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Trending: Tottenham finish above Arsenal
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Transfer Talk ESPN staff Read By Dan Kilpatrick, Tottenham correspondent Share Tweet Remembering the last Tottenham side to finish ahead of Arsenal in the league
LONDON — The outpouring of emotion at the finale — a great, orgastic collective roar on the whistle, followed by punch-drunk songs and slow caps from the terraces — showed what it meant. Tottenham ended 22 years of hurt on Sunday, beating Arsenal 2-0 in the last ever North London derby at White Hart Lane to ensure a first league finish above their neighbours since 1995. Mauricio Pochettino hugged every one of his coaching staff and players. "It is an incredible feeling," said goalscorer Harry Kane.
Pochettino and Kane played down its significance but, for the club, this mattered. The last time Spurs had North London supremacy was over two decades ago, when a 22-year-old Pochettino had just moved to Europe to play for Espanyol and Arsene Wenger was managing Monaco. Dele Alli, who scored Tottenham's first goal, would not be born for another year.
The clubs had been on a relatively even kilter, but Tottenham finished 15th in the '93-94 season, avoiding relegation by three points, while fourth-placed Arsenal won the European Cup Winners' Cup. But the summer brought renewed optimism to Spurs in the form of new signings Jurgen Klinsmann from Wenger's Monaco and Romanian pair Gheorghe Popescu and Ilie Dumitrescu. All three had starred at the 1994 World Cup in America and supporters flocked to Tottenham's Cheshunt training ground, which then had a stand beside the main pitch, to see their new heroes.
"It felt like we were competing again," says Justin Edinburgh, who had been at Spurs since 1990. "Jurgen lifted the whole club. It was really vibrant, there was a positive feel around the whole training ground. Fans were flocking there and there was a sense of anticipation that something might happen. I remember thinking we may have something to compete."
Klinsmann needed no introduction to the North London rivalry — "Growing up in Germany, we watched a lot English football on TV in the 70's and Spurs versus Arsenal was always a hot topic, even in those days," he tells ESPN FC — but the Romanians were quickly made aware of what it meant. "It didn't take long for our message to get across to them, and from the supporters as well. It very quickly got to the players who were not necessarily that well versed on the English game," says David Howells, a midfielder from a Tottenham-supporting family.
While the rivalry was fierce, finishing above Arsenal was "not a priority at all," says Klinsmann. Captain Gary Mabbutt explained: "We went into the season thinking we could achieve something special. We never, ever thought, 'We want to finish above Arsenal this year'. The thinking was, 'We need to be near the top of the table'. If we achieved that, and we were above Arsenal too, then fantastic."
Manager Ossie Ardiles employed an ultra-attacking formation, equipping headline act Klinsmann with a four-man supporting cast of Teddy Sheringham, Darren Anderton, Nicky Barmby and Dumitrescu — dubbed the Famous Five. The iconic German scored five times as Spurs won three of the first four matches but their form turned, and by the time Arsenal visited White Hart Lane on Jan. 2nd 1995, Ardiles had been replaced by Gerry Francis.
"It's always a huge game, the one the fans want to win, the one the players want to win," says Mabbutt. Edinburgh had grown up as a devout Arsenal fan but he quickly converted after joining Spurs. "What turns it is playing in the North London derby — it's not like anything else I've witnessed. That rivalry becomes so strong…you just want to be on the winning team," he says.
Even Klinsmann, who had played in Milan derbies for Internazionale, felt it. "In Italy, I couldn't leave my home for three days if we lost the derby, but it's right up there with Inter versus Milan, or Barcelona versus Real. It means the world to both sides of supporters."
Spurs won 1-0, Popescu scoring, and, by the end of January, Francis' team were six points clear of Arsenal. In the return match at Highbury, Klinsmann scored a brilliant header in a 1-1 draw, celebrating wildly, but it was a measure of Tottenham's ambition that he does not consider it the most important goal of the 30 he scored that season. "No, no," he says. "I enjoyed more special moments that season, one was certainly the winning goal in the FA Cup quarterfinals at Liverpool."
Defeat in the FA Cup semifinal, 4-1 to Everton, was followed by two wins in the final eight matches, while Arsenal finished with only one defeat from their final five league games but the damage had already been done. George Graham's sacking for the bung-scandal had been followed by six Arsenal defeats in seven, and Spurs ended the season seventh, 11 points clear of their rivals in 12th. For the players, the season was a letdown. "We should have done better," says Klinsmann.
"I don't even remember finishing above Arsenal — it didn't register," says Howells. Stuart Nethercott, a defender, could not recall where either club had finished, while Edinburgh says: "The season ended poorly. It may have been the last time Spurs finished above Arsenal but I look back on it as a disappointing season."
For Tottenham's class of '95, finishing as the best team in North London meant less to them than to the supporters but Spurs look after their ex-players as well as any club, and they are all fans now. Ronny Rosenthal, a forward, spent four years at Liverpool before joining Spurs in January 1994. "It's not like Spurs. Spurs is always my first choice," he says.
Howells, meanwhile, is even more invested since he retired. "When I stopped playing, it became even more intense and now I'm just like any other supporter. I'm living every minute of every game, on the edge of my seat or just enjoying how brilliant we are now," he says. Nethercott adds: "I wasn't really a fan of anyone growing but but everyone knows my love for Spurs now, what they've done for me. Spurs are heavily in my heart."
So, when it finally happened on Sunday, many of them were there to witness it. Klinsmann lives in the U.S. now but was the club's guest of honour for the match, telling supporters at half-time he was "back home", and Howells, Anderton, Mabbutt and Ardiles were in the boxes. Edinburgh would have come but he is manager of Northampton Town, playing on Sunday too, so he will be at the Lane's farewell against Manchester United on May 14th instead.
At the end of the '95 season, Klinsmann left the club for Bayern Munich and the mood flipped again. The squad, of course, had no idea what was to come and, while the same is true for the current crop, the future feels more exciting now than it did then. "We couldn't see that they would have a dominance of that length but I was a bit concerned about the state of Tottenham," says Howells. "I didn't feel we were in a position to kick on."
Pochettino's team, though, has everything in place to begin their own period of North London dominance and Mabbutt, now a club ambassador, concludes: "It was very different to where we are at the moment. Now, we have our sights set on pushing for the major honours every season."
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.
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