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The Battle of London: how it felt to be an Arsenal fan in days gone by

By Tony Attwood

Towards the end of last season I wrote an article with the snappy title, “When was the last time Tottenham finished above Arsenal?”  You may realise why I was moved to write that piece was created at that moment.

As it turned out, once again Arsenal finished above Tottenham.  In fact as the chart shows the last time Tottenham beat us in the final league table it was by coming 7th, and we came 12th, in 1995.

But it was not always thus.  For there was a time when it seemed that Tottenham were taking over as Kings of London.  I know it sounds a bit strange today, but there was certainly that time.

Much of this reversal of roles was down to Arsenal’s decline under Swindin and Wright as managers, and Tottenham’s Double – and as we look back at the era it seems strange how down Arsenal supporters could feel about such things.   Tottenham, after all, has only ever won the league twice but that Double – that achievement of something which at the time was believed impossible – although making little dent on the statistics, changed the attitude of fans.

And attitude is what local rivalry is all about.  If you have to go and face your work mates or the kids at school, statistics are just for nerds – it is style, belief, and holding your head up that really matters.

Which is why the re-emergence of “The Battle of London” by Rex Pardoe is so welcome.  For if ever a book gives you the feel of the attitude of the times this one does it in a way that I haven’t seen achieved elsewhere.

Consider this – between their two league titles which were a decade apart Tottenham dropped down to two finishes of 16th and two finishes of 18th.  And yet because they won the Double two years after finishing 18th, they were the Kings.

Tottenham were undoubtedly helped by the fact that between 1953 and 1962 they won the FA Cup twice and reached the semis twice while Arsenal could do nothing more than the sixth round.  But even so, their historic record by that time was nowhere near that of Arsenal.  Yet it felt that Arsenal was yesterday’s news.  Now it was all Tottenham.

Because there was Europe.  Tottenham were the first British club to win a European trophy when they won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1963  – and did the press and the Tottenham fans revel in that.

Of course we could think that their achievements were nothing like Arsenal’s over time – but endlessly the press raved over them, and all Arsenal fans could do was turn up at the ground and hope that someone somewhere could be found who would take us on the long road away from the Swindin-Wright Darkness back into the light.

The triumph of Battle of London is that, being written in 1972 it gives us not just the numbers and stats, but the emotion, the feeling, the essence of what it felt like over the years to be a north London fan.  And it does it by incorporating Arsenal’s return to the top with victories in Europe, the League and the Cup.

And of course it wasn’t all bad.   The 30s were pretty knock-out stuff, and while Arsenal have walked majestically in Division 1 for getting on for 100 years Tottenham have had occasional trips back to what rather childish supporters (like me) call their Spiritual Home: the second division.  No, it hasn’t all been bad.

This is a book which puts the emotions into the context, which helps us all  understand (or if of a certain age, remember) what it was like.  It gives the flavour of what it meant to enjoy football in North London from the dawn of time (well the 1890s) until Arsenal’s first Double.  Indeed there is one chapter where the title alone is enough to make you realise just what that rivalry was all about.  “Spurs challenge the masters” – and that was how it felt at the time of that Double.  I was of course just a child, but living in a small flat in Wood Green where the family beneath us were avid Tottenham fans, and we were utterly, totally Arsenal, I can still remember it.

Battle of London gives us pause for thought.  What would certain Arsenal “supporters” today make of things if Arsenal had been coming 16th and 18th in the League?  And it is one of those most rare things in football writing: it really does give us the feel of what it was like to be there.

The book is now republished by GCR Books – and there’s a nice touch at the end.  The final chapter, where the writer does move away from the emotion and feelings and gives us the “Facts and Figures” showing the relative performance of each club over the years has been updated to include everything up to 2012.

The Battle of London: the full story of the rivalry between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur from the 1880s to the 1970s by Rex Pardoe, is available from the publishers, GCR books.

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1 comment to The Battle of London: how it felt to be an Arsenal fan in days gone by

  • colario

    How did it feel? Horrible. The memories are painful. Such as being asked by a mocking spudator ‘Where are Arsenal in Europe this week? Ouch! There are other memories but this one will do for now.

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