Are Arsenal the team of the new millennium? Who better to ask than the team of the previous century, the 1961 Tottenham Hotspur Double-winning side, the team who ushered in the modern era, who redefined how the game should be played, who won in such wondrous style.
The reaction may make unpalatable reading for Spurs fans but it is unequivocal. The eight remaining members of the side gathered at White Hart Lane to honour their manager, Bill Nicholson, now 85 and the club's life president, as he became the first to be inducted into a new, as yet unbuilt, Hall of Fame. Among them was Cliff Jones. "They are very special," says the man known as the Welsh Wing Wizard when asked about Arsène Wenger's side. "I would think yes, they are the best since our era. You would have to be looking at that and I think most people would agree... Alex Ferguson might not, mind. I know they are our big rivals but that's our yardstick, that's what we have to try and achieve."
Indeed Jones, 69, sees further similarities. "Arsène Wenger isn't just satisfied with the win, he's satisfied by the performance. And that's the way it was with Bill. Winning wasn't enough for Bill Nicholson, it had to be done with a certain style." Wenger, naturally considering his background, adopts a different lexicon of history. He looks to the Ajax and Borussia Moenchengladbach sides of the 1970s. But in British football, Arsenal's true antecedent is Tottenham, with the accent on skill, passing and adventure.
Just as Wenger revolutionised training methods in the Nineties, so Nicholson, a perfectionist who joined Spurs as a 16-year-old, did in the Fifties. "He made sure we played with style and trained with style," says Jones. For both men speed was vital. "We were very quick," adds Jones. "We trained that way. We trained with weights and over short distances and I would have backed myself against anybody in today's football." Even Thierry Henry? "Yes, I would. Great player that he is. Tremendous, sometimes quite unstoppable. The game may be quicker today, but that's only because the pitches and the equipment are better and players don't dribble. They say, 'How would you compare?' and I think we would compare very favourably. I think it would be far more difficult for today's players to go back 40 years and play under the conditions we did."
It is a view - along with the comparison with Arsenal and the primacy of Henry - endorsed by Dave Mackay, a player cited as one who would thrive today. "They [Arsenal] play lovely football," he says. "When you go and see Arsenal you know you'll see a really good, entertaining game." Like the Spurs side, winning and entertaining go together. "Some teams don't even try and do both," says Mackay, 69, in his day an amalgam of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira. "All they want to do is win and they couldn't care less whether it's entertaining or not."
Still, it is difficult to imagine Wenger, as Nicholson did, castigating his players for not playing with the required style when winning the FA Cup. "It wasn't a good game and Bill wasn't happy," Mackay says of that 1961 final against Leicester City.
The air is thick with nostalgia, as it often is at what is still one of the most glamorous clubs in England. The achievements of Nicholson and his players were truly remarkable. From the springboard supplied by the push-and-run regime of Arthur Rowe, Nicholson generated a side who scored a record 115 League goals on the way to winning the first Double of the 20th century. But more than that they captured the hearts of millions of fans - and created a legacy which has, probably, overwhelmed successive Spurs teams and left fans hungry. "I suppose it did make it very difficult," says Jones. "Tottenham have produced good teams through their history but they've always had the comparison with the '61 side. To be honest, when I first came here in '58 I was very aware of the '51 side [who also won the title]. The push-and-run.
"As you get older things are further away, although it will take a special side to emulate what we did. Until Spurs win the championship that comparison will always be there." And win it well, of course. The nearest to compete so far was the Keith Burkinshaw side of the early Eighties with Osvaldo Ardiles and Glenn Hoddle. Again Mackay agrees, adding: "Once you've done the Double that's hard for anyone to follow. Man Utd did the Treble, but when will they do it again? So all the pressure is on those United players. If you are the manager of this club it puts you under a particular pressure."
Indeed Burkinshaw will be the next into the Hall of Fame, although it's difficult to see which manager would follow him. Mackay offers some comfort: "To any extent they have to start again - even that Tottenham team I was in, we only won the League once. It's not as if we won it every year." But it's the way they won it. There is, however, a clear distinction drawn between Tottenham then and Arsenal, and other teams, now. And that's discipline - even if Wenger's side have improved. "He [Nicholson] hated players intimidating referees," Jones says. "He would say to us, 'Don't whinge to me about referees... referees are only human and they make mistakes, but they won't make as many mistakes as you out there'. Players today need to hear that and I don't think they do. I have to say it's disgraceful what some players do."
Like everything about that side, it was refreshing. Indeed all the members - the others being Ron Henry, Peter Baker, Maurice Norman, Bobby Smith, Les Allen and Terry Dyson - were also added to the Hall of Fame list. It is an honour long overdue. Nicholson, who was manager for 16 glorious years, the longest tenure in the club's history, added his own tribute. "What we achieved was down to the players, the staff, plus a lot of hard work." And no little genius too.Reuse content