By Adrian Clarke
Remembering what I did last week doesn’t always come easy to me these days, but when it comes to Arsenal memories, things are a little different. Rewind the clock 22 years, and I know exactly what I would have been doing this lunchtime. I’d be washing, cleaning and polishing Perry Groves’ boots!
Knowing that he’s a massive Gooner who loves to see Arsenal beat Spurs, I thought this week might be a nice time to catch up with my old team-mate…
Adrian: Perry, I was gutted not to play in a north London Derby for Arsenal’s first team. Down there in the heat of battle, what did it actually feel like?
Perry: Fast. It was so quick, that’s one of the things I most remember, Clarkey. Some people seem to think there was no proper football before the Premier League, but the frenetic pace of the north London derbies I was involved in was a yard faster than anything I experienced. Every time Arsenal played Spurs, no matter where we were in the table, it was like the semi-final of the FA Cup. The intensity was something else. There was no such thing as time on the ball.
Adrian: You played in an era when Spurs had a few big names didn’t you…
Perry: They had Glenn Hoddle, Chris Waddle, Clive Allen, Ossie Ardiles, guys like that, and at that time (unbelievably) they sometimes finished above us in the table. At the time I joined Arsenal in 1986 we were the young pretenders compared to them. We had kids like Rocky, Mickey Thomas, Rodders, Merse and Martin Hayes, and there was a real hunger in our squad to upstage them. I remember George Graham telling us to stop them playing, that was almost always his game plan. Under orders to rattle into them from the first whistle, we’d work our socks off to close them down and make sure they didn’t get up a head of steam.
Adrian: You must have loved it…
Perry: I didn’t ever really enjoy a NLD until it was finished, Clarkey. I wanted to win it so bad that I couldn’t think of anything else. If we beat Spurs it was the best feeling ever. If we lost, it was like a bereavement, it was that bad.
Adrian: What was your favourite derby moment?
Perry: I got the winner at home to Tottenham in 1988, and I’ll never ever forget the buzz it gave me. Alan Smith scored first, Clive Allen equalized, and then I had a mare with a shocking effort that would have made it 2-1. I reckon I’m the only player ever to have taken a divot as bad as this one with an actual volley! I walked off thinking, “Oh no, that was terrible!” Then, in the second half I got the chance to redeem myself, swiveling and shooting the ball into the far corner in front of the North Bank. I ran straight to the fans, and the exhilaration and relief I felt was mad. For the rest of the match I was thinking to myself how lucky I was that the fans won’t remember my miss anymore, and the longer the game went on the more I was praying we wouldn’t score another one. It’s weird how players think, but we all want to be the hero, and I was no different. If it had finished 3-1 people would have forgotten I scored, and I could never have bragged about grabbing the winner in a derby like I am now!
"If we beat Spurs it was the best feeling ever. If we lost, it was like a bereavement, it was that bad"
Adrian: What kind of emotions did you have for games over on the dark side of North London?
Perry: Walking out into their territory, it felt like a battleground. On the coach there, in the dressing room, and then out there on the White Hart Lane pitch before kick off you knew that you would be tested, so we’d all prepare ourselves for it. To win there, we’d have be strong and play like men. I am a massive Gooner, always have been, so I did have a dislike for them too. I wouldn’t say I ever felt hatred, but I didn’t like them, and that meant I wanted to beat them badly. These weren’t normal football matches though, not in that era. If you could get the ball down and play that was a bonus. To win the derbies back then it was all about overcoming the opponent in the physical and mental battle.
Adrian: Did George Graham change before a north London Derby?
Perry: Nope, George was exactly the same as he always was, and that probably calmed us down a bit. Every time we played Tottenham it would be the same kind of build up too. At Highbury he’d remind us this was our patch, and that we had to impose ourselves on them. The plan was first and foremost to stop Spurs playing, then on the ball he’d expect us to get at them. At the Lane, George always warned us not to be bullied. Make sure you don’t concede in the first 20 minutes he’d say, don’t give them momentum, don’t let them get the crowd up. As I said, these matches were for men. It was footballing warfare.
Adrian: Could you have been pals with a Spurs player back then?
Perry: We didn’t mix, Clarkey. Before my time I think it was a bit different, and lads like Graham Rix and Charlie Nicholas would sometimes go for a few beers with the Tottenham lads socially at our favourite haunt, The Orange Tree. From 1986-87 that all stopped. If I’d have been seen out with a Spurs player it would have felt disloyal, and that’s how the rest of our squad felt about it at the time. I’d have spoken to them, but not stayed chatting for long. It wouldn’t have felt right. Funnily enough, one of my best mates now is Graham Roberts, the old Tottenham captain! We get on great these days, but back then it wasn’t the done thing.
Adrian: I always remember Spurs players being a bit flash in the late 80’s, early 90’s, was that how you saw it?
"Bringing those boys down a peg or two was always good fun"
Perry: The Arsenal squad was full of hungry, normal young kids. Tottenham had all the superstars, the big time Charlies, and many more seasoned old pro’s than we did. The truth is, we didn’t know them, but we did think of them as being a bit flash, and it felt like they were probably earning loads more money than us too. They may not have been that way at all, but we used it as an incentive to beat them anyway. Bringing those boys down a peg or two was always good fun.
Adrian: Do you think the modern players get the same kind of feelings about this rivalry that you guys had?
Perry: The game’s changed hasn’t it? Modern football has all but outlawed tackling, and it’s become a more skill-based fixture now. I still think the players realise the importance of it, and how much it means to the supporters – and that’s why the pace of the derby is always a bit higher than others. That tempo has always had a different edge. I remember Tony Adams and Merse warning the foreign players to expect something a bit unique, but you sensed they didn’t really understand. It was only until afterwards they’d look at you and say ‘wow, what just happened?’ and you knew they’d got it. Down the years, all the great Arsenal players have been through that experience, been warned what to expect, and then after that first time they know what it’s all about. It’s something that’s passed on down the generations.
Adrian: As a fan, do you still get just as excited about the derby?
Perry: Yeah of course, and this weekend’s game is so important too. I’m bang up for it. When the Invincibles were doing their thing it was so one-sided that we knew we’d win, but these days I guess it’s a little more even. You can’t call with any certainty who will come out on top, and for that reason it’s more of a spectacle.
Adrian: Think we’ll win on Sunday?
Perry: Of course! With Mesut Ozil out injured I’d like to see The Ox play centrally, with Tomas Rosicky coming in on the right. If we do that, and play to our potential I can see us winning this one 2-1. Happy days.