rsenal played their first match at the new White Hart Lane earlier this year, losing 2-1 to a late Toby Alderweireld header, continuing a poor run of form at their rivals’ ground. Arsenal have won three FA Cup finals since they last won a game in Tottenham, Mathieu Flamini scoring twice as Arsenal won 2-1 in the League Cup back in 2015.
You can’t beat the feeling of winning at the home of your rivals. So, you can understand just how high Arsenal fans must have felt in 1987. In the space of 10 months, Arsenal left White Hart Lane with four 2-1 wins, each demonstrating the newfound spirit sweeping through the club.
The 1980s had been a bit of a mixed bag for Arsenal at White Hart Lane: a 2-1 win with a weakened team during the marathon 1979-80 season; the shame of the 5-0 defeat in April 1983; a 4-2 Boxing Day triumph in 1983; losing an FA Cup third round match in 1982; a 2-0 win that dented Tottenham’s title hopes in April 1985. To put it mildly, Arsenal were an inconsistent team under Terry Neill and then Don Howe in the first half of the decade. The 1983-84 Milk Cup was a prime example of this. A thrilling win at Tottenham left Arsenal fans delirious; defeat against Walsall in the next round left them scratching their heads in bemusement.
George Graham’s arrival in 1986 changed everything. His authority and tactical nous, combined with the flourishing youth system that provided the likes of Tony Adams, David Rocastle and Michael Thomas, led to Arsenal winning their first trophy in eight years, the League Cup in 1987. Arsenal were back and the balance of power in north London started shifting to N5. On the other hand, Tottenham – who were chasing three trophies at one point in the 1986-87 campaign – won none of them and sacked their manager shortly after Arsenal’s fourth win at their ground in October 1987.
Tottenham 1-2 Arsenal, First Division, 4 January 1987
The first win came right at the start of the year. Top of the table and full of confidence, here was an Arsenal side barely recognisable from the Neill/Howe era. Shown live on BBC One on Sunday 4 January, the 100th North London league derby, played in swirling rain, would see Arsenal stretch their unbeaten run to 19 matches in all competitions.
Arsenal tore into their startled opponents from the start, Tony Adams putting them ahead after six minutes, with Paul Davis doubling the lead via a free-kick just before half-time. Mitchell Thomas halved the deficit just before the break, but Arsenal deservedly ran out winners. The title dream eventually faded away, but they still had the chance to end their trophy drought via the League Cup. The semi-final draw pitted Arsenal against Tottenham in a buttock-clenching three-match soap opera that has woven its way into the mythology of the club.
Tottenham 1-2 Arsenal, League Cup, 1 March 1987
Things were not looking good for Arsenal when Clive Allen’s goal saw Tottenham leave Highbury with a 1-0 win. Their chances appeared even slimmer when the same man scored in the second leg at White Hart Lane to double Tottenham’s aggregate advantage. But then something happened that some might refer to as a little bit Spursy.
The club announced ticket plans for the final and played “Spurs are on their way to Wembley” over the PA system at half-time. It was a decision they would live to regret. The Arsenal players, hearing this in the dressing room, exchanged knowing glances. Graham’s team talk had been given for him. The season review in George Graham: The Wonder Years described this moment superbly: “Tactless and arrogant it may have been, but in reality, if the half-wits on the staff at White Hart Lane had deliberately gone out of their way to motivate the Arsenal players, they couldn’t possibly have done more.”
Spurred on by the early crowing of the cockerel, Arsenal were reinvigorated, and, although they rode their luck slightly, goals from Viv Anderson and Niall Quinn sent the match into extra-time. With no further goals, a replay would be required.
Tottenham 1-2 Arsenal, League Cup replay, 4 March 1987
Graham lost the toss to decide the venue for the replay, but Arsenal’s two wins at White Hart Lane suggested it was a good toss to lose. Allen put Tottenham in front once more in the replay, but this Arsenal team simply refused to go away. They lost Charlie Nicholas to an injury, but his replacement Ian Allinson sneaked in an equaliser and the force was with the away side. Wednesday 4 March was about to become a night to remember for Arsenal fans.
With a chilling inevitability, a last-minute goal from Rocastle gave Arsenal the lead for the first time in the tie, and a place in the Wembley final. The party in the away section at White Hart Lane went on and on. The wins over Tottenham and the comeback against Liverpool in the final, inspired a new Arsenal fanzine called One-nil down, two-one up.
Tottenham 1-2, First Division, 18 October 1987
As the 1987-88 season began, hopes were high for more Arsenal success. After a stuttering start, Graham’s team clicked into gear. Unfortunately for Tottenham, they could do little when the teams met in October. Another live television match on a Sunday, another 2-1 win for Arsenal at White Hart Lane. This victory did not have the drama of the previous three wins, but another come-from-behind win left Tottenham seething, especially when a late Gary Mabbutt strike was ruled out for offside.
Arsenal had won five league matches in a row before the derby, but started slowly. When Nico Claesen scored for Spurs after just 42 seconds it was the first time Arsenal had conceded in over 11 hours. Undeterred, Rocastle equalised shortly after, before Michael Thomas struck a winner after 14 minutes to end Tottenham’s run of 13 consecutive home wins.
A few weeks later, David Pleat left Tottenham due to allegations related to his private life, and the fortunes of the two clubs continued to travel in different directions. His time at Tottenham may have had a silver lining had his team won that League Cup semi-final; but he couldn’t see off those pesky kids.
For Arsenal fans, 1987 and those wins at Tottenham confirmed that the club now had a manager and a set of players who knew what it was like to play for The Arsenal. The never say die attitude, the honour of playing for the club and the start of something big under Graham.
It’s been an inconsistent start to the 2020-21 season for Mikel Arteta’s team. But a win over a Tottenham team flying under José Mourinho would provide a boost to everyone associated with the club. Winning at Tottenham is never easy, though, even if in 1987 Arsenal developed an addiction to visiting the home of their not-so-dear neighbours and leaving victorious.