Arsenal / Tottenham, the first Highbury derby, and why we had to wait for it.

Tony Attwood

In the season 1908/9 the Football League began a curious experiment in which teams played each other home and away on Christmas Day / Boxing Day.   The first incidence of this for Arsenal came with these two games

  • 25 December 1908: Leicester Fosse 1 Woolwich Arsenal 1
  • 26 December 1908: Arsenal 2 Leicester Fosse 1

The procedure obviously did not resonate with the fixture committee, for it did not reoccur until 1911/12 when we had this bit of fun:

  • December 25 1911: Tottenham 5 Woolwich Arsenal 0
  • December 26 1911: Woolwich Arsenal 3 Tottenham 1

although looking at the first score, perhaps fun was not the right word.

The following year Arsenal played Notts County home and away over the holiday period and in 1913/14 it was the turn of Bradford, with Arsenal winning both games in this type of fixture for the first time (3-2 away on 25 December 1913, and 2-0 at home on 26 December).

In 1914 we were back to playing Leicester Fosse beating them 4-1 away on 25 December and 6-0 at home on 26 December.

Now I have no idea what thought process went on in football administrators’ heads during the war, but somehow in 1919 they come up with the notion of playing much of the season in this way.  Thus on September 13 1919 we played Sunderland away and on September 20 we played them at home.

For some reason the first four fixtures were not quite like this (we played Newcastle at home, Liverpool away, Newcastle away, Liverpool at home) but for most of the rest of the season the pattern of home/away against the same team was maintained.

The same process happened in 1920/1 and here we find Arsenal playing Tottenham on January 15 1921 (lost 1-2 away) and January 22 (won 3-2 at home).

What makes this last match of significance is that it was the first Tottenham derby game at Highbury.  The crowd was recorded at 60,600.

Arsenal had moved to Highbury for the 1913/14 season, but having been relegated in the last season at Plumstead, were then in division 2 with Tottenham in Division 1.  Arsenal just missed out on promotion so the same scenario played out in 1914/15, the last before the war.

Tottenham ended that final pre-war season very much bottom of the first division and thus due relegation, however their club and supporters have ever since produced a campaign to suggest that somehow Arsenal stole their place in the first division for the start of 1919/20 when Arsenal were elected back to the first division after ending the final pre-war campaign in 5th, with Tottenham duly relegated.

What made the situation unusual was that the league was expanded for the 1919/20 season and as “The Sportsman” magazine reported in its edition of 31 January 1919 Tottenham had themselves written to other league clubs admitting that there were no league rules for deciding on how the league should be expanded next season.  This showed a very honourable Tottenham at the time – but that bout of honour was quickly set aside when Tottenham were not “re-elected” to the first division.   In subsequent years they have maintained the vision that they were wronged.

(If you have ever heard the story that Arsenal fixed their way into division 1 you might care to read the full tale here.  It is almost certainly very different from anything you have read before, involving match fixing, the league reneging on its duty to punish the clubs involve and run a fair competition, and quite a bit more.)

Anyway Tottenham came up again the following season and so in 1920/1 the two clubs could finally play their two derbies.


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