It’s the end of the English footballing season in May 2005. Arsenal are about to lift their 10th FA Cup with their victory on penalties over Manchester United at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. The Premier League has narrowly eluded them, with last season’s historic Invincibles side, unable to overcome the Oligarch fuelled power of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. But things are rosy for Arsene Wenger’s side.
A second placed finish in the Premier League sets them in good stead for another crack at the title next season and their new 60,000 seater Emirates Stadium, is entering its final phases of construction. And to poignantly add a bit of gloss onto proceedings, they’ve just done the double over their North London rivals Tottenham, who finish a relatively standard 9th in the league.
Indeed, Martin Jol’s side showed some fleeting glimpses of quality in the league, none more so than when they buried four past Arsenal in their infamous 4-5 loss at White Hart Lane, but this was still a side with the likes of Noe Pamarot and Noureddine Naybet starting every week. In many respects, they are light-years behind the red side of North London.
Fast forward to the present day and that rosiness that seemed to come as a perennial bonus with every Arsenal season ticket, simply could not be further away. As we enter the final stages of 2012, supporters don’t need to be slapped round the face with the seven-and-a-half year statistic that is there continued trophy drought. Because there is potentially something far more depressingly poignant sitting on the horizon.
It is of course the age-old threat that’s never been fulfilled from their hated rivals up the road in Haringey. Arsenal fans have heard it all before when it’s come to the men from Tottenham Hotspur and their designs on finishing above them in the league. Each time the Gunners have had their backs against the wall, the old cockerel has choked at the vital moments. Be it a final day, lasagna based bottle job, or self-destruction of a 10 point lead, Spurs have continuously failed to outdo their North London rivals.
But where as once the notion of Spurs bettering Arsenal in the league was one of near absurdity – indeed, it’s not happened since 1995 – today, the reality is that it’s now become a very distinct possibility.
The rivalry between both Spurs and Arsenal has been given a real shot in the arm in recent years, given the Lilywhites growth in prominence. Where as for much of Arsene Wenger’s reign in North London, Tottenham have resembled little more than plucky underdogs, their recent renaissance under Harry Redknapp has given the fixture more meaning than it every has in recent years.
And it offers an interesting yardstick for the plight of Arsenal over the last few years. The Gunners have continued to taste Champions League football every season. Title challenges have continued to remain on the cards for Arsene Wenger’s men, despite them never quite being able to see it out through the course of the season. But as their quest for a trophy continues, the focus has always been on the fluctuating gap between themselves and the Manchester United’s and Chelsea’s of this world. Never what’s been going on behind them.
Because if – and it remains a massive if – Andre Villas-Boas’ side manage to finish above Arsenal in the league this season, it perhaps represents so much more than a power shift in the merciless exchanges between the two sets of fans.
The two ways of looking it are of course wither Tottenham have progressed way beyond what many would perceive to be their projected means. The other, that Arsenal have in fact regressed, as they’ve reclined onto a similar plateau of ambition to the men from White Hart Lane.
And it’s here in which, depending on your viewpoint, you can gauge the seriousness of what a superior Spurs finish to Arsenal in the league, may represent. Let’s be under no illusions here in that Tottenham have hardly fluked their way into challenging for Champions League qualification. Even since the mediocrity that lingered in the mid nineties. Spurs have continued to invest heavily in their squad, more often than not, to greater extents than Arsenal.
Some may suggest that the club have simply been more wise and intelligent in that spending. That may be so, but has it really just been a bit of common sense and a spot of financial rationality that has seen them bridge the gap?
Clubs shouldn’t spend for the sake of it and Arsene Wenger’s legacy is the biggest testament to that in recent memory. But in that seven-year gap since Arsenal last won a trophy, they have seen the financial gulf between themselves and their North London rivals rise almost beyond measure.
For the last available accounts, the Gunners’ net income dwarfed Spurs’ by near on £92million. The cash cow that is the Emirates Stadium makes well over double the amount of matchday income that White Hart Lane is capable. While they, as every team does, have debts to structure, Arsenal are in a different financial post code to Tottenham Hotspur.
But while that gulf of fiscal health has increased between the two clubs, the gap of competitiveness has shrunk. And however you wish to frame that, it produces some awkward questions for the hierarchy in the red half of North London.
Tottenham’s upturn in fortunes was perhaps an inevitability. All clubs go through periods of success, regression and dormant stages of mediocrity. But given the off pitch progress Arsenal have made, that gap they once held over there great rivals when they last won a trophy, simply should’t have been shredded to the point it is today. How they go about regaining it, is a question that certainly produces some difficult answers.