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Tottenham vs Arsenal: why is it the biggest derby in London?

Arsenal will go eight points clear in the Premier League if they beat Tottenham Hotspur in the North London derby on Sunday.

Arsenal will go eight points clear in the Premier League if they beat Tottenham Hotspur in the North London derby on Sunday.

Where does the North London Derby rank in terms of soccer’s greatest rivalries? If you’re from North London, a Tottenham Hotspur fan or an Arsenal fun, you’ll probably have it at the top of the list. If you’re not, you might be led to believe that Boca Juniors vs River Plate, Rangers vs Celtic or Fenerbahce vs Galatasaray is the ‘biggest’ by any number of ‘top 10′ articles. The truth is, it’s hard to rank one over another unless you’re fully immersed in – or at least have some experience of – all of them.

There is certainly a reasonable case, though, for it to be put forward for as London’s biggest derby and rivalry (calm down, please, fans of other London clubs). But the North London derby wasn’t always the North London derby, which is one of the reasons why it’s become what it’s become.

When were Arsenal founded and where did they play?

Arsenal (formally known as Dial Square, Royal Arsenal, Woolwich Arsenal and The Arsenal) were founded in 1886 but were originally based in South London. After becoming the first London club to turn professional in 1891, they struggled to attract fans to games and suffered financial difficulties, which in 1908 prompted them to contemplate a move to the north of the city, where they thought they would have a bigger catchment area of players and fans alike. The only problem was, this was Tottenham Hotspur territory.

Soccer – and soccer fandom in particular - is tribal; the very idea that another club would even think about stepping on your land is more than enough to create animosity. Arsenal followed through with the plan, eventually settling along the road from Spurs in North London in 1913, cementing the rivalry.

To make matters worse for the Lilywhites, they were relegated at Arsenal’s expense six short years later in extremely dubious circumstances. The Football League had decided to expand the First Division – then the English top-flight – and controversially opted to promote the Gunners, who had only finished fifth in the Second Division, rather than save Spurs, who had ended up in the relegation places.

Arsenal have remained in top tier ever since and fans boast about never having been relegated; Spurs supporters to this day will tell you they were never promoted either.

Tottenham vs Arsenal: who has won more major trophies?

Even the most ardent Tottenham fan can’t deny that Arsenal have enjoyed far greater success than their neighbours since those early years. Spurs have won two European trophies to Arsenal’s one and four League Cups to the Gunners’ two, but Arsenal handsomely lead the way in terms of league titles (13-2) and FA Cups (14-8), which will undoubtedly have led to jealous glances across the north of the city.

Such was their superiority, in the 2000s Arsenal fans invented the brilliantly condescending concept of St Tottingham’s Day, a celebration of when it became mathematically impossible for Tottenham to finish above them in the league, something which didn’t happen for a period of 22 years up until 2017.

By then, however, Spurs had become something a force to be reckoned with, regularly qualifying for European competitions, which rarely happened in the 1990s and early 2000s. It feels as if the rivalry has intensified further with Tottenham’s improvement and although the clubs have never gone head-to-head for a league title or met in a cup final, they are now direct rivals for Champions League places – and money – which means the stakes are high every time they play.

No more so than on Sunday, when Arsenal will be desperate to take another huge step forward in their bid to win a first league title in 2004. Spurs, however, will be even more desperate to trip them up.


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