Boxing Day has no equal when it comes to English footballing tradition. Back in May, the Premier League celebrated the completion of its twenty-fifth year, and over the past quarter-century, Boxing Day has produced some enthralling – and occasionally pivotal – matches to delight those in attendance.
In the inaugural Premier League season of 1992/93, Boxing Day proved to be a very real turning point in the destination of the Premier League title. The game of the day unfolded, without question at a packed Hillsborough, as two of English football’s biggest names engaged in a War of the Roses that would foreshadow events to come.
War of the Roses
The early 1990s feud between Sheffield Wednesday and Manchester United began back in the spring of 1991. That year, the (then) second tier Owls had upset the odds by overcoming Manchester United in the final of what is now known as the EFL Cup. Wednesday also passed up the opportunity to sign a certain striker by the name of Eric Cantona, on account of the high wages a player of his skill would inevitably demand.
Most people only remember the return encounter at Old Trafford, in which two stoppage-time goals from Steve Bruce all but sealed the title for Manchester United in April 1993. The reverse fixture fell on Boxing Day, and it indeed was a Christmas cracker, between two teams that had finished on the podium in 1991/92 after pushing champions Leeds United all the way.
This season, Manchester United’s buy/sell points price to win the title (on www.sportingindex.com) has plummeted on account of their city rivals’ dominance, but back in December 1992, the situation at Old Trafford was far more desperate. Aiming to end over two decades old title drought, Alex Ferguson’s squad was feeling the pressure more than most, and with Norwich City having spent the Christmas Day of 1992 on top of the Premier League, this was one match in which the third-placed Red Devils simply had to deliver.
Three down and out
Sloppy defending enabled Dave Hirst to open the scoring in just two minutes, smashing a low shot into the left corner of Peter Schmeichel’s net. Mark Bright made it 2-0 just four minutes later, converting a knock-down from Hirst after more kamikaze defending from the visitors, whose title hopes were surely fading without a trace.
Whatever hairdryer treatment Manchester United received at half-time clearly failed to rouse any sort of reaction. Just after the hour mark, Wednesday opened up a surely unassailable 3-0 lead, when Hirst once again took on the role of provider, knocking down a loose aerial ball inside the area for John Sheridan – who also scored the winner in the 1991 League Cup final – to smash home.
United were dead and buried, but Ferguson’s men clearly did not know it.
Title hopes resurrected
Lee Sharpe had been a menace for United all afternoon and outwitted the Wednesday defence with his trademark trickery. Finding space on the edge of the box, he whipped in an ambitious cross that found the head of Brian McLair, who converted at point-blank range to make it 3-1.
The Sharpe and McLair double act once more proved the undoing of Wednesday ten minutes later, when a cross-field ball found Sharpe on the opposite flank, who then managed to escape the attention of Roland Nilsson to find McLair at the near post. This time his header glanced downwards past Chris Woods and into the net.
Soon after, in true Bullseye fashion, Sheffield Wednesday were shown exactly what they could have won, when Cantona poached the equaliser seven minutes from time, just moments after David Hirst was but a Schmeichel save away from sealing the win. Sharpe once again ripped Nilsson to shreds and fed Cantona inside the area. Woods stopped the mercurial Frenchman’s first attempt, but he eventually poked the ball home for 3-3.
And the rest is history
Though the Red Devils had only gained a point, other results went United’s way. Norwich fell from the top after a 0-0 draw with Tottenham, while Coventry thrashed eventual runners-up Aston Villa 3-0. Two days later, Manchester United moved up to second when they trounced Coventry 5-0 at Old Trafford.
Then, for the first time all season, United reached the summit after ringing in the new year with a majestic 4-1 demolition of Tottenham. They never looked back and became the dominant force in English football for the remainder of the 1990s.
Some would argue that the magic and mystique of Boxing Day proved to be the turning point for Manchester United back in 1992/93, but several other Boxing Day matches have also made (and broken) teams down the years.
Coventry 3-2 Arsenal (1999)
With Leeds and Manchester United battling it out for the 1999/2000 title, Arsenal could scarcely afford to drop a point. The Gunners faced Coventry on Boxing Day 1999 believing that they could defy Coventry’s strong home record.
They failed miserably, and lost to Coventry for the first time since the opening day of 1993/94, with goals from Gary McAllister, Mustapha Hadji and Robbie Keane sending Arsenal (and their title hopes) south with resounding nil points.
Bolton 4-3 Newcastle (2002)
Bolton stayed up at West Ham’s expense in 2002/03, and with three goals exchanged inside a frantic ten minutes, this was to become a classic instantly. Cult heroes Jay-Jay Okocha and Ricardo Gardner sandwiched an Alan Shearer equaliser, but the next goal would not arrive until the stroke of half-time, with Rohan Ricketts making it 3-1.
Ricketts scored again on the hour, but the remaining thirty minutes belonged to a Newcastle side that would eventually finish third. Shola Ameobi cut the deficit before Alan Shearer made it 4-3 to set up a fraught final ten minutes. Bolton held on, survived, and then attained an impressively high finish the following season – all under the watchful eye of Sam Allardyce.
Chelsea 4-4 Aston Villa (2007)
This one ultimately had little impact on either end of the table, but for sheer entertainment, it has few earthly equals. Back in 2007, Aston Villa was packed with an array of talents, including James Milner and Ashley Young, to name but two, but neither man made it onto the scoresheet on Boxing Day in 2007.
It was, in fact, the unassuming midfielder Shaun Maloney who was at the double to fire Villa into a two-goal lead. Yet, as is often the case for teams with vast wealth, Chelsea got a lifeline at the most opportune moment, with Andriy Shevchenko slotting a penalty to halve the half-time deficit.
Shevchenko netted his second, and Chelsea’s equaliser five minutes after the restart. Defenders Alex (Chelsea) and Martin Laursen (Villa) then exchanged goals to make it 3-3 as the endgame approached. Michael Ballack thought he had won it for Chelsea on 88 minutes, but Villa got an injury-time penalty, which was duly converted by Gareth Barry for the merriest of Christmases in Birmingham.
Manchester United 4-3 Newcastle United (2012)
Exactly twenty years, twelve league titles and two Champions League trophies on from the scintillating Hillsborough draw that reignited Manchester United’s first Premier League title challenge, Sir Alex Ferguson had one more Boxing Day gem to produce before stepping down from his perch.
With Chelsea and neighbours Manchester City in hot pursuit, United could not afford to slip up against Newcastle on Boxing Day in 2012.
Just as they had done at Hillsborough, twenty years to the day, United had to get a result the hard way after conceding an early goal. This time, it was James Perch who stunned Old Trafford into silence with a fourth-minute strike against the champions-to-be. Jonny Evans then endured the craziest three minutes of his career, netting the equaliser on 25, only to put through his own net to restore Newcastle’s lead.
Patrice Evra got United’s second equaliser ten minutes after the break, but Newcastle took the lead for a third time through the excellent Papiss Cisse. Robin van Persie equalised within minutes and, in typical Ferguson-era United fashion, Javier Hernandez netted a dramatic winner in the dying minutes.
A graduate of Staffordshire University, Tamhas Woods has a wealth of experience in sports writing and creating betting-related content.