The North London Derby doesn’t need external motivation. There’s enough piss and vinegar in the stands and in the streets to make some particular postcodes either the center of the universe or ground zero of a slow-rolling disaster. Yet there is something about the tenor of the NLD that shifts when there’s something big and tangible on the line. Like, say, a place in the FA Cup Final.
This week we look back at a convening of the North London Derby that stuck with Arsenal and Spurs Fans for a generation— Wembley Stadium, April 14th, 1991.
The moment everyone talks about to this day is Paul Gascoigne’s free kick. 35 yards from goal, straight at the far top corner, David Seaman getting a hand to it but failing to keep it out. When the FA makes DVDs or YouTube videos showing “great goals in FA Cup history,” Gazza’s free kick is usually part the reel. And this was all just the first five minutes.
Just as Wembley was starting to level out after the opener, Spurs lit another firecracker. Gascoigne sent in a cross on a breakaway that led to a scramble in front of goal. Gary Lineker came out on top in the melee and managed to poke the ball past Seaman to double the lead.
Nothing was going the way it was supposed to. After being pegged for a spirited but inevitable surrender heading into the match— Tottenham’s record against Arsenal at that point was awful, having only won three encounters in more than five years— Spurs found themselves with a 2-0 lead after just ten minutes.
Desperation crept into the opposition and Arsenal started throwing everything they had at Tottenham’s goal. For the most part Spurs managed to hang in there… until right before halftime. A long cross from the right found Alan Smith (yes, that Alan Smith) who headed it into the far corner. The Gunners got the goal they had been pushing for and went into the tunnel with a glimmer of hope.
The second half was a thrill-ride. Sudden counterattacks, scrambling defenses, heroic last-ditch saves, shots that missed by inches, shots that missed by miles. They game could well have ended 5-5 after 90 minutes but for a lot of capricious luck on both ends of the pitch.
In the 78th minute, the tie was settled. Spurs won the ball back in their defensive third and got the ball to Lineker just past the midfield line. He made a winding, loping run, faking out defenders where he could and making a run for it once the jig was up. He got himself into the box and hit his shot at the far post. Seaman got his hands to it and tried to push it away, but he couldn’t exert enough force. The ball pinged the inside of the post and ricocheted into the net. Close-up on Lineker, laying on the grass, laughing at what he had just done.
That was that. Spurs held on for the rest of normal time and put the game to bed. Against their hated rivals, against their bogey team in recent years, against the best team in England at the time, Tottenham secured one of their most famous wins in recent history.
Spurs faced Nottingham Forest in the Final a month later, beating them 2-1 in extra time thanks to a Des Walker own goal. They lifted the Cup for the eighth time, the first team to do so. (Their record has since been overtaken by Arsenal and Manchester United.) It was a good counterweight to their somewhat disappointing league season, in which they finished in 10th. Arsenal won the First Division title that season— finishing seven points clear of runners-up Liverpool— so they at least had something to hang their hat on.
This season, Arsenal and Tottenham find themselves in a three-horse race (along with Leicester) for the Premier League title. With time running out in the season, Saturday’s meeting at White Hart Lane could prove decisive. Kickoff is at 7:45am EST on NBC Sports Network.