Not one **** goal, as they wouldn't have said in 1934

I've just got back from a derby game between Arsenal and Spurs. Which I was really looking forward to. Turned out pretty boring, really, and my mind kept wandering all the time, back to the description of another derby game by a well-known writer. Here's a few sentences from it. See if you can name the author. "But for all that it was a good match, clean and fast and exciting . . . nearly everything possible has been done to spoil this game: the heavy financial interests; the absurd transfer and player selling systems; the lack of birth or residential qualifications for the players; the absurd publicity given to every feature of it by the press; the monstrous partisanship of the crowds."

All sounds fairly contemporary, but it's not. So try to guess the year as well. The match he was watching was between Notts Forest and Notts County. That's a clue, of sorts.

It could well have been written about today's match, which was fast and clean, surprisingly clean for a derby. I've seen Arsenal-Spurs games where they've been kicking lumps out of each other even before the kick-off.

The heavy financial interests, we know all about them, and the absurd publicity. As for the lack of birth qualifications, the writer was struck by the apparent anomaly, to him, of Nottingham players coming from London, Liverpool and Scotland. He should have been living at this hour. Oops, that's another clue. Now you know the writer is dead.

The monstrous partisanship of the crowd was very evident at Arsenal. And gave me a lot of pleasure. I enjoy rival supporters slagging each other off. Today, the Arsenal crowd spent a lot of time singing "Arsene Wenger", which they don't usually do. Not because he's not popular, which he is, but because his personality is low key, academic, unemotional, not the sort of person to sing about, especially at this stage in the season. But the singing was subtle. The Arsenal fans were trying to tempt the Spurs fans into replying by singing "George Graham". But they didn't fall for it. They still haven't taken George to their hearts. Not yet. Not without some sort of achievement.

If they had shouted his name, it would have led to the loudest jeers of the afternoon from the Arsenal crowd. Instead, they had to be content with some low boos when his name was read out before the match. I think George can handle that. "Stand up if you hate Tottenham." That went on all afternoon, as one would expect. I don't mind that either. Better than thumping each other. Just in case, the police were out in force, the largest number of coppers I have seen for several years. Took me back to Spurs-Arsenal games of the seventies when there were pitched battles in the surrounding streets, running fights, near riots. It's a sign of how much football has changed, with our bright new stadia, filled only with people who can afford the prices and who don't, on the whole, go for a punch-up. Not of the physical variety.

While walking to the ground, I didn't spot any Spurs fans. Even inside, you had to know where to look for them, or listen for them. They had left behind their Spurs scarves and repro shirts. All colours were being hidden. Not a rattle in sight. Oops. That's another clue.

It was only towards the end that I spotted a Spurs banner being pulled out of a pocket and hastily waved in the air, just for a few seconds, when we got a corner. Sorry, when Spurs got a corner.

All through the game I had to keep shtum, trying not to give away my Spurs affiliation while sitting amid the Arsenal season ticket holders. What I do in these circumstances is politely clap a good bit of play, from either side, but sit still if either scores a goal. Fat chance. It was a goalless draw, typical anti-climactic local derby.

Why is it called a derby by the way? The term goes back to the 19th century and is now used all over the football world, regardless of the language. The city of Derby, unlike London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Nottingham and elsewhere, never had two rival football clubs. I assume it must therefore come from the Derby, the big horse race. A big football match became known as a derby match. I think. Haven't got the time to look up exact derivations and references in my football library.

Not when I'm sitting here, looking at that description of a Notts Forest- Notts County match. The two clubs have not been in the same division for some years, so that was a hint that the match was not exactly up to date.

The writer himself didn't come from Nottingham. He was passing through, on a journey through England. That's the final clue.

Yes, it was J B Priestley in his 1934 book, English Journey, getting a taste of a very English event.

One of the other things which intrigued him about the game was that he found himself sitting behind two middle-aged women. He clearly had not expected to find any women at a football match. The two women kept up a running commentary. "Nay Bob, you ought to ha' let 'Erbert 'ave it," one shouted. "Nay Tom, don't stand still," said the other.

Priestley guessed they might have been related to one of the players. "For they were in possession of Christian names and used them freely in giving advice."

I didn't quote that bit earlier on. You would have known at once it wasn't contemporary. We all use the Christian names of players today. And anyway a Christian name like 'Erbert isn't very common. And today, advice from the crowd, female or male, would have included some choicer language. Swearing, as we call it. Priestley would not have quoted that, not in the 1930s.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A prejudice as American as apple pie