Former Arsenal and Spurs boss: Modern derby is not the same
Terry Neill played in the north London derby for the Gunners and managed both clubs in the 1970s and 80s
Terry Neill believes the north London derby has lost its edge – but is hopeful one of football’s greatest rivalries can return to its former glories at a packed Emirates on Saturday.
Arsenal and Tottenham are in eighth and seventh places respectively in the Premier League table with just a point separating them after 11 games.
But Neill, who managed both clubs in the 1970s and 1980s, says the days of blood-and-thunder local spats are few and far between – claiming the rivalry has been “watered down” during the Premier League era.
Northern Ireland legend Neill, now 71, said: “There is no two ways about it, the influx of foreign players has had an effect – the north London derby simply isn’t what it has been in previous years.
“Things ebb and flow –they certainly have in recent seasons – but in this day and age, with players from all corners of the world playing in this fixture, that bite hasn’t always been there.
“This isn’t a criticism, merely an observation: a lot of these lads simply haven’t had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the culture of this game and the rivalry between the two clubs.
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“They know it is there – how could you not? – but it is different.
“We are not talking about the greats like Blanchflower, Greaves, McLintock, Bob Wilson, Pat Rice … these guys knew exactly what it meant to the fans and, as such, once the whistle blew they were always feisty affairs and when the game was over they were all pals.
“I’ll say it again, the game has definitely been watered down, of that there is no doubt.”
Not, he adds, that it is exclusively a ‘problem’ here in north London.
“Absolutely not,” adds Neill, who led Arsenal to glory in the 1979 FA Cup final after keeping a struggling Spurs side up in 1976.
“It is not just us. I think this that has happened at most derbies. Of course, there are exceptions.
“Take the Auld Firm game up in Glasgow – with all the additional things surrounding that – or the Real Madrid versus Barcelona game, which is essentially seen as Franco’s mob taking on Catalonia.
“Those games will always have that bite because it isn’t just football. There are political things too.
“So yes, there are those exceptions, but essentially many of the big derbies have changed over the past few years. It is inevitable if you don’t have 22 local – or certainly British– lads taking each other on as you did years ago.”
That said, two English lads could hold the key this weekend.
Jermain Defoe has hit sparkling form for Spurs while contract rebel Theo Walcott has also found the net with increasing regularity, despite barely starting for the Gunners since refusing to sign a new contract in August.
Neill, though, believes Saturday’s encounter is a difficult one to call.
“I said these games have ebbed and flowed in recent years and, to be honest, they have been very hard matches to predict,” adds Neill, who will be at the game on Saturday.
“Let’s face it, who would have predicted Arsenal beating Spurs 5-2 last season? Or Spurs battering Arsenal 5-1 in the League Cup a few seasons back?
“Arsenal and Spurs have both struggled at times this season – but both sides have also shown what they capable of.
“Some say Arsenal are on the slide and ready to be overtaken by Tottenham, but then you look at the Emirates Stadium, Champions League football and the money they have, and you’re not so sure. Tottenham are certainly on the up and Andre Villas-Boas is a very good manager.
“As for this Saturday’s game, it is always claimed home advantage goes out of the window on derby day but I’m not so sure.
“Arsenal may just edge it as they’re at home … but let’s just hope it is a great game and a proper old-school derby.”