Arsenal’s first recorded match came as Dial Square – a team formed by workers at the munitions factory in Woolwich, south London, on December 11th, 1886. Known also as the ‘Woolwich Reds,’ they apparently beat a team called ‘Eastern Wanderers,’ 6.0.
Tottenham Hotspur had been established four years earlier, in 1882, in very different circumstances. Formed by middle-class schoolboys as ‘The Hotspur Football Club’ they allegedly took this name because two of those pupils were fascinated by English Knight, Sir Harry Percy – who was also known as Harry Hotspur and whose family estate covered much of the Tottenham area as we now know it.
The two teams met for the first time in a ‘friendly’ on 19th November 1887. The match took place on Tottenham Marshes (now part of Lee Valley Park) and resulted in a 2.1 victory for Tottenham. However, the match finished 15 minutes early as the Arsenal team – which had now evolved into Royal Arsenal – got lost on the way and therefore the deteriorating light meant that 90 minutes could not be completed in daylight.
Seven more friendly matches took place between 1888 and 1896 with Tottenham being victorious in four, to Arsenal’s three.
The two teams met in a league fixture – the United League - for the first time on 9th November 1896. The match took place at Woolwich Arsenal’s Manor Ground in Plumstead and Arsenal won, 2.1. The United League was founded in 1896 to provide additional mid-week fixtures for teams drawn from a number of leagues including founder members, Woolwich Arsenal from the Football League, and Tottenham Hotspur from the Southern League.
The teams also met in the Southern & District Combination League which ran for just one season. In the match at the Manor Ground on 24th April 1900, Woolwich Arsenal won, 2.1, but the match had to be abandoned after 75 minutes because of ‘bad language’ from the mainly Arsenal fans in the crowd of 500 (although the result was allowed to stand).
The teams met six times in the London League which was held in the London and surrounding areas of south-east England from 1896 until 1964. Its first president was Arnold Hills, who was also the founder of Thames Ironworks F.C. (now known as West Ham United). The 3rd Grenadier Guards won the inaugural championship and Tottenham had the edge over Arsenal with three wins to the Gunners' two.
Spurs had built a reputation for playing stylish football, in direct contrast to the rough, uncompromising approach of Arsenal teams whose fans labelled their rivals ‘Totts’ and ‘Marsh Dwellers.’ In 1898 Tottenham moved to Asplins Farm which stood next to the railway line at Northumberland Park but, after another match against Woolwich Arsenal a year later – amid crowd chaos caused by some 14,000 fans – they moved to White Hart Lane.
The teams first met in a Football League match on 4th December 1909. A Division One game, Woolwich Arsenal won at their Manor Ground, watched by a crowd of 18,000. They won,1.0, with Walter Henry Lawrence scoring their first league goal against Spurs.
Tottenham got their revenge, almost exactly a year later, on 3rd December 1910, at White Hart Lane, 3.1, with their goals from Jabez Darnell, Percy Humphreys and William Minter, as they beat Arsenal in the Football League for the first time.
In between times, John Curtis scored Tottenham’s first league goal against Arsenal in a 1.1 draw at White Hart Lane on 16th April 1910, watched by a huge crowd of 39,800.
On Christmas Day 1911, Tottenham again beat Woolwich Arsenal at White Hart Lane; this time, 5.0, with William Minter scoring two of their goals in front of more than 47,000 festive fans. This was also Tottenham’s highest score against Arsenal in the Football League, only equalled more than 70 years later, on 4th April 1983 with another 5.0 home victory. This time their goals came from Alan Brazil and two each from Mark Falco and Chris Hughton (and a smaller crowd of 43, 642).
Following relegation as Woolwich Arsenal to the Second Division in 1913 – the one and only time that Arsenal have ever been relegated – the club moved to Highbury in North London, much to the dismay of Tottenham whose own new ground stood just three and a half miles away, at the other end of the Seven Sister’s Road. Despite Tottenham’s protests, the football authorities sanctioned Arsenal’s move and their rivalry with Spurs became much more than a dispute run on class divisions or the type of football they played.
Many Woolwich Arsenal fans followed their club across the River Thames and were unrepentant:
‘We’ll show the hateful Hotspur –
In spite of all its crows –
The Gunners can still shoot
If only with long bows.’
Worse was to come for Spurs. The Arsenal had finished fifth in the Second Division in the 1914-15 season, whereas Tottenham had finished bottom of the First Division, just one point and one place below Chelsea. When football resumed after the First World War, in 1919, the Football League decided to expand its First Division by two clubs. With a precedent set in both 1898 and 1905 when similar expansions had occurred and both bottom clubs in the previous seasons had been reprieved, Tottenham understandably expected post-war football to continue with them in the First Division.
Not so! After much lobbying by Arsenal’s majority owner and Chairman Henry Norris, amid allegations of corruption, Arsenal were voted back into the First Division at a Special Meeting of the League on 10th March 1919 with 18 votes, to Tottenham’s eight, and Spurs were duly relegated to the Second Division.
The North London derby rivalry was thus built on social class, style of football, geographical and political lines that emerged in late nineteenth and early twentieth century England, but is probably as keenly fought today as in that first friendly match, almost exactly 130 years ago.
A particularly violent match took place at White Hart Lane on 23rd September 1922. Watched by more than 40,000 baying fans, Arsenal won, 2.1, with both goals from Reg Boreham, but not before a player had been sent off from each side and the players pelted with missiles. An FA Committee of Enquiry was set up to investigate and The Herald described the football mood at the time:
“Here was another example of Spurs’ artistes being bullied out of it by ‘grim Arsenal’.”
Arsenal’s highest score in a North London derby came on 6th March 1935 – midway through a decade that they dominated with one of the finest club sides ever seen. They won, 6.0, at White Hart Lane with goals from Peter Dougall, Cliff Bastin and two each from Ted Drake and Alf Kirchen, who was making his debut for the club.
Arsenal almost repeated the feat on 23rd December 1978 when they won, 5.0, at White Hart Lane. Liam Brady orchestrated many of Arsenal’s attacks and scored one of their goals, with Frank Stapleton and an Alan Sunderland hat-trick completing the rout.
The highest-aggregate score in a North London derby came on 13th November 2004 – again at White Hart Lane and again resulting in an Arsenal victory - 5.4. It was the first Premier League game to feature nine different goalscorers and, with seven goals coming in a breathless second half, Robert Pires scored what proved to be the winning goal, despite Frederic Kanoute’s goal giving Spurs hope, with just two minutes to go.
The highest-scoring league draw in this fixture has, astonishingly, been equalled four times. On 22nd February 1958, the two teams drew 4.4 at Highbury, with Bobby Smith scoring two of the goals for Tottenham. The scoreline was repeated at White Hart Lane on 6th October 1962 when Cliff Jones and Dave Mackay were on the scoresheet for Arsenal. Almost exactly a year later – on 15th October 1963, back at Highbury, another 4.4 draw saw Smith and Mackay scoring for Spurs and one from Jimmy Greaves; George Eastham scored two goals for Arsenal that day and Geoff Strong secured the draw in the 90th minute, in a match watched by almost 68,000 fans.
The 4.4 draw has been witnessed just once in the Modern Era – on 29th October 2008 – when more than 60,000 packed into Arsenal’s new Emirates Stadium to see Jermaine Jenas and Aaron Lennon secure a draw for Spurs, with a goal each in the final two minutes of the match.
The latest derby match at the Emirates took place on 18th November 2017 where Arsenal won, 2.0. Arsenal dominated the match from beginning to end and Tottenham's record of a single win in 12 previous league visits there rarely looked like being improved. Both goals came in the first-half, the first after a controversial free-kick decision against Tottenham's Colombian defender Davinson Sanchez for a foul on Alexis Sanchez, and then a suspicion of offside against Arsenal's German defender Shkodran Mustafi who headed in the resulting goal.
The sides have met in League Cup Semi-finals on four separate occasions, with Arsenal winning three of them – in 1968 and 2007 when they went on to lose in the Final – and in 1987 when they won the trophy. In 2008, after a 1.1 draw at The Emirates, the teams met at White Hart Lane on 22nd January. Spurs hadn’t beaten Arsenal for more than eight years at that point but thumped the Gunners, 5.1, to reach the Final and a 2.1 win over fellow London rivals, Chelsea.
The FA Cup has seen three Semi-finals between the sides, with Arsenal winning in 1993 and 2001. However, many will remember best the Wembley tie on 14th April 1991 when Paul Gascoigne scored from a spectacular free-kick after just five minutes and Gary Lineker added two more for Tottenham, with just a single goal in reply by Alan Smith. Again, having got past their old North London foes, Tottenham went on to lift the Cup, beating Nottingham Forest, 2.1, in the Final.
So, to date, when Tottenham have beaten their North London rivals in cup Semi-finals, they have gone on to lift the respective trophies.
Much of the research for this article was done for our book – First Football Histories: The Arsenal FC story