Goal Nigeria’s Ed Dove runs the rule over Saturday’s London derby between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at White Hart Lane – despite a storied history of competition, this clash may just be the most monumental yet. Former Chelsea boss André Villas-Boas is the current centrepiece of a rivalry that has both an enduring past and a vibrant future.
One of the most beautiful things about the many derbies that litter the English top flight is their continued renovation. The frequency of these matches, and the proximity between the belligerents means that these fixtures are constantly imbued with deeper meaning and finer subplots. The North London derby between Arsenal and Tottenham for example, was taken to another level by Sol Campbell’s treachery, the West London derby between Chelsea and Q.P.R. has become synonymous with pre-match ritual and racism, whilst England’s major fixture, between Manchester United and Liverpool, continues to generate its own dirty little headlines and animosity.
Tottenham Hotspur v. Chelsea, a derby once classed as London’s faded glory versus its nouveau-riche, has taken on an extra dimension due to the insertion of one André Villas-Boas – sure to be one of the key protagonists in Saturday’s clash.
It took Tottenham Hotspur 15 long and arduous years to secure their first Premier League win against Chelsea. Since the league’s re-branding in 1992, Spurs had endured a decade and a half of anguish and hardship before finally, on November 5th 2006, a Michael Dawson equaliser, and an Aaron Lennon winner secured the victory for Tottenham. The elation was abounding, and the scenes that greeted the final whistle will live long in the hearts of the White Hart Lane faithful.
Reading that paragraph, you could be forgiven for thinking that Chelsea had always been the dominant party in the pair, whilst Spurs had played the role of gallant underdog – hoping for victory but ultimately, frequently, falling short. It hadn’t always been that way. The 1967 FA Cup Final saw Tottenham beat Chelsea to lift the trophy, whilst they also eliminated the Blues en route to winning the competition again in 1982. In 1975, a relegation scrap between the duo also ended with a Spurs win, a result which went a long way to casting Chelsea back down into the depths of the second tier.
Football historian Brian Glanville suggested that the Spurs side of 1961 was the greatest double winning team he had ever seen, whilst until the changing pace of the Abramovich regime, it was Tottenham, and not Chelsea, who were by far the more celebrated of the pair. Spurs, after all, are one of only two English sides to have won a competition in each decade for the last sixty years.
Many in London choose to paint the rivalry in a certain light, that of Chelsea as the new blood, the nouveau-riche, keen to finally put down the faded glamour of Spurs. Others suggest that jealously plays a part for both sides; Tottenham hatred fuelled by fans’ desire to enjoy Chelsea’s riches and their current place among the European elite; the Blues, on the other hand, envious of Tottenham’s history and a club identity which oozes charm and class.
Whilst Chelsea could be accused of buying success and status, throwing money at a club simply can’t buy the class exuded effortlessly by the Lilywhites. Many Tottenham fans, however, have to face the hard reality that modern status and success are a profound part of the game’s currency, and Chelsea’s Champions League win last summer, making them the first London club to do so, has left an indelible mark on the capital’s hierarchy.
And so to this weekend, where Roberto Di Matteo’s European Champions, currently topping the table, head to White Hart Lane. In the past, it’s been hard to have confidence in Tottenham in this kind of match, against this kind of opposition, but today, it’s perhaps hard to write them off, despite their opponents going into the game on top of the pile.
That conviction is due, in no small part, to André Villas-Boas – the erstwhile Chelsea manager, currently overseeing a renaissance of sorts at the Lane. The rise, fall, and redemption of the Portuguese managerial wonderkid has been one of the fascinating sub-plots of the last year in English football: the awkward fit at Chelsea, the strained relationships, the petulance, the promise, the dismissal, the aftermath. Imagine his emotions on 19th May 2012 as a Chelsea side which had been his own only months before, struggled to victory against Bayern Munich.
The bright young thing of European management had threatened to become old before his time; the passive aggression and the eccentric theatrics had left a sour taste, and many were surprised when Spurs chief Daniel Levy chose AVB to replace the outgoing Harry Redknapp. Was the arrogant Chelsea flop truly a tangible upgrade on the former boss, who, and many forget this, had the fifth best win ratio of any previous Spurs manager in history?
Initially, fears were fuelled; a poor start to the season prompted discontent among the supporters, and this was expressed audibly towards the new boss. A lack of points, some muddled decisions, and a clutch of disjointed performances led to many complaints about the man who was becoming particularly easy to dislike. And then it all began to run gold for Spurs – wins against Reading, QPR, and Carlisle were followed by a trip to Old Trafford, and one of Tottenham’s most glorious moments in recent memory.
So to Chelsea, and the latest episode of a rivalry that began back in 1908. The gulf is smaller now, than it was in 2006, and Tottenham, particularly drilled as they are under AVB, are more than capable of overcoming the Pensioners, and closing the gap between them to two points. Spurs fans expect a top four finish this season, but this time, to be coupled with Champions League qualification – the fact that it was Chelsea’s European Cup win that denied them last year has been lost on no-one at White Hart Lane, and a win today would be a handsome step to avoid history repeating itself.
Expect animosity, expect passion, and most of all, expect Tottenham’s managerial wonderkid to write a new chapter in this storied football narrative.