Derbies are like cup finals.
Admittedly this is the case for some more than others, typically where one team is significantly less successful than the other.
So it is with Arsenal and Spurs – it was easy for any observer of the recent North London derby to note that the Spurs players were more up for the game than their Arsenal counterparts.
You could say that for the Spurs players, that game was their cup final. It would explain why they didn’t make such an impact in their real cup final at the start of March anyway.
Somehow though, it’s always a bit different for the fans.
Sure competition plays a part, but history and relationships play as big a part often, and are much more generation agnostic.
For fans who grew up on 80s football, Liverpool were the yardstick, whereas the 90s and early 00s saw United take on that mantle.
Spurs have been the common enemy throughout.
IT STARTS YOUNG
It’s fairly well accepted that almost all of the fiercest rivalries stem from geography.
Certainly the most fiercely contested game I have ever been to was a West Ham v Millwall League Cup tie a couple of years ago where there were numerous pitch invasions, seats torn out and thrown onto the turf and widespread street violence which led to one man being stabbed and a further 20 injured.
The only alternative reason tends to be where there are just two clubs competing year-on-year for titles, as in the case of Real Madrid and Barcelona for instance, where some of the El Clasico shenanigans are so ridiculous that schoolchildren would be ashamed of them.
Certainly it is proximity which drives the Arsenal-Tottenham friction, as we have had vastly different levels of competitiveness over the years. At primary school there was a fairly even mix of Tottenham and United fans, as glory hunting tends to be particularly bad in younger children.
Once we got to secondary school however, there was a clear choice to be made between Tottenham and Arsenal. I thank my lucky stars every day that my dad was on the right side of the divide.
However, in spite of most of my friends being Spurs fans, for a number of years the United rivalry was still at least as strong because Tottenham were simply so poor.
Some people clearly enjoy bullying, but for me there has always been something a bit unsatisfying about picking on someone who can’t fight back, and that’s how Spurs felt to me for a long time.
Almost to be pitied.
No matter which way you assessed Spurs, they had inferior managers who rarely lasted a full season, let alone 19. They bought players for exorbitant sums of money only to watch them flop while we plucked the latest rough diamonds out of nowhere for peanuts. They celebrated draws like they were wins, even in 2004 until they realised that meant we had won the league title on their patch.
A SENSE OF INEVITABILITY
For years, we had not given Spurs a sniff of finishing above us, consistently contesting the title race and picking up FA Cups here, there and everywhere. Spurs were just a fly to be swatted, almost an irrelevance.
Yes we wanted to beat them, but it didn’t feel as important that we did so, other than the same as winning against any club in the context of our title race aspirations.
Games against United were far more likely to determine the destination of trophies.
I’ve been going to White Hart Lane for years as a result of my other half’s allegiances, and in our early years together I even used to go to Tottenham – Arsenal and sit in the home stand.
There was always an attitude of expecting to lose, that a point would be a bonus for them.
THE EMIRATES MILLSTONE
There has been a noticeable change in attitudes in recent years, with first hope and then expectation fuelling the Spurs crowd in derby games.
The move to the Emirates brought with it a significant financial burden at a time when Spurs were feeling flush with cash, and the gap narrowed.
A few years ago there was an incident where Arsenal scored and a brave Arsenal soul celebrated – in the middle of the East Stand. Hordes of Spurs fans started swarming over the seats in an effort to get at the man, as he was escorted out. I’ve never felt so unsafe, and I’ve never been back on derby day.
That change in attitudes has ramped up the rivalry on both ends.
Increasingly we are seeing declarations from fans, players and ex-players alike on the likelihood (or inevitability) of Tottenham overtaking Arsenal in the notorious “power shift”. There are not many things more irritating in life than having to listen to a Spurs fan bang on about how this is their year.
Working, socialising and even living with Tottenham fans makes this rivalry one of the fiercest in football, yet for me at least it didn’t really take on anywhere near as much significance until recently. The truth is, the side who is less successful always cares more, and therefore gets hurt more.
Over time, Spurs have moved closer to us, and so the hurt – and with it the rivalry – has increased.
By the same token, as we have dropped away from competing with United, the rivalry has mellowed a little, as our ability to hurt them is markedly decreased.
When Aaron Ramsey scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory back in 2011, the importance of that result was far greater for us in chasing down fourth place than it was for United in securing the title.
It was a sign of how times had changed.
HERE TO STAY?
The real question though is if our rivalries with United and Spurs will remain at those levels.
It’s probably more than a little dependent on how Arsenal do over the next few years.
If we really kick on and start competing for major titles, while Spurs face their own new stadium burden then we could return to the days where beating Spurs was just a tick on a checklist towards a bigger goal.
It’s hard to believe United will continue to falter indefinitely, and they will surely suddenly come back into the reckoning.
If, however, we stall and the local borough council continue to bankroll the Spurs stadium move, we could find that our noisy neighbours remain in the forefront of a our thinking for some time while United move back ahead of us and into a different zone.
Either way both will always be strong rivalries, but where it is most likely that a game against Arsenal will always be the biggest game of the season for Tottenham, the real question is whether it will be our biggest.
Certainly United might have something to say about it.
IMPOSSIBLE TO SAY
I’ve now written separately about the reasons why I dislike Spurs and Man United in an attempt to work out if there is one which triumphs over the other.
The truth is, it all depends on the scenario and it will vary depending on which one of them we are closest to and playing at any given moment.
A brief survey over at Daily Cannon Towers saw a mixed bag of responses too – it looks like different people get their blood boiled in different ways.
What we can all agree on though, is that come Monday night we’ll all be vociferously supporting the Arsenal.
The rivalry which separates us from fans of others clubs is exactly what brings us together, and it’s why there should be a rocking atmosphere at Old Trafford.
I’ll be one of our huge 9,000 travelling support up there that evening, and the only rivalry of any note at that point in time will be the one right in front of us.
For 90 minutes, it will just be about us, United and a place in the semi-final of the FA Cup.
And woe betide anyone that gets in our way.