Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Derby days

Generally speaking, I try to take Arsenal defeats with a measure of perspective and even humour. That’s not to say I don’t feel the gut punch of defeat. I’m still winded and wounded by it. But over the years I’ve learned, with age and experience, to take a long view. I’ve watched Arsenal lose football matches on countless occasions. Assuming I conform to the average male life expectancy in the UK, I’ve another 50 years to live yet. I’ll watch them lose literally hundreds of games in that time.

That’s quite a misery mortgage I’m invested in, so I figure it’s better to make the down payments as painless as possible. More often than not, even when Arsenal do lose, the social construct I have built around attending football matches ensures that I almost always have a great time anyway. Alcohol and good company are a soothing balm when applied to the wound of defeat. I’ve even wilfully trained myself not to groan loudly inside the ground when an Arsenal player surrenders possession. I accept it as an inevitable by-product of an hour and a half’s worth of football.

Mistakes will happen and I don’t consciously wish to contribute to an atmosphere of anxiety. I’m yet to arrive at total Zen master levels when it comes to my own frustration inside a stadium. Whilst I try not to bawl and shout at Arsenal players when they err, instead of letting that frustration evaporate, it forms a kind of acerbic knot in my stomach which is promptly unleashed on an unsuspecting referee when I feel he has erred. Match officials have become a kind of punch bag for my mounting grievances and it’s a habit I am slightly ashamed of.

Admittedly there is a paradox in trying to apply logic and rationality to something as illogical and irrational as supporting a football team and at no time is that paradox laid more bare than the North London derby. I still have not managed to steel myself for these games and it’s unlikely I ever will. These are games that are watched with teeth gritted and fists clenched. Every misplaced pass feels like a personal affront. I can’t view these matches through the prism of humour and perspective. I love them and hate them all at the same time.

If I’m honest, my distaste for Chelsea is stronger than it is for Spurs. My dislike of Chelsea has not been taught but learned, everything about the club simply offends and appalls my sensibilities. Tottenham I view as a rivalry and one I can relish. I actually hate Chelsea in the very genuine sense of the word. However, there’s no question which fixture both riles and inspires me more. Which one I enjoy winning and lament losing like no other. Arsenal v Tottenham is a game that turns my blood into molten lava and my guts into a Jacuzzi.

The North London derby splits my family in twain. It turns sisters against sisters and brother, parents against children. Long departed grandparents grit their teeth at one another from beyond the grave. My great Grandfather was a Tottenham fan. He attended the first ever North London derby between the sides at White Hart Lane in January 1921. It’s a rivalry that burrows under my skin and translates into my relationships, both personal and professional. In my professional career, I have never not had a Spurs fan as an immediate colleague.

Tottenham force fed me my first experience of significant defeat. I began following football in earnest in about mid 1990, when I was 6. The 1990-91 season was a very gentle (and wickedly deceptive) introduction to the rigors of following a team. Arsenal, uncharacteristically, won the league title at a canter, losing only once in the process. As exceptional a league campaign as it was, it left my heart soft and flabby, vulnerable to the habitual heartache football can provide. I was woefully unprepared for the F.A. Cup semi final defeat at Wembley in 1991.

To this day, I find Gascoigne’s outstanding free kick impossible to watch. I had been duped into believing that supporting Arsenal would be an easy life. Spurs unceremoniously pricked that bubble and brought me face to face with the misery I had accepted into my life. By the time Benfica had finished with us later that year, I began to come around to the idea that I would have to become familiar with the language of anguish.

The 1991 defeat to Spurs was all the more traumatic because I so nearly became a Tottenham fan. Like I said, my family is a fairly even split between both sides of the divide and the decision was left largely to me. I had a love for flair players at an early age and Paul Gascoigne nearly seduced me into becoming a Spurs fan. Fortunately, Arsenal had Messrs Rocastle, Merson and Limpar and a love affair was born. But I guess that will always make the rivalry much more immediate to me. It’s like a scar or an ill advised holiday tattoo.

In the wider context, the North London derby is special because it’s not a manufactured derby based solely on geography. Geography is an important part of the rivalry, but for unique reasons. Henry Norris died nearly 80 years ago, yet his daring coup to move Arsenal from South to North London a century ago ensures that bitterness and rancour will always permeate the fixture. When I was a child, prior to Arsene Wenger’s transformative effect on Arsenal’s image, Norris’ act of migration, leading to Spurs’ labelling of Arsenal as “the Woolwich interlopers”, informed our image in this acrimonious neighbourly relationship.

Arsenal were viewed as the unwanted step son of North London. The unloved migrant that pitched up on Tottenham’s patch. Even in 2013, attitudes towards teams moving location and ‘rebranding’ have not cooled, as Milton Keynes Dons have discovered. Even though Arsenal are historically far more successful than Spurs, Tottenham were always looked upon with greater charity and reverence by the wider public. Or so it seemed.

Spurs were the club of Hoddle, Gascoigne, Blanchflower, Ardilles, Villa and Bill Nicholson’s ‘Push and Run’ ethos. Arsenal were the club that introduced the extra defender to formations in the 1930s and largely played conservative, stifling football. We were seen as North London’s answer to the Sex Pistols. The flowers in the dustbin. We were Dick Turpin, obtaining our booty by force with guns blazing as opposed to Tottenham, in their crisp Lilywhite kits and their marriage to dreaming big and failing beautifully, which taps into the nation’s psyche much more readily.

This image has somewhat altered now, with Arsene Wenger re-doctoring our image as North London beauty queens. The move to a new stadium has rubberstamped our North London legitimacy a little further. Wealth and success has bought us greater respect but I’m sure people even older and more grounded in this rivalry than I will recall and even relish the facsimile of Arsenal as the conniving bastard stepbrother in this contretemps.

When Saturday comes and we face Spurs again, I’ll remember and relearn it as instinct. My blood will rise and frustration and fear will be at the surface of my skin, beneath my fingernails, from the kickoff. The North London derby is not rational, it’s not logical. It simply can never be and nor should it aspire to be. Football is an entertaining distraction from real life and that entertainment is reinforced with a dash of chaos now and then. As Jonny Rotten once sneered, “God save the mad parade.” LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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