Brief history of Arsenal-Chelsea rivalry and why it matters

by: Scott Murray

Arsenal and Chelsea are ... the two biggest and most successful clubs in London. Both fancy themselves as the biggest and most successful: Arsenal have won 13 league titles and 11 FA Cups, while Chelsea are the only British club to have bagged all three European trophies. It’s swings and roundabouts. As such, they don’t get on very well.

It’s not one of English football’s traditional rivalries. Not quite. Chelsea, the west of the city, have struggled to develop a geographical rival, as near neighbours Fulham and Queens Park Rangers have rarely joined them in the same division. (Chelsea, for the record, are, like Fulham, based in Fulham, and not Chelsea. Queens Park Rangers don’t play in the Queen’s Park area of London, either, but let’s not cloud the issue further.) Arsenal meanwhile have localised issues with their fellow north Londoners from Tottenham. But this is football, and there’s plenty of ill feeling to go around. Arsenal and Chelsea don’t get on very well at all.

Both teams have very different images. Arsenal are seen as one of the Establishment clubs in English football, perhaps the Establishment club. Theirs is a grand old tradition, stretching back to when they were the biggest club in the land between the wars. Chelsea by contrast have been pegged as nouveau riche arrivistes, a reputation earned in the 1960s when their team of swashbuckling under-achievers were the epitome of Swinging London, and further embellished when Roman Abramovich rocked up in 2003 with his bags of Siberian loot.

As with most received wisdom, there’s plenty of truth there, but plenty of nonsense too. Chelsea have been one of the best-supported clubs in the land ever since their formation in 1905. They just weren’t very good at winning things for a very long time, that’s all. Arsenal meanwhile have, in their time, been burdened with a reputation as brash newcomers too, most notably when moving from Woolwich to Highbury in 1913 and then throwing their money around in the brash style during the 1920s and 1930s on players and marble statues. Good luck in getting anyone who supports either club to agree, but in many ways these two clubs have a fair bit in common. 

As we’ve intimated, it’s been a strange, singular rivalry. The two clubs have only really competed against each other at the very pinnacle of English football, for the biggest prizes, since the late 1990s. Their periods in the ascendancy of the English game have otherwise never run parallel. But they have both been in the top division for the most part, and for this they can thank each other. Arsenal and Chelsea were not always the worst of enemies.

It was 1919, and English football was putting its house in order after the four-year break for the Great War. The First Division was set to expand from 20 to 22 teams, and – as had occurred during previous expansions – the two clubs in the previous season’s relegation places (1914/15 losers Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur) were expected to be offered a reprieve, while the top two clubs in the Second Division, Derby County and Preston North End, would be promoted as normal.

However Arsenal chairman and Conservative Party grandee Sir Henry Norris set about pulling strings. He argued that Manchester United, who had fixed a game with Liverpool back in 1915 to secure two points that eventually kept them up, should have been in Chelsea’s position. So Chelsea should stay up. But Spurs had no such excuse, and must be relegated. In which case the First Division clubs should vote for another team from the Second to be promoted. Wolverhampton Wanderers had finished third, and Burnley fourth, but it was Norris’s Arsenal, in fifth, who won the vote, Norris having signally failed to demand United or Liverpool should be punished for their misdemeanours, and winning the trust of all the countries bigger clubs (including, er, United and Liverpool) as a result. Labyrinthine political nonsense, but an affair which ensured both Arsenal and Chelsea would be playing top-flight football at Tottenham’s expense. Good old pals!

Both Arsenal and Chelsea broke new ground on the opening day of the 1928/29 season, sporting numbers on their shirts. Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal ran out at Hillsborough with the players numbered 1 through 22, while Chelsea and Swansea Town did likewise in a game at Stamford Bridge. All four clubs were told to desist by the FA, who were of the opinion that club colours were being desecrated. Chelsea had the greater cause to be unhappy about it – they’d won their match 4-0, while Arsenal had lost 3-2 – but it was the Gunners who threw their toys out of the pram furthest, manager Herbert Chapman ordering the reserve team to continue wearing numbers on their back.

Chelsea later thought about changing their strip to blue with white sleeves. The suggestion had been made by Tom Webster, a cartoonist for the London Evening Standard newspaper who often sported colourful tank tops over white-sleeved shirts while playing golf with Chelsea boss David Calderwood. The idea was briefly considered by Calderwood, then dismissed. Webster also played golf with Chapman, who happily took up the idea (even if it took Arsenal’s kit manufacturers several years to work out how to stop the colours running).

There were more design shenanigans in the 1950s. Ted Drake had been one of Arsenal’s biggest stars during their glory years of the 1930s. He top scored for the team twice, scoring 42 goals during one particularly fecund season, netted the winner in the 1936 FA Cup final against Sheffield United, and once scored seven in a match, against Aston Villa in 1935, a feat that’s still a top-flight record. Drake took over as manager of Chelsea in 1952, and immediately set about changing their somewhat homely image. The club crest was a ludicrous cartoon of a smiling Chelsea Pensioner. That was immediately jettisoned for a Rangers-style CFC script, then a rampant lion, a variation of which is still in use today. Out went their The Pensioners nickname, replaced by the more prosaic The Blues. Minor details maybe, but ones which helped Drake encourage a harder winners’ mentality. The former Arsenal legend led Chelsea to their first and – until the arrival of Jose Mourinho half a century later – only league title, in 1955.

Arsenal effectively relegated Chelsea at the end of the 1970s. The [Pensioners] Blues won only five league matches in the 1978/79 season. Manager Danny Blanchflower – captain of the 1961 Tottenham Hotspur double winners, Chelsea handing over the reins to a legend from the other half of north London now – found out to his cost that “doing things in style” was a whole lot easier when he was playing. The killer blow to their league campaign was delivered by the Gunners, David O’Leary, Frank Stapleton (2), Alan Sunderland and David Price the goalscoring heroes of a 5-2 thrashing. Chelsea were relegated “in all but arithmetic fantasy”, reported this paper. Arsenal compounded Chelsea’s misery that season by going on to win the FA Cup.

In the 1990/91 season, George Graham’s Arsenal would have gone through the entire league season unbeaten were it not for ... Chelsea. A 2-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge in early February ruined an otherwise perfect season for Graham’s side, who won the league by seven points from Liverpool despite having been docked two for a good old-fashioned brawl with Manchester United. Arsenal would manage an Invincible season 13 years later, but this seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity missed back then.

Arsenal – double winners in 1971 and 1998 (Chelsea on the fringe of the latter title race) – completed the task for a third time in 2002. The first stage was a dogged FA Cup final victory over Chelsea, 2-0, though the goals were spectacular enough: a long-range dipper from the unlikely boot of Ray Parlour, and a long, powerful run by Freddie Ljungberg down the left which culminated in a curler into the top right. Arsenal sealed the league four days later by winning at Manchester United.

The following year, Roman Abramovich turned up, and the dynamic has never been quite the same since. Arsenal were by far the most successful of the two teams in the pre-Roman era, but Chelsea have done a fair bit of catching up since. The first shot across the bows came in the 2003/04 Champions League, the pair drawn together in the quarter finals. Arsenal were strong favourites to prevail – this was their Invincible season in the league, and they were arguably the best team in Europe – but a late Wayne Bridge goal at Highbury sent Chelsea to the semis instead.

Since then, the pair have more regularly competed directly with each other for the big prizes. And Chelsea have enjoyed it more. They won the 2007 Carling Cup final 2-1, a game best remembered for a marvellous brouhaha at the end, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor and John Obi Mikel all seeing red, and for John Terry being spectacularly (and accidentally) hoofed in the face by Abou Diaby. They beat Arsenal in the 2009 FA Cup semi-final. And Jose Mourinho gleefully thumped Arsene Wenger’s side 6-0 last March, a historic humbling in the Arsenal manager’s 1,000th match.

Chelsea are currently unbeaten against Arsenal since October 2011 (when the Gunners won 5-3 at Stamford Bridge). And they’re almost certainly going to win the league, Arsenal having found their form too late this season. Perhaps giving them that hand up back in 1919 wasn’t such a clever idea after all ...

Credit: Scott Murray/Guardian Sport