The North London Derby is one of the most keenly contested in England, and both Arsenal and Tottenham fans have a healthy dislike for each other. But where did this rivalry start? Who is to blame? And what has a parrot got to do with it?
Well, let’s begin at the beginning with the obvious thing – geography. The teams are located about four miles apart in north London, though its fair to say that Arsenal, based in the London borough of Islington, is in a more affluent area than Tottenham, which is in the borough of Haringey.
However, the two clubs weren’t always so close. In fact, Arsenal was originally based across the River Thames in south London, at an army base. It was called Royal Arsenal, then became Woolwich Arsenal (after the area in south London that it played in). The cannon on the crest and the nickname ‘Gunners’ can all be traced back to these days, long before the rivalry with Tottenham.
In 1913, right before the start of World War I, Arsenal moved from south London up to Highbury, just those four little miles from Tottenham. Needless to say, as the only big club in the area up to that point, Tottenham wasn’t too happy to see a well funded and potentially big team muscle in on its fanbase.
But things got really nasty between the teams in 1919. The top flight was set to be expanded to 20 teams. In that season, Chelsea finished 19th but was not relegated, instead being given permission to remain in the first division. Tottenham had actually finished 20th — yes, bottom — but expected similar treatment to Chelsea. Meanwhile, Arsenal had finished fifth in the second division that season so had no realistic right to promotion to the new expanded top flight.
However, the final team to join the expanded first division was left to a vote of all league member clubs. The league president of the time was “Honest” John McKenna. He was also chairman of Liverpool. He endorsed Arsenal for the top flight on account of it having been a league member club for a longer period of time. Arsenal won the vote and Tottenham was relegated, with Arsenal taking its place.
It has been suggested that McKenna and Arsenal chairman Sir Henry Norris colluded together in some way, though nothing was ever proved.
An interesting side note to this story is that Tottenham lost a dearly beloved mascot at the same time. Ten years prior to the relegation in 1909, Spurs had been on a tour of South America and were given a parrot to take back to London. The bird survived the journey back and lived for a decade. When the decision to relegate Tottenham and promote Arsenal was made, the parrot fell ill and died. And so the football cliché “sick as a parrot” was born. It also may have been the inspiration for one of Monty Python’s best known sketches.
Dead birds aside, Arsenal never looked back and is easily the more successful team of the two. Tottenham hasn’t won the league since 1961 and its last major trophy was in 2008, whereas Arsenal compete for the fourth place trophy every year – and usually win it.
And to further rub it in, every year Arsenal fans celebrate St. Totteringham’s day. That’s the official day when Spurs can no longer overtake Arsenal in the league. The last time Tottenham finished above Arsenal was way back in 1995, over a parrot’s lifetime ago.