Book Of The Week: A century of north London battles

The Pride of North London By Bob Goodwin (Polar Publishing, pounds 24.9 5)
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The Independent Online
"The great north London duel at White Hart Lane had a prelude which must be unique in football," the Daily Telegraph correspondent reported, "the booing of the visiting team before a ball was kicked!" Such unsporting behaviour puzzled the writer - "I am at a loss to understand why, for no team in the country plays cleaner or more attractive football" - and was not to be allowed to pass without comment. "The Spurs crowd is notorious for its partisanship, which no one minds. But to boo an opposing side before the game is disgraceful."

Even in 1933, the man from the Telegraph may have been a little behind the times. The passion generated by one of English football's enduring rivalries had existed at least since the turn of the century, when a fixture had been abandoned because of bad language from the crowd. Woolwich Arsenal was still a south London club at the time. Their move to Highbury in 1913, bitterly opposed by Tottenham, intensified the emotions, and by 1922 the verbals had spread to the players - an FA inquiry into a mass brawl which followed a controversial Spurs goal concluded that Tottenham player Bert Smith had used "filthy language". It promptly suspended him for a month.

The familiarity of the themes, if not the incidents themselves, is one of the delights of Bob Goodwin's chronicle of the north London rivalry. Plus ca change, as any one of a number of Arsenal's current employees might put it.

The stereotypes were quickly established. The Athletic News, reporting on Arsenal's 1-0 victory in December 1909, the first League encounter between the two, was particularly struck by the winner's "unwavering defence". By offering a contemporary match report for every significant game, the book not only tells the story in extraordinary depth, but also offers a fascinating glimpse into fashions in sports journalism and language. It is impossible not to treasure the "tenantless goals", the points "as precious as sodium or rubber" or the Sportsman's headline in 1923 which greeted a 3-0 Spurs triumph: "Tottenham Win The Return - Exciting Last 10 Minutes".

The book is lavishly illustrated and compiled with a nice sense of historic irony, and dozens of heroes emerge, though no performance was more impressive than the one given off the pitch in 1919 by the Arsenal chairman, Sir Henry Norris. Against all apparent logic and in the face of widespread scepticism, Norris persuaded the Football League to grant his team Tottenham's place in the First Division.

It was a status they have never lost, and by recruiting the former Spurs player Herbert Chapman as Arsenal manager a few years later, Norris went on to lay the foundations of the club's golden period, though his position as a Highbury legend was somewhat tarnished by his departure under a cloud in 1929, when the FA banned him for persistent breaches of the rules.

Plus ca change, indeed.

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