A North London derby like no other

Of all holidays, officially recognised or not, St Totteringham’s day is by far the stupidest. Forget the absurdity of old men in chimneys and bunny rabbits carrying chocolate eggs, this occasion tops the league of silly.

With no set date, the moment to celebrate comes as soon as it’s mathematically impossible for Tottenham Hotspur to finish above Arsenal in the league. Very much a case of “when” and not “if”, until recently.

For the rest of us, the event is about as frivolous as watching your cat do a crossword, but for the Gunners it has taken on increasing significance. In the past few years, it became more than a reason to celebrate — it was confirmation that there remained a sense of normality in the world.

A world that watched with glee as they were dethroned from literal invincibles to top-four strugglers. When they waved goodbye to Thierry Henry and Cesc Fàbregas, stumbled in Europe, or fell victims to thrashings, they could take comfort in the knowledge that some things never change. Even when the tradition appeared all but certain to end, Spurs would find a way to royally cock it up. In 2012 they managed to throw away a 10-point lead, and in the tail-end of 2016 they lost 5-1 on the final day to relegated 10-man Newcastle United.

That’s until now. St Totteringham’s Day was cancelled last season. There wasn’t quite pandemonium in the streets, but the shock waves were nonetheless felt in the bones of all with a red-and-white persuasion. The holiday intended to poke fun at their bitter adversaries had become a memorial to their own inferiority.

In many ways it’s a signal of the rivalry coming full circle, the seeds of which were pollinated in 1913 when then Woolwich Arsenal relocated from their eponymous home to Highbury, about 6km away from White Hart Lane. The encroachment on turf did not go down well. It would then germinate thanks to matches during the dour Football Combination period — the replacement league that arose after regular activities were suspended during World War I.

But it wasn’t until 1919 when it fully blossomed. The first division was set to be expanded by two teams — decided by a Football Association ballot. Nineteenth-placed Chelsea snatched the first spot, saving them from relegation. Spurs, in 20th place, bid to become the second side but the eight votes they received were trumped by Arsenal’s 18.

To this day, White Hart Lane followers allege that heavy bribery was involved in the decision that saw them drop to the second division — albeit for a solitary season. Sightings of prepubescent boys standing atop their soap boxes recalling the injustice of 98 years ago are not uncommon.

The Premier League era did little to boost their fortunes in the derby. Particularly in the 2000s when Arsenal were demolishing everyone put in front of them, Henry famously never lost one.

Now, however, Gooner fans must have the same punch-in-the-gut feeling that they gave their neighbours all those years ago. Spurs may not have occupied their physical space, but they have taken much of what belongs to them. Arsène Wenger’s men used to be the ones people looked up to, in awe of their exciting, powerful and daring brand of football.

Although they’re still capable of the brilliant, sighs of frustration are a far more common sight. Mauricio Pochettino, meanwhile, owns almost ubiquitous praise for the fluid football he has put on display.

While Arsenal have sauntered in the Europa League, visiting such exotic destinations as Barysaw and Belgrade, they have been forced to watch their nemeses thrive in Europe’s premier competition, a stint that has seen them take on the world’s undisputed best in the past three years — Real Madrid — and come out on top. That used to be their stage, one on which they thrived.

In the Premier League we no longer whisper their name as potential champions, no longer wonder if they have what it takes to overthrow perennial big dogs Manchester City and Chelsea. Instead we preoccupy ourselves with asking whether this could be the year Pochettino finds that last gear to click into place to go one step further and claim top spot.

To rub more salt in the gaping, exposed wound, they have done it with largely the same strategy Wenger envisioned, but ultimately failed to implement. Putting faith in a core group of young players, acutely honing their development and spending pragmatically, not spuriously, in the transfer market.

This will be the first time in more than 22 years that Spurs will head into a North London derby post an above-Arsenal finish. To put that into context, Pochettino was in his early 20s playing for Espanyol at the time.

Tactically, it will be fascinating to see which team Wenger rolls out for the encounter after the ultimately hopeless showing against City last time out. In it he threw Francis Coquelin into his back three in the hope of stabilising the defence in the face of Leroy Sane and Sergio Agüero. It failed. The Frenchman was seen wandering the Etihad Stadium, seemingly contemplating the meaning of life and his reason for his existence on the pitch, content to watch balls pass him by.

Will Wenger start with Alexandre Lacazette? If he doesn’t, expect Twitter to be forcefully shut down in the face of inundating complaints.

Tottenham meanwhile will be sweating on the fitness of Dele Alli. The young Englishman is the embodiment of the reversal of fortunes between the teams but he was forced to miss the international break because of a hamstring injury. If all goes to plan, though, he will resume his terrifying partnership with Three Lions teammate Harry Kane — provided he comes out clean from his own injury scare.

Whatever team sheets are released, the personal will be second to the occasion. This is a moment to reflect, for Spurs fans to commemorate. Pochettino brings his charges to the home of the Gunners … as their superiors.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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