It's about beating Spurs. So said Tony Adams on this Sky Premier League promo back in 1996. Some of us already knew this though, way before the summer in which football apparently "came home". From an early age, my Dad had subtlety told me in no uncertain terms that Arsenal were to be my team, and that if we were to win only two matches in a season, then the derby games against our North London friends were the ones to win. He wasn't aggressive about it, he didn't teach me any abusive songs about that lot - I would discover enough of those myself - but he insisted that at no cost could we afford to lose any matches against them.
The problem was, he told me all of this in 1983, a period in the history of the club often referred to as the dark ages. If you think Arsenal 2012 are bad enough then you simply had to be around in the early to mid-eighties to appreciate just how mediocre we could be. Terry Neill's reign had begun to unravel after the high profile departures of Brady and Stapleton, and by the time the 1983/84 season started, time was running out for the Irishman. The summer signing of Charlie Nicholas had sparked a fresh wave of optimism amongst the Arsenal faithful, and after a brace against a poor Wolves side in just his second game, the press went into overdrive. "Wolves became the first English victims of the 21-year-old Scot's talents - and they won't be the last," declared Dave Horridge in the Mirror, with John Wragg in the Express boldly predicting that Nicholas "...threatens to dominate the First Division...". Naturally the honeymoon period couldn't last, and by November the same hacks were already questioning Nicholas and pondering if Arsenal's star man was about to be dropped.
There were the odd glimmers of light for both Neill and Nicholas; the 2-1 Milk Cup victory over Tottenham in the cauldron of White Hart Lane gave us temporary bragging rights. However, this was tempered by the fact that we somehow managed to exit at the hands of the mighty Walsall at Highbury in the very next round - the modern day equivalent of, say, staging a stirring comeback after going four goals down to Reading, only to lose to Bradford in the next round. The Walsall defeat hammered the final nail in Neill's coffin, as the masses gathered on Avenell Road demanding change. Come December 16, Neill had been sacked, replaced on a caretaker basis by coach Don Howe, and for once the usual club in turmoil headlines were not that inaccurate. When such managerial greats as Johnny Giles, David Pleat and Jack Charlton are being linked to your club, then you know you're not that far off rock bottom.
Howe's reign began brightly, a 3-1 win over Watford with Raphael Meade grabbing a hat trick, one of only three wins over the Hornets during their stint in the old First Division. But Howe and everyone else knew that the big one was Tottenham away on Boxing Day, the first of four matches that the press informed us would make or break Howe. For a man steeped in Arsenal history, Howe understood just what the derby meant to supporters: "Naturally this match is important to us. It means so much to our supporters. It's the game they want us to win perhaps more than any other. It's life or death to them. They can live or die off the result for a year." We all hoped that the outcome would be slightly better than our previous league match in N17 - a crushing and embarrassing 5-0 defeat - but the pessimists amongst us (well me), were not all that confident.
The police, wisely maybe, decided to bring the kick-off forward to 11am, in order to prevent any alcohol fuelled violence. Fair enough, although anyone wanting to watch Look Back with Noakes on BBC1 would have been mightily disappointed, but at least they could get back for the Keith Harris Christmas Show and the Circus World Championships (I promise you I'm not making this up). The morning kick-off certainly deterred some, and although the crowd of 38,756 was easily the biggest Division One attendance of the day, it was nearly 10,000 down on the Milk Cup gate.
Howe's first tactical masterstroke of his tenure was to drop Charlie Nicholas back into the hole behind the front two of Woodcock and Meade. It had already bore fruit against Watford, and when Nicholas gave Arsenal the lead after 26 minutes at White Hart Lane, it appeared as if Howe had finally managed to solve the Charlie conundrum. Unfortunately Tottenham equalised eleven minutes later, Graham Roberts sliding home Glenn Hoddle's free-kick, to leave the teams level at the break. Arsenal lost Stewart Robson to a hamstring injury, replaced by David Cork, who although hardly an Arsenal legend, performed admirably on the day.
The second half began ideally for the visitors, as Ian Allinson's through ball sent Charlie clear, and his delicious lob over Clemence sent the Arsenal fans behind the goal into raptures. Charlie's knees-up celebration added to this moment of beauty, and burnt into my 8-year-old head, so much so that the next time I notched in the playground attempts were made to mimic this joyous occasion (although due to a Lee Chapmanesque goal drought I did have to wait a while, but that's another story). No sooner had we gone in front then we were pegged back again, conceding another goal from a set-piece just a minute later, Steve Archibald continuing his annoying trait of scoring in derby matches.
Woodcock went close just after the hour, hitting the bar from an Allinson corner, but Arsenal pressed forward in search of the lead yet again. After 74 minutes they were rewarded; Nicholas and Davis combining well down the right for Meade to head past Clemence. Finally the match was put to bed with just four minutes to go, Clemence parrying Nicholas' effort into the path of Meade, and the now prolific striker couldn't miss. The club in crisis had gone to the backyard of their nearest rivals and won for a second time in a season, and as the mass of Arsenal supporters contorted in delight inside the ground, a small gathering were holding their own party of sorts in Boreham Wood.
The look of delight on the faces of my Dad, Uncle and Grandad as news filtered through of Arsenal's victory will stay with me forever. At one point I thought they were going to hug, at a time remember when men showing any sign of affection in that manner was hardly the norm. In hindsight it was obvious that their happiness in beating Tottenham, and their genuine surprise at hearing the score, had combined to create this reaction. Admittedly it was only a win over the team in 11th place in the league table, but I was left in no doubt about the significance of beating Spurs. And that feeling hasn't left me to this day.
I have Messrs Jennings, Hill, Sansom, O'Leary, Caton, Robson, Davis, Allinson, Nicholas, Meade, Woodcock, and Cork to thank for that happy Boxing Day in 1983. Those twelve men, along with various members of my family, gave me a sense of what it meant to beat our neighbours, and I liked it. It's the sense of pride it gives you, the happiness it brings, and above all, the joy of putting one over them. It's about beating Spurs.