I spent most of my early days blissfully, blithely supporting Arsenal without having any real understanding of the rivalry. In those days, I don’t think many of us Yanks knew much of anything about British football, much less the rivalries or the history. I had a poster of Gascoigne, of all people, on my bedroom wall. If you had asked me about Spurs, I would have almost surely assumed you were asking about the San Antonio Spurs, such was my ignorance at the time.
What follows then is a story of when the scales fell from my eyes and I came to understand what it means to hate.
I had a classmate, a guy who was a glorified water-boy of a soccer player, whom we had to put up with because our moms were friends. Car-pooling. Anyway, his mum was the one who would snap at you if you wiped fog from the window and complain about how she’d have to come back out later with Windex and a rag to get rid of the smudges and whatnot, or whinge about how you shouldn’t wash your hands at the kitchen-sink, but I digress. It’s the son, my classmate, who’s at the heart of things here. As the story goes, we were coming back from a match, his da’s driving, he’s riding shotgun, and I’m sitting behind his da. I’m taking off my boots and pause for a moment to look out the window and, well, I’ll let it unfold from there.
“Put yer shoes back on!”
“Gimme a minute, I’m just changing into dry socks.”
“Shay, no one wants to smell yer socks.”
Fair point. Still, in a matter of seconds, the problem would be resolved. Ironically, this discussion was slowing me down and prolonging the problem. “Jake, calm yourself. I’m switching to fresh socks. Lemme just take off my shinguards and—”
The slap brought silence to the van. Six teenaged boys fell suddenly, awfully silent. Jake had slapped me. In the few seconds of silence that followed, I suppressed the urge to unload. It was late at night, we were on a highway, and it was snowy. If I punched him back, would his dad flinch and send us into uncoming traffic. I was seething, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I could feel the anticipation of the other lads in the car urging me on. However, I had to let it pass. Revenge is a dish best served cold and all.
Fast forward a few days and we’re finishing practice, and this same bellend mentions how he supported a club called Tottenham. I laughed. Admit it—it is a rather silly name, isn’t it? It sounds like an out-of-date name for some tribe living in the bush, not a name for a plucky but put-upon professional football club in London. At any rate, I think you can see the alchemy at work there. Loathsome punk of a lad slaps me in the face, hiding behind his da and the relative safety of the front-seat of a family van, proudly trumpets his admiration for a club that turns out to be the rival of my own chosen club. The rest, as they say, is history. My hatred for Hotspur had its inception there, and I’ve never looked back. I don’t remember that last time Jake and I saw each other. He’s friended me on facebook and followed me on twitter, but I’ve ignored it each time. However, I suppose I owe him some kind of thank-you for helping me understand, even if only by accident, the history of this rivalry. Fast-forward ten years or so from that moment, and it turns out that one of my best mates is a Spud. Funny how these things turn out.
If you care to dig through my archive, I think you’ll find that I’m still probably too tame in my treatment of your club to prove my bona fides to other Gooners. I wanted Gareth Bale to stay, if that proves anything to you, worrying that he’d wilt under the pressure of commanding a higher transfer-fee than Ronaldo. So much for that worry, eh? He and Modrić have bedded in pretty well. I’ll only bring up your club’s unfortunate tendency to finish below Arsenal in the context of a compliment; your stadium seats how many? 36,000? The Emirates seats almost twice that, and yet, year after year, you push us right down to the wire. How much of that derives from us underperforming or you overperforming matters less than the fact that, despite that imbalance, your club has punched above its weight.
Still, come Saturday, I’d love nothing more than to see our lads punish yours, scoring again and again and again. There’s a chance that you could win, leapfrogging your way to as high as third, but we could achieve the same with a win of our own. Then again, when it comes to a North London Derby, who’s where on the table is almost an afterthought, isn’t it?