15 January 1921: The first north London derby in the League and what happened

By Tony Attwood

For more on the Arsenal History Society and our free video collection, please see the notes at the foot of this article.

How Arsenal rescued Tottenham, when Tottenham were left without a league to play in.

On 15 January 1921 the result was Tottenham 2 Arsenal 1; and that caused a fair bit of interest because it was the first league derby between the two clubs following Arsenal’s move to north London.

There had been a few previous friendlies that seemed to have calmed Tottenham’s anger at Arsenal’s change of ground, much of which centred on the concern that having two clubs within a couple of miles of each other would reduce the crowds.  But given that no club had tried this before, there was no evidence, just doom-mongering.

Henry Norris, primary shareholder in Arsenal had argued the opposite.  He said that three teams in the area (there was Clapton Orient as well, who when Arsenal moved, were in the same division as Arsenal) would keep football in the local papers every day.  That in turn would raise public awareness and excitement, and so crowd numbers would go up.

Indeed the Tottenham objection to Arsenal’s move was disappointing, given that when Tottenham had applied for a place in the Football League in 1908 (having been playing in the Southern League) it was Arsenal’s vote which had given them the place.

Tottenham had in fact resigned from the Southern League (as their rules required) before the election was held for new teams to enter the Football League, and to their horror (and despite the fact that Tottenham were by then, previous FA Cup winners) they failed to get elected.  Worse, the Southern League wouldn’t have them back.

This obviously left Tottenham without a league, but then another team dropped out – and that is when Arsenal then stepped in to rescue Tottenham.  You can read the full story here.

So it was disappointing that Tottenham did not reciprocate Arsenal’s favour in getting Tottenham into the League, when Arsenal proposed the move to Highbury. They were either being vindictive or could not believe Henry Norris’ vision that crowds would go up if there were three league teams all playing within a few miles of each other

In fact in 1913/14, Arsenal’s first year in north London, not only did Arsenal’s crowds leap up (by a staggering 142%, despite their having dropped to the second division), Tottenham’s went up by 17% as well.

As a result in 1913/14 Tottenham had an average home gate of 28,020.  Arsenal had an average of 22,745.

By 1920/1 Tottenham’s average crowd had risen to 36,010 while Arsenal were now hot on their heels with an average crowd of 35,540.

The crowd at this first north London derby was 39,221, but the return match at Highbury a week later got a crowd of 60,600.  So both teams got an above-average crowd for their home derby game, but it was Arsenal who got the big benefit.

However as Arsenal’s crowd continued to grow, Tottenham’s slipped back, although in overall terms north London had by now become the centre of football in terms of crowds.  Tottenham, in 1922/3 were the second most supported club in England, Arsenal the fourth.

And then the unthinkable (at least from Tottenham’s point of view) happened.  Arsenal’s average crowd in 1923/4 at 29,950 was the second largest in the country, while Tottenham’s at 28,420, was fourth.  And this despite neither club being anywhere near challenging for any trophy.  Tottenham ended the season in 15th, Arsenal in 19th – just above the relegation zone.

Of course thereafter, once the Chapman revolution happened, the crowds went up even more, but we should not forget it was Norris’ vision that was right.  Put two or three clubs in the same area, and the local papers will have a football story every day.  Supporting one of the local clubs would be a central part of life for the menfolk in the area, and the children would grow up with that notion.  It was not success that bred the big crowds, he argued, but local rivalry and a good transport system.  (And of course not being by the river).


For details of the videos sorted by club, and videos in the order we published them, plus our 21 golden great videos please see here.


Just as the videos have been put in date order so we are now doing a day-by-day series of Arsenal events, looking to find one good story a day throughout the year.   This project started on 1 December, and we are adding to it each day.   The index is here.

The Arsenal History Society is part of the Arsenal Independent Supporters Association – a body which gives positive support to the club, and has regular meetings with directors and senior officials of the club to represent the views of its members to the club.  You can read more about AISA on its website.

100 Years in the First Division: the absolute complete story of Arsenal’s promotion in 1919.

Henry Norris at the Arsenal:  There is a full index to the series here.

Arsenal in the 1930s: The most comprehensive series on the decade ever

Arsenal in the 1970s: Every match and every intrigue reviewed in detail.

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