The North London Derby may have lavished us all with Gazza’s rocket of a free-kick (‘that is schoolboy’s own stuff’) and Liam Brady’s heat-seeking missile (‘look at that. Oh look at that!”) along with lashings of controversy and hostility and last-minute hijinks, but at its heart – embedded deep in the fixture’s DNA – is stalemate. It’s unfortunate but that’s how it is. One of the world’s most enthralling sporting contests amounts to one big sharing of the points.
Since the formation of the Premier League there have been 35 occasions when Arsenal have hosted Spurs or Spurs have hosted Arsenal and a staggering 41% of them have concluded in a draw. By comparison the Manchester derby has heralded just 17%.
It’s a good job then that even when both fan-bases go home with pride intact the game can still throw up the occasional firecracker for the ages.
Americans don’t believe in draws. The very concept of it is alien to their sporting philosophy. There is a winner and a loser and the winner is widely celebrated while the loser hurts badly and feels like a no-good Commie. To them sport epitomises life’s extremities of glory and disaster and never the twain shall meet. Certainly never the twain shall shake hands afterwards and call it all square.
It is sincerely hoped then that out of the sixty thousand present at the Emirates on October 29th 2008 there were at least one or two in attendance. One or two to see the light.
Three days before the 173rd North London Derby geared up for its statistically probable draw Spurs succumbed to the inevitable and sacked their under-fire manager Juande Ramos. The club were languishing second from bottom of the league and had accumulated a miserable two points from their opening eight games. After committing to an expensive overhaul of their squad during the summer a transitional period was expected but this, this was crisis point, and the stone-faced Spaniard chose this time when his job was on the line to deploy Tom Huddlestone wide on the left during a training session. The players looked at the backroom staff in disbelief. The backroom staff averted eye contact. Three hours later Ramos was gone.
His replacement was secured with suspicious haste and given that the club had sold or released twelve players that summer (including Berbatov reluctantly on deadline day) and made a chequebook-depleting ten signings surely the new man’s remit would be to impose some stability? To work with what he had. Well of course not: this was Spurs back when they were Spurs and in the most Spursy move imagine they unveiled to the world the familiar hangdog jowls of Henry James ‘Harry’ Redknapp. That January they signed a further five players and yes of course one of them was Jermain Defoe.
Years later I interviewed Bentley and asked him how that moment felt to him. He eventually answered once he stopped laughing
It is quite possible to imagine what Arsene Wenger made of this development. He must have been quite looking forward to meeting up again with his neighbours, what with their troubles laid on troubles while his side was ticking along nicely with bags of goals courtesy of a front two of Robin Van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor, all the time abetted by Nasri and Fabregas twinkling and scheming behind. Reflecting the Gunners’ high confidence Fabregas had reportedly said that ‘even’ Arsenal Ladies would give Tottenham a run for their money which is an impressive trick to insult both your target and the example you offer up by comparison.
Now though Spurs had the archest of motivators in charge, a man with a Midas touch in lifting spirits and injecting belief. Worse yet Wenger must have been concerned at the prospect of David Bentley’s return; back to the club that sold him two years before, considering him a lesser talent than Alexander Hleb.
Thirteen minutes in and Wenger’s fears were proven correct and all of the stars aligned. Bentley teed up the ball with his knee and swept a swooshing, dipping pearler forty yards over the flailing grasp of Almunia. The distance it travelled allowed for different emotions to rise up in the viewer. First there was confusion because what was he thinking striking the ball from there? Then came doubt and lastly dumbfoundment. Years later I interviewed Bentley and asked him how that moment felt to him. He eventually answered once he stopped laughing.
It was a lead that lasted twenty minutes before Gomes flapped at a corner and Silvestre nodded home and on the other side of the break another delivery from out wide found Gallas’ forehead and resulted in the home side turning the game upside-down. A close-range poke from Adebayor seemed to settle matters on the hour mark. There would be no instant recovery under Redknapp.
Only Spurs came back through a striker in Darren Bent who Redknapp would later claim was a worse finisher than his wife (what is it with London sporting figures believing that women are the lowest benchmark when dishing out criticism?) but any hopes of revival were swiftly deprived them when Van Persie cracked in a low drive a minute later.
Surely there was no coming back from this? Surely the drip, drip, drip from recent defeats would seep back into the away sides’ psyche? Even in a derby there are limits of resolve.
Some of the greatest goals we have ever bore witness to were born from desperation. An example that springs to mind was actually against Tottenham in 1993 when Manchester City’s Terry Phelan accepted that his FA Cup dreams were over for that year and simply legged it with the ball for the full length of the field. Here Jermain Jenas cut in diagonally, corrected his feet, and curled home a beauty that would ordinarily have been passed. With seconds remaining Spurs had a consolation.
But now hope rose up. Fear was scented. The board showing added on time flashed encouragement. And when Luka Modric volleyed onto a post the ball dutifully rolled out to Aaron Lennon because the universe told it to.
Cue uproar and heartbreak. Life’s extremities. Americans will never understand this but the winner that day was a draw.