Sunday marks the first opportunity Tottenham have to earn a truly memorable honor in the 2016/17 season. A win over Arsenal and they are assured a spot above their rivals for the first time since 1990.
Things looked different at Tottenham — and in English football as a whole — back then.
The Premier League was still a few years off, and the top flight was still just the First Division. Arsenal began 1989/90 as reigning champions, only securing that honor for themselves on goal difference after a wild last match of the season against Liverpool.
Tottenham were still struggling through the cycle of buying and selling that undercut their ability to compete up until only just a few seasons ago. Though they purchased Paul Gascoigne the season before for a record breaking fee, they sold Chris Waddle to Marseille in the summer of 1989 for then-astronomical sum of £4.1 million.
The profits from Waddle’s sale were re-directed well however. Spurs acquired Gary Lineker from Barcelona in what proved to be a stunning coup. Though approaching 30, the England international would lead the league with 24 goals that season. Considering Tottenham only scored 59 goals in total, Lineker’s contribution represented a tremendous haul.
With Lineker’s help, Spurs kept pace with their rivals right from the start. The two teams would trade results against each other, both winning at home — 1-0 at Highbury and 2-1 at White Hart Lane. A slump in second half of the Gunners’ season worked strongly in Spurs’ favor, and they would finish in third — just one point separating them from their north London neighbors.
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That triumph proved more a aberration than a trend however. Arsenal would win the 1990/91 season while Tottenham sunk to 10th place. Half a decade later Arsene Wenger would arrive and change Arsenal — and English football — forever.
Tottenham sunk into also-ran status, only occasionally mustering any sort of challenge to Arsenal — and never overtaking them.
Recent years have seen Spurs come closer however. André Villas-Boas led the team to finish one point behind Arsenal in fourth place in the 2012/13 season. Mauricio Pochettino would do the same just last season, though under much darker circumstances.
Then, like now, it seemed virtually assured that Tottenham would finally push ahead. A win against a brittle, already-relegated Newcastle side in the last match of the season would ensure their hold of second, while Arsenal would have to settle for third.
Only Tottenham collapsed under the pressure. They would let in five goals and score only one of their own. Arsenal, meanwhile, would beat Aston Villa 4-0 to push ahead and finish the season second.
Even if Pochettino won’t admit it, on a psychological level finishing above Arsenal would be a huge boost for his young squad. Bigger honors await — the title remains in reach — but there is no denying the massive momentum a win on Sunday would provide.
Speaking more generally, Spurs need some concrete result to mark their progress under Pochettino. He is creating something truly memorable and deserves to take the crown of north London. This feels like one of the best squads in England, and matches like Sunday’s are their chance to prove it.