7 of the biggest post-Christmas title collapses in English football
1. Manchester United, 1971/72
Ah, Brian Clough, destroyer of big clubs’ dreams. Old Big ‘Ead’s Derby County side had been inconsistent in the first half of the season, finding themselves five points behind Frank O’Farrell’s star-studded Manchester United on Christmas Day. O’Farrell had taken over from the great Matt Busby in June 1971, with the transition initially appearing to be a smooth one as Best, Charlton & Co. sought a first league title since 1967.
However, a disastrous spell in the new year – which included a run of seven consecutive defeats – meant United ended the campaign down in eighth place, with Derby winning the title from under the noses of Don Revie and Leeds on the final day of the season. Not that Clough ever went on about it or anything.
2. Swansea, 1981/82
It's not entirely clear which was the bigger surprise on Christmas Day 1981: that John Toshack’s exciting Swansea side, just four years after labouring in the old Fourth Division, found themselves at the summit of the top-flight table, or that Bob Paisley’s Liverpool were in a scarcely believable 12th place.
Normal service resumed soon after the festive season, however, as the Reds completed a remarkable comeback to win a 13th title and Swansea finished sixth. Bah, humbug.
3. Norwich, 1988/89 and 1992/93
Poor Norwich. Having never won the league title, the Canaries found themselves top at Christmas twice in five seasons, only to finish empty-handed on both occasions. The table on December 25, 1988 makes for particularly interesting reading: Norwich’s closest challengers were Arsenal, with the rest of the top five made up of rather unfashionable outfits in Millwall, Derby and Coventry.
Most startingly of all, though, the Canaries had been bottom of the pile on Christmas Day only the previous season – the last team to achieve the feat before Leicester in 2015/16.
Manager Dave Stringer had built a sophisticated passing side featuring the likes of Robert Fleck, Dale Gordon and a pre-tactics-truck midfielder by the name of Andy Townsend. The Canaries achieved famous victories at Anfield and Old Trafford, but ended the season in a remarkable – yet disappointing – fourth place. Arsenal were the eventual champions after that Michael Thomas goal.
Four years later they were festive leaders once more, with Mike Walker’s charges at one stage enjoying a commanding eight-point lead before again faltering to finish third, thus allowing Manchester United to clinch their first championship in a generation.
4. Newcastle, 1995/96
Kevin Keegan’s care-free Newcastle side looked almost certain to romp to a first title in nearly 70 years as they opened up a seemingly unassailable 10-point gap over Manchester United at the midway point of the 1995/96 season. A 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford – notable for Andy Cole eschewing the contrived morbidity of the modern footballer by celebrating as vociferously than ever against his former team – showed the first signs of an inner frailty that would ultimately lead to Newcastle throwing it all away.
Alex Ferguson’s relentless youngsters reeled in the Magpies over the following months. The Scot, of course, aided his side’s cause with little digs in the media like the ‘innocent’ suggestion that clubs such as Nottingham Forest might not try as hard against Newcastle as they would against United – a claim that led Keegan to enthusiastically exclaim live on television that he would take great pleasure in witnessing his side triumph at the end.
5. Liverpool, 1996/97
Roy Evans' exciting Reds side topped the table on Christmas Day 1996, and finally looked genuinely capable of ending their six-year title drought. But it was during the festive period that they began to relinquish control of their destiny, taking just four points from three games.
They managed to stay in contention until defeat at the hands of Manchester United in April, though shock home losses against the likes of Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry were equally as damaging as they eventually limped home in fourth.
Liverpool have since been top of the table thrice more on Christmas Day (in 2008, 2013 and 2018); somewhat cruelly, the fates of all three campaigns before this one can be summed up in single words: ‘PlayStation’, ‘Facts’ and ‘Slip’.
6. Aston Villa, 1998/99
It seems more than a little fanciful now, but a team whose tactical blueprint was provided by John Gregory was once top of the league at the halfway stage. His Aston Villa led the way on Christmas Day 1998, propelled by the likes of Dion Dublin and Julian Joachim – and all the more impressive given that star striker Dwight Yorke had been sold to Manchester United in the early weeks of the season.
Unfortunately for Villa fans their team regressed immediately after Christmas, showing form more akin to a relegation battle than a title fight. It started with a Boxing Day defeat to Blackburn – one of 11 in the last 19 games of the season – and meant they ultimately finished sixth, as United won the title (and later, the Treble).
7. Manchester United, 2003/04
While Arsenal were still unbeaten in 2003/04, it was Manchester United who led on Christmas Day after winning 13 of their first 17 matches.
After Christmas, however, it was the Gunners who went into overdrive, eventually winning the title by finishing 12 points ahead of Chelsea. United were a further three points back in third after particularly bad defeats to Wolves, Middlesbrough, Manchester City (pre-money), Portsmouth and Blackburn.
Arsenal, of course, didn’t lose in the second half of the season either...
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