To most football fans the origins of the North London derby are quite familiar. Arsenal, having been founded south of the river in Woolwich, moved to Islington and into Tottenham’s North London territory. This is of course the root cause of the animosity. Shortly after the First World War, however, an extraordinary series of events combined to create a catalyst that would continue to be the source of debate amongst the red/white divide for over a century. What is even more intriguing is that it was all started by Liverpool and Manchester United.
Early history between the North London rivals was limited to a handful of league meetings before Arsenal left their Woolwich roots and moved to Highbury Stadium in 1913. The following year football took a back seat in the nation’s consciousness as the First World War broke out. The 1914/15 season had already begun when Britain went to war, so the Football League decided to see it through to its conclusion. As the season progressed, however, it became clear that it needed to be suspended. Attendances dwindled and players were criticised for turning out for their clubs rather than enlisting in the armed forces. As the season drew to an end the Football League ceased operations.
Spurs finished as the bottom club in 1915 with Chelsea joining them as the second team in the relegation positions. Controversy raged, however, as Chelsea finished just one point behind Manchester United. On 2 April (Good Friday) United had defeated Liverpool 2-0 at Old Trafford. It had become apparent that players on both sides had placed bets on a United victory and fixed the result. Investigations during the forthcoming years, while the league was suspended found that it was just the players who were at fault, rather than the clubs, and seven received lifetime bans. Chelsea, however, were left with a strong case for their relegation to be reversed whenever the league resumed.
During the remaining years of the war clubs played in regional leagues with Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea furthering their on-field rivalries in a London Combination League. The war ended in November 1918 and plans were set in motion for the Football League to return the following year. The Football League’s management were keen to continue its pre-war development in the face of suggestions that the regional leagues could continue. They welcomed suggestions from clubs on how they could progress. Most indicated support for the league to expand and that Chelsea should remain in the First Division.
The most popular suggestion was the expansion of the First Division from 20 to 22 teams. It was widely reported that this would involve an election. This would mean choosing between the teams that finished in the higher positions in the Second Division in 1915. The precedent at the time was that the two bottom clubs (Chelsea and Spurs) would remain in the First Division. The most recent example of this came in 1905 when Bury and Notts County finished in the relegation positions but remained in the Division following its expansion from 18 to 20 teams.
Spurs, Chelsea and the top teams from the Second Division clamoured to get a place in the growing division and several options were put forward. Suggestions included an election for the final places, relegating United for their transgressions and keeping Chelsea in a 21 team division. Finally the Football League decided that Chelsea would remain in the League as they were victims of skulduggery. Preston and Derby, who finished first and second in the second tier, would also earn promotion and the final place would be decided by an election.
Spurs were one of the teams that applied along with Barnsley, Wolves, Birmingham, Arsenal and Hull who had finished in the positions between third and seventh in the Second Division. The chancers at Nottingham Forest, who finished eighteenth in the second tier, also applied. It was Arsenal, who had finished sixth, that were eventually elected into the First Division, forever igniting the tensions between them and their new North London neighbours. Arsenal received 18 votes and Spurs received eight. The remaining 15 votes were shared between Barnsley, Wolves, Nottingham Forest, Birmingham and Hull.
Accusations have raged between rival supporters in the years since the election, particularly over the involvement of Arsenal’s Chairman Henry Norris. Norris was well connected in league circles and many have alleged he may have been involved in underhand deals to help Arsenal’s cause. There is little evidence to support the idea of any secret payments or helping hands, but there are other factors that may have helped Arsenal win support for their election to the First Division.
The Gunners were the first London club to turn professional and the first Southern club to join the Football League when they ascended in 1893. Spurs, on the other hand, didn’t join until 1908. Arsenal clearly garnered a degree of support from their early adoption of professionalism and their decision to leave the Southern League and join the rival Football League. It was noted at the time that in their appeals to the other clubs that would decide the clubs’ fate that ‘Spurs would rely on precedent, while Arsenal rely on service’.
Many seasons have now passed since the election. The rivalry between Arsenal and Spurs is now firmly rooted in local ill-feeling and a long list of dramatic fixtures. The chances are that the North London derby would still be one of the most anticipated fixtures in the Premier League calendar even if the election had never taken place. The example, however, provides clear evidence that this particular rivalry dates back to the early years of the Football League, and it’s definitely one that’ll be debated for years to come.