Date: 30th October 2010 at 1:45am
Written by:

The next in the series of Arsenal monuments takes me to strange and dark places- both literally and metaphorically. But like it or not, White Hart Lane is a pivotal part of the history of Arsenal Football Club. But this isn`t owing to vague pretensions of rivalry and one upmanship, the circumstances in which the ground of our neighbours and rivals go a little deeper and a little darker than that. Tottenham and Arsenal had cultivated a mutual dislike following Arsenal`s decision to muscle in on their patch in 1913- followed by their election to the First Division at Tottenham`s expense in 1919 in spurious circumstances. That rivalry was further soured in 1928 when relegation threatened Tottenham required a favour from Arsenal when fellow basement dwellers Portsmouth visited Highbury on the last day of the 1927-28 season. Arsenal put in a curiously low key performance as they lost 2-0 to Pompey- a result that relegated Spurs. A fortnight later, it is alleged that the players who took part in that tepid defeat were given refrigerators- a modern invention back then- by club chairman Henry Norris.

However, churlish rivalry was to be put to one side in 1939. With Europe on the brink of a devastating war, Arsenal season ticket holders received a sombre letter from secretary manager George Allison, informing them that Highbury had been requisitioned for the war effort. “I look forward to a time when all Arsenal supporters are able to foregather on the Highbury ground as they have done in the past,” was the eerily prescient closing line of the communication. League football was suspended and Highbury was to become a hub of London`s war effort. The practise pitch behind the Clock End, where the players trained, was to be used as to store materials and weaponry. The sparkling new £45,000 West Stand was now to be an air raid shelter and the luxurious East Stand was to double up as a first aid centre and an air raid wardens` reporting post. The pitch was used twice daily as a training ground for the Islington Air Raid Precaution team. It was confirmation for some that normal life was over and Britain was in the grip of conflict. This nightmarish reality became all too pronounced on the night of April 16, 1941, when local residents huddled in the West Stand as 550 German bombers circled London, dropping somewhere in the region of 100,000 incendiary bombs. St. Thomas` Road and Blackstock Road were reduced to smouldering rubble, whilst the Laundry End (later known as the North Bank) felt the effects as the heat from the incendiaries that were fired into the stand melted the roof. The Laundry End too was sealed off brick by brick as two air raid wardens lost their lives amidst the concrete. Of Arsenal`s 42 staff, 40 served in the Second World War. Nine never came home.

Though league football was suspended, football did not cease completely. War time combination games and friendlies were positively encouraged by the authorities as a means of boosting morale. Players were keen too, not only to obtain their fix and achieve a semblance of normality to their lives, but because games paid around £2.50 appearance fees. The average Arsenal player was earning £8 a week in the late 1930s, so the fee was still rather meagre. Yet in war time Britain, with rationing in place, a gift horse was never to be looked in the mouth. With Highbury requisitioned, Arsenal needed somewhere to play. There was only one logical solution and so it came to pass that Arsenal called White Hart Lane home for seven years. We might only have had a sleeping bag on the sofa, but nonetheless, we were officially lodging. Crowds were capped at 25,000 as a precaution but the Gunners played a number of memorable games on the turf of their enemy. Since war detail meant players were constantly moving around the country, they were allowed to “guest” for teams in their locality. So in 1942, when Arsenal welcomed an RAF XI for a friendly at Tottenham`s ground, Stanley Matthews wore the red and white of Arsenal, whilst Gunners captain Eddie Hapgood gamely tried to kick lumps out of him as a full back for the RAF XI! In 1942, an Arsenal crowd crammed into White Hart Lane to watch their team defeat Clapton Orient 15-2. In the same year, Charlton Athletic played a friendly at Arsenal`s shared accommodation. First team goalkeeper George Swindin was registered to play but did not show. So figuring his wicket keeping skills for Middlesex and England cricket teams might serve him well, Arsenal opted to field Leslie Compton in goal. Arsenal won the game 7-1.

Even when the war had officially ended, league football did not resume properly until the 1946-47 season, and in any case, Highbury was still decimated by shells and unusable. In December 1945, Arsenal famously played Dynamo Moskva at White Hart Lane. Matches against European opposition were incredibly rare in those days, but Herbert Chapman, who advocated the idea of a European Cup to much derision, regularly set up friendlies with teams on the continent to broaden the education of his players. It was a legacy the Arsenal continued after Chapman`s untimely death. The game has fallen into mythology due to the farcical nature of it. The match was played in fog so dense that the referee officiated in one half of the pitch, whilst his two linesmen took sole responsibility for the other half. Dynamo eventually won 4-3 amidst allegations that they snuck a twelfth player onto the field of play for around twenty minutes of the second half, so camouflaged were they by the conditions. However, the post war media was still incredibly distrustful of foreigners and were still in the clinch of war time jingoism, so their allegations are perhaps to be taken with a pinch of salt. (The more things change, the more they stay the same).

Highbury reopened in August 1946 and they no longer had to pitch up at the neighbour`s flat with their bindle and hanky. Subsequently, relations cooled slightly between the clubs. The solidarity of the war effort, plus Arsenal`s gratitude for Tottenham`s hospitality saw something of a thawing. Of course White Hart Lane has figured since in some of the picture book moments in the Gunners` history. On May 3, 1971, Arsenal travelled to the ground of their hated rivals needing either a 1-0 victory or a goalless draw to seal their first league title in 18 years. Ray Kennedy`s header from Geordie Armstrong`s cross with eight minutes remaining sealed the desired scoreline and Arsenal were crowned champions in enemy territory amongst chaotic scenes. Fans invaded the pitch and celebrated boisterously. To the point that Bertie Mee returned from the pitch to the dressing room with his immaculately tailored suit ripped to shreds. In March 1987, after two attempts, Arsenal and Spurs could not be separated for a League Cup semi final. Spurs won the first leg at Highbury 1-0 and then took a two goal aggregate lead in the second leg through Clive Allen that filled the home side with such confidence, that the half time tannoy announcer conceitedly announced how Spurs fans could buy their tickets for the final. Viv Anderson and Niall Quinn pulled the tie level after the two legs. A third tie would be required.

A coin was flipped to determine that the third game would be held at White Hart Lane. Clive Allen gave Spurs a lead yet again, but a late equaliser from Ian Allinson buoyed Arsenal. With two minutes remaining, the late, great David Rocastle toe ended the ball underneath the Spurs keeper to give Arsenal a famous victory. They went onto to beat Liverpool in the final to claim their first trophy for eight years. Even more recently, on 25th April, 2004, a defeat earlier in the day for Chelsea meant Arsenal only had to avoid defeat at White Hart Lane to be crowned champions in the lions` den once more. The visitors had not lost a game all season and the home side were still not clear of relegation. Early goals from Vieira and Pires put Arsenal on their way. Jamie Redknapp pulled one back before a last minute penalty from Robbie Keane had the locals mistakenly believing they had denied their hated rivals the title. Thierry Henry determinedly showed them the error of their ways with an exuberant celebration.

Arsenal`s affiliation with White Hart Lane has been set against a colourful mix of tragedy and triumph. The fellowship and the ardour of the Second World War brings rivalries that are petty by comparison into sharp focus. With Europe in disarray, the teams were able to put aside their differences at a time when they were at their zenith and extend the hand of friendship. But Tottenham`s ground has also set the backdrop to some of Arsenal`s greatest moments. By mere virtue of association, the league wins there are special, whilst the sweeping drama and last minute ecstasy of the 1987 League Cup semi final burns on the memories of all that witnessed it. Rocastle`s goal that night has come on to assume double meaning as a lasting tableau of his memory. White Hart Lane is under 3 miles away from our current ground geographically and historically, it has never been far from Arsenal`s beating heart.LD.

Royal Oak Pub
Arsenal tube station