Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur have met 50 times in the Premier League and countless times more across all competitions, yet few encounters between the local rivals have matched the intense viciousness of a 1-1 draw in November 2001.
It was Sol Campbell’s first return to White Hart Lane since shocking English football by crossing the north London divide by way of a free transfer that summer. Safe to say, it was not a polite homecoming; riot police were called into action outside the ground, songs were sung that would have Peter Herbert laying kittens, balloons marked with the word ‘Judas’ filled the landscape and at least two objects were thrown directly at the former England international as he sought to shut out the Tottenham attack for the first time in his career.
It was one of those occasions that made the Premier League truly unique, where the subtext and subplots seemed more important than the game itself. Accordingly, much of the match was lost to scrappy midfield battles and ill-tempered challenges as the hostility in the stands filtered onto the pitch. Somehow though, only three yellow cards were shown and both sides managed to end the game with all eleven men.
Occasionally, however, there were pockets of Arsenal and Tottenham producing the football they were truly capable of. Dean Richards, the centre-back signed as Campbell’s direct replacement, almost broke the deadlock after 26 minutes when his header from a Christian Zeige corner cannoned off the top of the bar. The home side appeared to have taken the lead just before half-time as well, only for Les Ferdinand’s effort to be ruled out for a handball. Going into the interval, it was the team Campbell had turned his back on that ironically boasted the initiative.
But the Gunners were nothing if not an offensive-minded outfit and their quality started to tell in the final third – building up to an ultimate ten minutes in which the sublime so poetically combined with the ridiculous to produce a finale befitting of the dramatic soap opera Campbell’s sheer presence had created. Giles Grimandi announced Arsenal’s intentions quickly after half-time, Neil Sullivan forced into action to stop the Frenchman’s 25-yard piledriver.
Spurs’ attempts to quash the uprising by pressing up the pitch only allowed Robert Pires more space and presence on the ball, which eventually provided the difference in the scoreline upon the 81st minute. Sylvain Wiltord dribbled messily inside from the right wing and ignored the galloping run of Patrick Vieira – instead allowing the ball to drift into the path of Arsenal’s French winger. First time, Pires connected with the ball, curling it towards the bottom corner of Tottenham’s net. Sullivan got a hand to it, but not sternly enough to keep out the rasping effort from just outside the box.
If Sullivan’s role in Arsenal’s opening strike raised some eyebrows, his opposite number soon sent them spiralling out of the whole forehead stratosphere. Desperate not to give Campbell the last laugh and the clean sheet, the Lilywhites relentlessly careered towards Arsenal’s goal – creating an incredibly open game that they eventually took advantage of, hitting back following a Gunners counter-surge.
Substitute Sergei Rebrov’s cross missed the three Tottenham attackers filling the six yard box, but fell straight into the path of a midfielder famed for his late runs – Gustavo Poyet. In terms of his arrival to the attack and the chronology of the ninety minutes, even by the Uruguayan’s standards this was late indeed.
He bent his body and acrobatically drove a shot at goal with instinctive flair. The ball screamed straight into Richard Wright’s midriff, only for Arsenal’s junior goalkeeper to somehow allow it to slip out of his grasp and into the net. Sublime; ridiculous. One goal apiece; seconds left on the clock.
That gorgeous Poyet strike, met with a calamitous moment from Wright, shared the spoils between the local rivals – one of the 21 draws they’ve thrashed out between themselves in the Premier League.
But for a club that at that time could only dream of toppling their title-clinching neighbours as north London’s biggest side, for a club that had just endured the humiliation of their captain walking out to sign for their most bitter foes, the moral victory belonged to them.