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Joy, pain and an Afghan called Cleopatra - Mabbsy’s NLD memories...

Tue 27 September 2022, 12:45|Tottenham Hotspur

Gary Mabbutt played in 31 north London derbies for Spurs over 16 years, 1982-1998, 16 years that encapsulated every emotion attached to one of the great rivalries in world football.

It’s a rivalry that really started in 1913, when Woolwich Arsenal moved from the Manor Ground, Plumstead, to Highbury. Our first league meeting with Woolwich Arsenal was earlier, in the old First Division in 1909, but after the First World War, Arsenal relocated to N5 and the north London derby was up and running in the First Division in January, 1921, matches played on back-to-back weekends, including our first at Highbury Stadium.

In all that time, only David O’Leary (35 for Arsenal) and legendary goalkeeper Pat Jennings (32 - 23 for Spurs, nine for Arsenal) have played more north London derbies than Mabbsy. Another all-time great, Steve Perryman, matches Mabbsy’s 31 for Spurs.

Mabbsy’s 31 derbies had it all...

First derby - Arsenal 2-0 Spurs - 27.12.82

Mabbsy: “I’d played in the derby in Bristol, Rovers against City, but the difference, even travelling to Highbury, fans along the way, what I’d call an ‘extremely warm’ welcome from about two miles away! I’m pretty sure we had a Police escort. The build-up was incredible. Normally, it starts two days away from the game, but this time it was a week before. It’s a massive game for both clubs, and I still believe that. You have to win it, no matter how, you have to win. I was a football-mad youngster, I loved watching Liverpool, United, Arsenal, Spurs, Villa, all the big games, all the big stadiums, then, suddenly, I’m playing in them. I’d always seen teams going into Highbury, the marble halls, the busts, all that tradition, then, I’m walking in. I loved it.”

Cleopatra the Afghan - Spurs 5-0 Arsenal 0 - 04.04.83

Mabbsy: “I was living in Cuffley with my girlfriend at that time, and we had an Afghan Hound. She was stunning. I’d left for the game, got to the stadium, was getting changed and the phone went in the dressing room. Johnny Wallis (physio) answered, as he always did, and said, ‘Mabbsy, it’s for you’, I said, ‘what?’. It was my girlfriend, she’d managed to get through to the dressing room, and said, ‘the dog’s gone missing’. My girlfriend went to look for her, but obviously that meant she wouldn’t be able to get to the game. I went out for the warm-up, came back in and then 15 minutes before kick-off, the phone went again, Johnny picked up again, ‘Mabbsy, for you again’, and my girlfriend had found Cleo, so that was a big relief just before the game started. We then went out and battered Arsenal 5-0! It was an incredible performance. The atmosphere, incredible. My girlfriend never forgave me, because the dog had escaped through a hole in the fence which I’d promised to fix. The dog got through the hole and went wandering through Cuffley on Saturday afternoon. In the end, it was a lovely day, won 5-0, took Cleopatra out for a lovely evening walk – and there were plenty of Spurs fans out celebrating!”

Semi-final despair, part 1 - Spurs 1-2 Arsenal - 04.03.87

Mabbsy: “1987, it was the ‘almost’ year. We could have won everything, and I’m convinced if we’d kept that squad together for another two or three years, we’d have won the title. We won 1-0 at Highbury and led 1-0 at half-time in the second leg at home, we were in position to go through, but they then came back to win the second leg 2-1, so 2-2, no goals in extra time, we had a replay. We had a coin toss for where the replay was going to be played. I was hoping we might lose the toss and play at Highbury, we always seemed to raise our game there, but at our place, we were on back foot. I don’t know why that was. Then, of course, they beat us in the replay, after we’d led again. It was so frustrating.”

Semi-final joy - Spurs 3-1 Arsenal - 14.04.91

Mabbsy: “It was the first ever FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. Arsenal had dominated the league that season and they were going for the double. We hadn’t had a particularly good season and we were clearly underdogs going into the game. Gazza had just come back from an operation. Was he fully fit? Well, his free-kick was one of the best ever seen at Wembley. I had an involvement in all three goals. Gazza’s free-kick, I had to duck out of the way of it! I’m claiming that as an assist. For the second, Paul Allen is looking for me at the far post, I had a tap in but Alan Smith intercepted, only to play it to Gary Lineker, who poked it in. The third goal, myself and Gary played a couple of one-twos, he took the ball forward, shot and scored. We completely outplayed Arsenal on the day. Watch some of the moves in the game, we destroyed them. A lot of the players who didn’t get the credit they deserved that season – the likes of Pat van der Houwe, Steve Sedgley, Justin Edinburgh, Vinny Samways, David Howells, Nayim, those players were outstanding, especially in that FA Cup, especially in the semi-final and final. Everyone was on top form, everything clicked. When the final whistle went it was one of those moments when you look around the stadium. It wasn’t expected that we’d go through that day, but it wasn’t through good fortune, we went through because we completely outplayed the champions, and we stopped Arsenal doing the double. We all came back to White Hart Lane and there were a few celebrations that evening! It was one of those occasions you want to savour. The support was amazing. The look on the fans’ faces, that jubilation. No-one wanted to go back in after the final whistle! We wanted to celebrate as long as possible. We were underdogs, hadn’t been playing that well, hadn’t had a great season but on this day, it was an outstanding team performance."

Semi-final despair, part 2 - Arsenal 1-0 Spurs - 04.04.93

Mabbsy: “I don’t know what happened that day. We just weren’t at it. We weren’t at the races. Maybe we went to Wembley thinking that we’d beaten them there two years earlier, and it was one of those games. It’s almost been blanked from the memory. I almost don’t want to remember! We had the jubilation of 1991, so we don’t want to think of the despair of 1993.”

31 and out - Arsenal 0-0 Spurs - 30.08.97

Mabbsy: “I came back from a broken leg, and this was my final north London derby. I was on the bench and came on when Justin Edinburgh was sent off. We drew at Highbury, right at the start of Arsene Wenger’s era. There is a photograph of myself and Ian Wright after the game... so many memories. For me, it’s always the game of the season. No matter what’s happened in the rest of the season, no matter how either team has been playing, as long as you win that game the fans will forgive you. No matter what people say about how teams change, who might be our biggest rivals, Arsenal is always the one we have to win. I was lucky enough to play in a lot of games against them, some great, some not so great, but every single time we played them, no matter what, just win it! The funny thing is that some of my good friends are Arsenal fans so there is so much rivalry, the banter... if we didn’t win, I just turned the phone off! Of course, when we won, it was the other way around!”

This time around...

Mabbsy: “It’s a massive game. Our results have been fantastic this season, our performances overall have been slightly below par, if anything, and I feel when we hit top form, we’ll be a force to be reckoned with. This is a game where you should find that form. I’m confident we’ve got the squad to go there and get a fantastic result. As I said, I’ve a lot of friends who are Arsenal fans, and they are far more concerned about the game than me! We showed when we were up against it at Chelsea that we had a never-say-die attitude, then you’ve Sonny coming on against Leicester and the goals flowing. At the moment, we’re getting to where we want to be, we’re unbeaten in the league and, as far as I’m concerned, we look capable of putting in sustained challenges across all fronts this season.”