Why we celebrate losing to Tottenham on 8 February

At the moment of writing this (8 February 2023) Arsenal and Tottenham first teams have played each other in 207 competitive matches ranging from the United League in the 19th century, through the Southern and District Combination at the start of the 20th century, the London League after that, and finally in the First Division and Premier League.

Of these games Arsenal have won (as of 8 February 2023) 86, Tottenham 67 and 54 have been drawn. Many of them have been highly memorable of course, but as a sequence of such games surely none can replace the three league cup matches in February and March 1987 of which the first took place on 8 February.

To give some contetxt in 1979 Arsenal won the FA Cup against Man U in possibly the most famous ending to a final of all time.  Alan Sunderland attained immortality and Terry Neill’s tenure as manager got a cup to polish.

But then life went a bit downhill.

  • 1980: Losing finalists in the FA Cup
  • 1981: Third in the league
  • 1982: Fifth in the league
  • 1983: 10th in the league and two semi-finals
  • 1984: 6th in the league, and Terry Neill is replaced by Don Howe
  • 1985: 7th in the league
  • 1986: 7th in the league and Don Howe is replaced by Steve Burtenshaw
  • 1987: George Graham’s first season as manager, we rise to 4th in the league and win the League Cup.  It seemed a long time coming.

The league programme did not start well for George Graham in his first season as manager as we only won two of the first eight games.

On the evening of October 27 1986, after a 0-1 defeat to top club Nottm Forest, Arsenal were 15th below such luminaries as Norwich, Coventry, Wimbledon, Luton, QPR and Oxford United.

What was really awful was that the forward line of Niall Quinn and Charlie Nicholas simply couldn’t score, but with the addition to the squad of Steve Williams, Perry Groves and Martin Hayes things picked up.

These changes didn’t happen all at once, but by match ten the new format was getting established as Arsenal went on a 17 match unbeaten run.

On 4 January 1987 Arsenal beat Tottenham away 2-1 with goals from Tony Adams and Paul Davis with just 37,723 in the stadium.  (Crowds were low at the time throughout football.  Only 17,561 turned up for the next match at Highbury against Coventry, while Wimbledon and Luton were getting under 10,000 for their home games in the top division).

What was particularly exciting was that after that poor start, by the time of the Coventry game Arsenal had reached the top of the league.

4Nottingham Forest2411674632+1439
5Luton Town2411672623+339
6Norwich City2410953333039
7Tottenham Hotspur2411583829+938
8Coventry City2310672624+236
10West Ham United249783741-434

But it couldn’t last, for the Coventry 0-0 draw was the start of 10 games within a win.  There was however a recovery of sorts at the end of the season as Arsenal won five and lost three of the last eight to finish the league in fourth place and perhaps most tragically of all, one place behind Tottenham.

3Tottenham Hotspur42218136843+2571
5Norwich City42171785351+268
7Luton Town421812124745+266
8Nottingham Forest421811136451+1365
10Coventry City421712135045+563

At least we did not have the humiliation of ending up lower than Wimbledon and Luton.  Forest, the early leaders slumped to 8th, and Leicester, Man City and Villa were relegated.

Meanwhile in the FA Cup we went out to Watford with a 1-3 home defeat in the sixth round on 14 March 1987.

Which left just one competition: the League Cup.

2 1st legSept 23Huddersfield (h)2-015194
2 2nd legOct 7Huddersfield (a)1-18713
3Oct 28Manchester C (h)3-121604
4Nov 18Charlton A (h)2-028301
5Jan 21Nottingham F (h)2-038617
SF 1st legFeb 8Tottenham H (h)0-141306
SF 2nd legMar 1Tottenham H (a)2-137099
SF replayMar 4Tottenham H (a)2-141055
FApr 5Liverpool2-196000

This was the era of 1-0 down, 2-1 up, which led to the creation of a long-running fanzine of that name.

Arsenal were drawn against Tottenham in the semis as shown above.  For the first game at home on February 8, Arsenal were without David Rocastle and Viv Anderson and Tottenham won with a goal from Clive Allen goal.    When the same player scored after 16 minutes in the return leg it made Tottenham 2-0 up, and the story is that at half time the announcer on the PA relayed details of how Tottenham fans could order cup final tickets.   I can’t vouch for that, as I didn’t make it to the away game, and it could be just a story, but the fact is that then, amazingly, Viv Anderson and Niall Quinn both scored.  There was extra time, and then a replay, convened on the toss of the coin, at Tottenham (there being no “away goals” rule in the league cup at the time.)

It was a replay in every sense of the word.  Allen scored, and there was just eight minutes to go when Ian Allinson equalised.  David Rocastle got the winner thereafter.  George Graham said, “I hope it’s just the start of a new era for this club.”  And he was right.

The Arsenal team was, John Lukic, Viv Anderson, Kenny Sansom, Michael Thomas (Ian Allinson), David O’Leary, Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Paul Davis, Niall Quinn, Charlie Nicholas, Martin Hayes.

The final couldn’t really live up to that excitement, and it looked like Arsenal would be out when Ian Rush scored, because “Liverpool never lose when Rush scores”.  I don’t know if that was actually true – or whether it was one of those things that everyone believed just because it was said over and over again by the press, but it certainly wasn’t true on this occasion.

Charlie Nicholas scored both our goals in reply.  Neither were magnificent but the sight of Bob Wilson going bonkers as the goals went in remains a memory and a half.

Because of the behaviour of Liverpool fans two years before, English clubs were banned from Europe, and so Arsenal did not get to test themselves against the continent’s top sides.   Had we done so I don’t think we would have got too far, for this was just the beginning.   But there was so much more to come.