IN the modern age, the big London clash is Arsenal v Tottenham, two clubs in close proximity, massive fanbases and key roles in the development of the game. Those that know their football history will be only too aware that Arsenal started life on the opposite side of the River Thames, adopting a series of names – Dial Square, Royal Arsenal and Woolwich Arsenal – as they searched for their true identity. Arsenal are not the only club to modify their name and image, but they were probably the first to adapt to the changing times.
Arsenal, like Manchester United (ex-Newton Heath) and Liverpool, have attracted a fair amount of envy down the decades. Jealousy is one of the overriding emotions of football, manifesting itself in resentment over wealth, status, stadiums, sponsors, players, owners and managers.
Fans also begrudge their rivals creating history and seem to believe the only “good history” is sepia-tinted and nowhere near the present. The fact is, history is made every day or our lives. While many fans tag a player a “legend” even if he’s only played a handful of games and appeared just a few years earlier, they consider recent history made by a club to be almost irrelevant.
Chelsea have been far more successful than Arsenal over the past 20 years. They are seen as arrivistes by many fans at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United. They “bought” success between 2004 and the current era, forgetting that Chelsea, from 1997 started winning again after almost three decades of under-achievement and frustration. In their own way, Arsenal bought success in the 1930s, their first golden age, and Liverpool were one of the wealthiest clubs around in the 1970s and 1980s and benefitted accordingly.
Manchester United, in the 1990s, prospered from the club’s elevation to a corporate entity, floating on the stock market and creating what we now see as the epitome of financial era football. Arsenal’s second coming, a combination of David Dein’s foresight and innovation of the part of Arséne Wenger, was effectively usurped by Roman Abramovich flying over west London.
Arsenal’s move north, accessing the more affluent surburbs, has arguably become more controversial as time has passed. Nobody had heard the phrase “franchise club” or “Woolwich Wanderers” when the club shifted a few miles across the Thames, but once that took place in 1913, the rivalry between “The Arsenal” and Tottenham Hotspur started.
Arsenal’s relocation demonstrated the club had business acumen – Woolwich Arsenal were not in good financial shape and in 1912-13, they averaged just 9,400 at their Plumstead home – lower than Orient and well below half of attendances at both Tottenham and Chelsea.
Chelsea’s formation in 1905 was the result of circumstances. If Fulham’s chairman, Sir Henry Norris, had accepted the Mears family’s offer to move his club to Stamford Bridge, a new club might not have seen the light of day.
Curiously, the same Sir Henry became chairman of Woolwich Arsenal in 1912, and wanted to merge Fulham and Arsenal to create a London “super club”. This was blocked by the Football League, so the move to north London took shape.
It proved to be an inspired decision, for in 1913-14, the first season as “The Arsenal” at their Highbury Stadium, a classic ground designed by Archibald Leitch, the crowds averaged almost 23,000.
The new Arsenal developed its inventive and professional ethos in the mid-1920s when Herbert Chapman was hired from Huddersfield Town. Chapman had won two of the three league titles that the unassuming Yorkshire club secured between 1923 and 1926. Chapman replaced Leslie Knighton as manager, an earnest figure who claimed he was not given the funds needed to build a strong Arsenal side. He had a point – as soon as Chapman was in place, Arsenal loosened the purse strings and over the following seasons, Arsenal became known as the “Bank of England club”.
The club’s financial power was underlined when they signed England inside forward David Jack from Bolton for £ 13,000 in 1928, who although almost 30, went on to score 26 goals in 1928-29.
Arsenal won the FA Cup in 1930 and in 1930-31 became London’s first league champion. The Gunners’ side accumulated 66 points from 42 games and scored 127 goals. Arsenal were so superior that over the other side of London, Chelsea decided it was time to invest in major talent to grab some limelight.
Since their formation in 1905, Chelsea had longed to be London’s most glamorous football brand. From the signing of Willie Foulke in their debut season, to assembling a forward line that included three England internationals – George Hilsdon, Jimmy Windridge and Vivien Woodward – the club not only had a swagger about it, they were also one of the best supported in the land. Between 1908 and 1914, Chelsea had the highest average crowds in the Football League and by 1931, were drawing 36,000 per game to Stamford Bridge. Arsenal, the champions, were averaging 37,000.
With so much activity in north London, Chelsea tried to keep pace with Arsenal in 1930-31, signing Hughie Gallacher from Newcastle for £ 10,000 , Alex Jackson from Huddersfield for £ 8,500 and Aberdeen winger Alec Cheyne for £ 6,000.
This was not enough to make Chelsea into contenders for the big prizes and the gulf between Leslie Knighton’s galaxy of stars and Arsenal was evident when the Gunners’ won 5-1 at Stamford Bridge at the end of November 1930.
Arsenal dominated the 1930s and Chelsea flattered to deceive for most of the decade and into the early post-WW2 years. Arsenal switched their playing kit to the now familiar red body and white sleeves in 1933, but Chelsea had the option to adopt a similar kit a year or two earlier, but decided against it.
Arsenal’s road to the final
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Arsenal won trophies in the austerity era, the league title in 1948 and 1953 and the FA Cup in 1950, but they were no longer the major force in English football. Chelsea won their first league title in 1955, but as the 1950s became the early 1960s, both clubs had fallen behind their rivals, notably Tottenham, who won the “double” in 1961 and were the first English club to win a European prize.
Chelsea stumbled upon a youth policy that very much mirrored Matt Busby’s approach at Manchester United and this yielded a number of players that would form the backbone of the club’s first team in the mid-1960s. Arsenal, meanwhile, looked lost during the 1960s and Chelsea developed an impressive record against them, winning 16 of 24 league meetings between 1959-60 and 1971-72. Arsenal’s “double” season of 1970-71 saw Chelsea claim victory early in the campaign, but during the run-in, it was clear Bertie Mee’s side had the upper hand once more.
By the mid-70s, both clubs had dropped some way down the league table and in 1975, Chelsea were relegated and Arsenal were just four points better off in 17th place. For the rest of the decade and for half of the 1980s, the rivalry between Chelsea and Arsenal was somewhat muted, but the late 1990s rekindled the flames of passion.
Both clubs were at the forefront of the new Premier age, taking advantage of the ability to sign exciting foreign players. When Arsenal won the double again in 1998, their stars were either French or Dutch, while Chelsea’s Football League Cup winning side had only three Englishmen in their line-up. Perhaps it was the glamour of London, or the ambition of the clubs’ chairmen, Dein at Arsenal and Ken Bates at Chelsea, but the two capital city rivals were instrumental in making English football more cosmopolitan.
Arsenal had a distinct advantage for a while over Chelsea and it was not necessarily anything to do with money. It was stability in the dugout. While Wenger, a somewhat speculative appointment, was installed in 1996 and stayed in place until 2018, Chelsea’s approach to team management was built around quick success and short-termism. However, from 2003, their strategy certainly proved more successful than Arsenal’s patient, conservative stance. While this demanded respect, it also became out-dated by the fast-changing Premier League.
The Abramovich era at Chelsea saw a complete about-turn in London football which gave Chelsea the upper hand. Arsenal, who now had a gleaming new stadium to pay for, appeared to resent that Chelsea, for so long seen as a club that under-achieved, were now wealthy and able to compete with the traditional heavyweights in the transfer market. Between 2003 and 2019, Chelsea won 16 major trophies to Arsenal’s five. Although both clubs are still among the wealthiest and most influential in Britain, they have been pushed into the shadows by the emergence of Manchester City and Liverpool.
Chelsea’s road to the final
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It is likely that Abramovich will spend big again to make Chelsea contenders, but Arsenal continue to be a frustrated club. Their owner, Stan Kroenke, has a very different style than Abramovich and although many Arsenal fans will always claim Chelsea are a club that has prospered through the use of financial steroids, deep down they crave an owner who can make them competitive again.
The modern game has destroyed the unwritten rule of never selling a key player to a close rival. Very few players have been transferred between the two clubs, but in recent times, Olivier Giroud, David Luiz, William Gallas, Peter Cech and Ashley Cole have resided in both dressing rooms.
The clash of cultures means that any meeting of the two clubs lacks nothing in passion and friction. The Europa League final in 2019 was an exception as the location (Baku) and Arsenal’s malaise made for a tepid, one-sided final won emphatically by Chelsea. In 2017, the FA Cup final meeting at Wembley was an engaging, end-to-end contest deservedly edged by Arsenal – possibly the last decent final.
The immediate futures of the two clubs are at stake this time. For Chelsea, Frank Lampard needs a trophy to ease the pressure and expectation that will build for 2020-21. For Mikkel Arteta, any doubts about his ability to lift the club will be removed by winning the FA Cup. The stadium may be empty, the season’s end long overdue, but the rivalry between the two clubs will ensure it will not be dull. It is, after all, London’s oldest football rivalry at the highest level.