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Christmas Number Ones


Nostalgia is rife in football and it has been for quite a while. In the 1980s it was widely accepted that you could spend the first half of the season hanging around in mid-table experimenting before launching a successful assault on the league title.

By: Duncan Alexander

That belief was based on reality because in 1981 Liverpool were 12th as people woke up for the Castle Grayskull Christmas, but by the end of the season they had sealed their 13th league title. The team who were top of the table that year were Swansea City who had faded to sixth by the end of the campaign, but that only enhanced the festive narrative of the decade: don’t trust the league table at Christmas, it’s too early. It’s a marathon not a sprint.

In the post-1992 era, though, the opposite has been true. 15 of the 28 Premier League seasons have seen the team top of the division on December 25 go on to be crowned champions. The fly in the ointment, until last season, had been Liverpool, a club who had been proudly top at Christmas in 1996, 2008, 2013 and 2018 (and as reigning champions in 1990) without going on to win the league. Christmas 2019 pointed to a very different future, though, and in July 2020 Liverpool were, finally, English champions for a 19th time. Christmas 2020 sees Jurgen Klopp’s team top for a third season in a row, the first time that’s happened since Liverpool themselves did it between 1978 and 1980. They may well add a 20th crown in May but in the meantime let’s celebrate some of the great Christmas league table movers and shakers.

I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day
Keen football fans in August 1992 were subjected to not only the dawn of the Premier League but also the sight of Sheffield United parading around in garish Christmas get-up in the damp height of a Yorkshire summer. What madness was this? Well, the previous season had seen the Blades 19th on Christmas Day and looking semi-doomed before staging a remarkable recovery to finish ninth. Rather than this being attributed to improved coaching or tactical acumen, the accepted wisdom of the time was to bless the mysterious power of Christmas. A 14th placed finish in 1992-93 seemed to justify the santa hats and tinsel but the Leicester City survival revival of the mid-2010s showed everyone how really to recover. In an even worse position at Christmas 2014, the club beat the drop in 2015 and then became Premier League champions a year later, without paying any attention to Christmas in the slightest.

Gregory’s Boys
Even though finishing in the top four hasn’t actually been important for the entirety of the Premier League era, only one team top on Christmas Day have ever slipped out of that now-valued upper band by the end of the season. That club is Aston Villa in 1998-99, sitting pretty with 36 points from 18 games on December 25 but who had fallen to sixth by the time Manchester United sealed the first part of their treble in 1999. If there was one thing to note from the second half of Villa’s season it was the XI and substitutes they used against Coventry in February. All 14 players were English and it remains the last time in Premier League history that a team has fielded an entirely English team. Not that it did them much good. They lost 4-1.

Unwrapped but not defeated
One of the accepted delights of 2020-21 so far is its relative unpredictability. Liverpool may only have lost one game, but it was by seven goals to two against Aston Villa. Frankly it’s good the champions have been defeated because otherwise this would be the third season in a row that Christmas Day had hosted an unbeaten top-flight team. Is that normal? Not really. In the years between 1888 and 2016 there were only seven unbeaten teams on December 25, from Preston’s Invincibles in 1888 through to Manchester United in 2010 (the long unbeaten season no-one remembers). Liverpool in 2018-19 became only the second team to be lossless at Xmas and not go on to win the league after Sheffield United in 1899. The Blades had been champions of England in 1898 and their fans were surely dreaming of more glory as the new century dawned. But early 1900 was a cruel period and as it stands, United have never again won the English title. The cruellest Christmas. For the team who respect Christmas more than any other.

The Flawed Flight of the Canary
It’s very hard to judge this season’s top-flight at Christmas because the season started so much later than usual. This is the lowest number of games played by December 25 since the 1897-98 season, but that’s not something you can level at the first Premier League campaign in 1992-93, when Norwich City led the division at Christmas for the second time in five seasons, boasting a reasonable but not terrifying record of P20 W12 D3 L5. In fact the most noticeable thing about that league table was their goal difference of zero. Those 12 wins had been hard-earned by Norfolk’s finest but they’d also lost 7-1 and 4-1 to Blackburn and Liverpool in October. Ultimately three defeats from four games in April cost City the chance of finishing above Manchester United and Aston Villa, and they ended the season in third place with a goal difference of -4. A Christmas that had promised gold, frankincense and myrrh only delivered meagre old bronze.