”, but I’m persuaded that social conditioning can be so pervasive that it can feel as though it is.

I’m taking my boys to my parents’ house this afternoon. My dad started supporting Spurs in 1946, shortly before his tenth birthday. It’s from him that I get my “worse things happen at sea” attitude towards football, but the flickering of devotion still burns within him just as it does in me. I phoned him this morning, to let him know when I’d be there today. Fifteen minutes after kick-off, such is the nature of public transport. “Oh,” he says, “Harry’ll be on his way to a hat-trick by then.” I have not inherited his deeply ingrained sense optimism. For me, each victory is just a postponement of an inevitable sinking feeling, each draw a wasted opportunity, and each defeat a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So the North London Derby fills me with a dull ache of foreboding in my stomach. It brings out the best in practically nobody and fills the air of my life with a mildly noxious aroma. And this afternoon’s match feels, as I write this, too close to call. Arsenal feel as though they’ve been flying under the radar since their difficult start to the season, but it also feels a little as though we don’t quite know fully who they are under Unai Emery just yet. Or perhaps I’ve not been paying enough attention because I don’t want to know that they’re Any Good again. Spurs, on the other hand, have felt as though they’ve been running on empty all season, a threadbare Wembley pitch the perfect visual metaphor for a season that has felt oddly underwhelming despite evidence that it hasn’t been. Forty years of experience has taught me that other feeling than “Urrrgh, do we have to?” comes before a fall, when it comes to this particular fixture.

2, During

20 minutes: We arrived a couple of minutes ago, and Spurs are already a goal down. Never a penalty, according to Dad, but they never are for Arsenal against Spurs, so far as he’s concerned. As I arrive, a low shot is blocked by the legs of Hugo Lloris. Arsenal, according to Gary Neville, are rampant. They always are, according to him, according to Dad. It kind of looks a bit as though they are to me too when I first arrive, but as I take my jacket off and get myself settled the game is starting to turn. Arsenal might have started like a tidal wave, but Spurs are now starting to look dangerous and it’s Son who’s the attacking loose cannon, offering a degree of unpredictability that it’s not certain the Arsenal defence can cope with.

30 minutes: When the first Spurs goal comes, there’s a delicious hint of luck to it all. It hadn’t felt much as though it was coming – although Spurs had shown signs of improving – and when it comes a free kick from the left is flicked on by Eric Dier and the Arsenal goalkeeper Berndt Leno is nowhere to be seen at his near post as the ball sails in. He joins it in the back of the net, half a second later. The Spurs players celebrate the goal a little too close to the Arsenal substitutes for a bout of the sort of pushing and shoving you see outside a kebab shop at two in the morning.

35 minutes: The awarding of a penalty kick in a derby match is the point at which optimism meets pessimism. Yes, yes, yes. I know that the odds are heavily in the taker’s favour, and I know that Harry Kane is one of the best in the business from this distance, but no-one reading this needs telling that such feelings aren’t necessarily rational. That he can step up in this cauldron and score with such confidence while my stomach turns itself into a knot even though I’m only watching likely says a lot about our relative strength of character.

55 minutes: Why, somebody on the periphery of my social media circle, did Arsenal make changes at half-time when they’d been superior to Spurs during the first half? For the first few minutes, this felt like a valid question, with Spurs pressing forward as Arsenal adjusted to their alterations, but ten minutes in Patrick Augbemeyang sweeps the ball into the bottom corner of the goal on his first touch and the axis tilts again. “We’ll just have to step up and do it again”, says Dad full in the face of the evidence of our eyes.

75 minutes: There’s an element of luck about the third goal, a low shot of little strength or positioning from Henri Lacazette that deflects wide of Lloris to put the result beyond any reasonable doubt. But the match was swinging this way from the point that Arsenal hauled their way level, and there’s something inevitable about the fourth goal from Terreira which follows three minutes later. Football matches tend to have a gait, a timbre, a pace, and throughout the course of the second half Arsenal have strangled the life out of Spurs.

85 minutes: At times like this, one could be persuaded of the advantages of injustice in football. Asides from a small deflection on Arsenal’s third goal there has been no feeling of anything other than Spurs having been out-muscled during the second half. I can’t really argue with any of the goals. I can’t even argue with the red card just shown to Jan Vertongen for a second yellow card at the end of a slow, steady drip of niggly fouls. Perhaps I’d be happier were I fired by a burning sense of injustice over it all. Perhaps the players would have be a little more fired up next time had Mike Dean gone the full Mike Dean and sent off Son for looking at him with malice aforethought. As things stand, though, Spurs are getting beaten by a better team, and that really sucks when the better team concerned are your locals rivals.

3, After

Were my life a third-rate situation comedy, upon getting home I’d throw my scarf and rosette in the bin upon getting home, and then kick the cat across the living room. Since I don’t own a rosette and believe that kicking cats amounts to animal cruelty, though, such a reaction is not available to me today. But that’s the thing. Whilst all of this was going on in North London, I was in West Sussex, chancing my arm in taking a three year old and one year trip visit their grandparents. I feel a greater sense of achievement from having got them there and back on Southern Railways without having a full nervous breakdown or ending up in Plymouth for reasons beyond our control.

Dad’s fine, by the way. He’s been supporting Spurs for seventy-two years. He’s plenty used to it, and he’s further ameliorated by the fact that Sky Sports segue almost immediately into another White Hot Critically Important Derby Match. While he’s in the kitchen making a cup of tea, mum confides that she’s a little bit tired of the volume of football that she has to watch these days, but that she’d never demand that he switched it off or anything like that. Fifty-nine years of marriage builds you a sixth sense that can feel like an emotional form of cost/benefit analysis, at times.

Both Dad and I already know that we’ve been somewhat blessed by this Spurs team. It’s the best that I’ve seen in my lifetime, and it’s the best that he’s seen since the one that won the double, eleven years before my birth. It’s not a perfect team by modern standards, and it will remain so, partially hidden by the petro-glare emanating from Manchester City. There are new upper standards to reach in the Premier League right now, and Spurs would need attention then their first team squad that they’re unlikely to receive at the moment if they want to seriously challenge it themselves.

And that’s the same for Arsenal, for Chelsea, for everybody apart from Liverpool, who remain the only team in the Premier League to look capable of even pushing City over the course of this season. As such, these local disagreements become both more and less important than they might otherwise be. On the one hand, there’s an element of hollowness to any bragging rights when everybody knows that there’s one club whose “bragging rights” extend across the entirety of the Premier League right now. On the other, though, the lack of meaningful competition at the very top of the table last season and the fact that Manchester City might even have improved upon the intoxicating blend of players who cantered to the title last spring grants a greater degree of importance to these internecine rows.

On the train back, one carriage down from where we’re sitting, a small group of drunken Arsenal supporters are singing something – presumably intended to be offensive – about Spurs. “I don’t know what they’re going on about,” says the man sitting diagonally opposite us on the train, “I mean, there aren’t even any Spurs supporters about.” I keep my lip buttoned, in no small part because I know fully well that had the score been reversed there’d be every chance that I’d have heard a very similar song, only with different names involved. That’s the nature of football support, though, isn’t it? For all that we think we’re different to other clubs, we have more in common with each other than many of us would like to admit.

The light from our living room looks warm and inviting from outside, and our Christmas tree went up on the day after Thanksgiving, giving the place a warming and familiar air. The boys are hungry and tired, but behaving themselves. I won’t be watching Match Of The Day 2 tonight, of course, but I recorded last night’s Football League highlights and the tiredness that the kids should have acquired over the course of their travels today should ensure that I can at least settle down for that later with a glass of wine and little other obvious distraction. I feed them and put them to bed, satisfied that, even if Spurs couldn’t make my day complete, at least we’re all home and ready to rest after a long, long day. It’s not an opinion that seems very popular in a period during which everybody is almost expected to be an extremist of some form or another, but today could have been worse. It’s only a game, after all.