Ever since the Premier League began, it’s always been seen as something of a milestone who tops the table at Christmas, however, it’s not always a good omen. Here’s a look at the five teams who went into the festive period at the summit of England’s top tier, but have failed to lift the trophy since its inaugural season in 1992.
Norwich City (1992/93)
Points Clear On Xmas Day 1992: 4
Final League Position: 3rd
It’s easy to forget how good Norwich were between 1992-94 under Mike Walker. Key players that season included youngsters Chris Sutton and Ruel Fox, new signing Mark Robins and the vastly improved Jeremy Goss. A 4-2 opening day win away at Arsenal got them off to a flying start and they never looked back during the first half of that campaign. In fact just before Christmas (on December 8th), the Canaries were actually 8 points clear of second placed Aston Villa. Unfortunately, a couple of defeats to Manchester United and Ipswich Town started a run of six games without a victory, and set the tone for the remainder of the season. The most remarkable thing about Norwich that year was the manner of their defeats, as they didn’t just lose matches, they got hammered! Losing 7-1 away to Blackburn, 4-1 at Liverpool, 5-1 to Tottenham and 3-0 at both Southampton and Wimbledon, amongst others. Hardly championship material and it showed when you see that Norwich actually ended the season with a minus 4 goal difference – a record low for a team finishing in the top four. The Canaries qualified for the following season’s UEFA Cup and shook the football world by beating the mighty Bayern Munich 3-2 on aggregate in the second round; a 2-1 victory in Munich first leg made them the first English team to beat Bayern on their own soil. However, a couple of months later manager Mike Walker quit for Everton, leading to a mass exodus of star players and Norwich were relegated in 1994/95 season. An unbelievable turnaround from their best ever finish of third two seasons earlier. For a club of Norwich’s size, what’s worse is that since that drop they have only been in the Premier League for a further five campaigns over the following 23 years. The fans didn’t know it then, but those first two years in the Prem certainly were the glory days for Norwich City.
Newcastle United x 2 (1995/96 & 2001/02)
Points Clear On Xmas Day 1995: 10
Final League Position: 2nd
Kevin Keegan’s 1995/96 side will probably be remembered for two things; being the most entertaining team not to win the Premier League and the dramatic manner in which they lost the title. To be fair to King Kev, he never used to hide the fact that his best form of defence was attack. That showed with the signings of Les Ferdinand and David Ginola before the season started, and the first half of Newcastle’s campaign ended with a seemingly unassailable 10 point lead over Manchester United. The Magpies’ collapse didn’t even start until March, as they continued with their care-free approach, but Man Utd always kept in touch and duly pounced when the time was right towards the end of the season. In the February, Keegan signed holding midfielder David Batty and Colombian striker Faustino Asprilla, hoping the extra quality would get them over the line come May. If anything, those signings only complicated Keegan’s selections further and the old saying of ”If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, has never been more relevant. A 1-0 home defeat to rivals Man Utd started to reveal the cracks, and they embarked on a run of 4 losses in 6 games, which brought the Old Trafford side level at the top. Newcastle then won three on the bounce and had their destiny in their own hands, but a 1-1 draw away to Nottingham Forest gave Alex Ferguson’s men the upper hand and Kevin Keegan starred in the most famous interview in Sky Sports history. A 1-1 draw at home to Spurs didn’t matter as Man Utd won 3-0 away at Middlebrough to steal the title from under Newcastle’s noses. The following season Keegan’s men lost 4-0 to the champions at Wembley in the Charity Shield, but got their revenge with an impressive 5-0 victory over the Red Devils at St James’ Park. Kevin Keegan shocked the Geordie fans by resigning in January 1997 and never got close to the Premier League trophy again in his managerial career. One thing is for sure, he would have loved it if he had won that title, loved it.
Point Clear On Xmas Day 2001: 3
Final League Position: 4th
When Sir Bobby Robson took over in 1999, Newcastle needed stability to move forward and their new home-grown manager certainly gave them that. By the 2001/02 season, Robson had built his young Newcastle side into possible title contenders and with captain Alan Shearer now able to concentrate on his club following international retirement in 2000, the Magpies were enjoying success in the league for the first time since the Keegan era. Newcastle did however, top the table at Christmas with a record low number of points for the festive period, just 36. Unfortunately, after a month of the new year, Newcastle had tailed off the chasing pack, with Manchester United, Liverpool and eventual champions Arsenal pulling clear in the final stages of the season. The lack of squad depth proved too much for Robson’s men and it’s hardly surprising they dropped off looking back now, as you surely cannot rely on a squad that includes Shola Ameobi, Lomana Lua-Lua and Andy O’Brien to win you the title. But credit to Newcastle, as they held on to fourth place, losing only to the sides above them in the run-in, to secure Champions League football for only the second time. The following season the Magpies finished third in the Premier League to qualify again for Europe’s top competition. However, Robson was sacked in August 2004, after failing to win in his first four games of the season. After watching a documentary on the great man recently, that hurt him. It seems almost cruel to have treated a legendary manager like Bobby Robson in that way, after all had done for them. He loved that club and never managed again before his death in 2009. Newcastle have never been as high in the league since either, which is proof that the grass is not always greener.
Liverpool x3 (1996/97, 2008/09 & 2013/14)
Points Clear On Xmas Day 1996: 3
Final League Position: 4th
Roy Evans’ side led the Premier League for most of the 1996/97 season and hopes were high of winning the league for the first time since their First Division triumph in 1990. Liverpool played the most attacking football in the league that year, with Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore scoring 47 goals between them in all competitions and winger Steve Mcmanaman becoming even more prominent for the club. Despite being overtook by Manchester United in March, Liverpool still had chances regain the top spot, but several poor results costing the Reds vital points. Goalkeeper David James was largely at fault for many goals conceded towards the end of the season, especially in the 3-1 defeat at home to Man Utd, which effectively ended any title hopes Liverpool had left. James blamed too many hours on his PlayStation for the loss of concentration in those vital games and his costly mistakes meant that no England manager trusted him for a further 7 years as their number one. United wrapped up the title with a game to spare and Liverpool went into their final match in second place, hoping to secure a Champions League spot. However, a 1-1 draw at Sheffield Wednesday meant Newcastle and Arsenal finished above Liverpool on goal difference, leaving Roy Evans and his team with a UEFA Cup place as scant consolation. The media ridiculed Liverpool, stating that they had somehow ‘finished fourth in a two horse race’ and they were probably right as many former players have said since that the 1996/97 season was their best chance of winning the Premier League in the 90s. In the summer of 1998, Gerard Houllier arrived to lead Liverpool into a new era and the Spice Boys (and their cream suits) were no more.
Points Clear On Xmas Day 2008: 1
Final League Position: 2nd
Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool teams were more suited to European football and that showed in the first few years of his reign – Champions League winners in 2005, finalists in 2007 and semi-finalists in 2008. Not that his league positions during that time were poor (5th, 3rd, 3rd and 4th), but no serious title challenge had taken place. In the 2008/09 season however, Liverpool went for the Premier League, big time, and to be honest they probably couldn’t have done much more to win it. The Anfield side lost fewer games than any other team (2), scored the most goals (77), had the best goal difference (+50) and did the double over the eventual champions Manchester United. It was simply that United overall were just that bit better than them. After their second (and last) defeat of the season to Middlesbrough in February, Liverpool won 10 out of their 11 remaining games, but it still wasn’t enough. Captain Steven Gerrard scored 24 goals in all competitions that season too, an incredible total for a midfielder. The 86 points collected by Liverpool was also their best tally ever in the Premier League and still is to this day. However, one memorable press conference involving Rafa Benitez that happened while Liverpool were top in January, is where many believed the Reds lost the title. With Alex Ferguson attempting to get under Benitez’s skin with comments to the press, the Liverpool manager went into his famous ‘FACT’ rant. He had had enough and listed all the things Ferguson had said about referees and fixtures during that campaign, saying the word ‘FACT’ before each sentence. After this, Liverpool drew three on the bounce, allowing United to take over at the top and they never recovered the ground. Just like Kevin Keegan’s rant 13 years earlier, it was job done for Ferguson. For the Liverpool fans though, a 4-1 victory at Old Trafford over Manchester United, will forever be etched into their memories as one of their greatest modern day wins, and remains one of the few times under Ferguson that United were smashed in front of their own fans.
Points Clear On Xmas Day 2013: 0 (On Goal Difference)
Final League Position: 2nd
The 2013/14 season saw the most dramatic Premier League title collapse since Keegan’s Newcastle failed to get over the line 18 years earlier. Liverpool were top only by goal difference going into the festive period, but consecutive away defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea meant the Brendan Rodgers’ side had actually dropped down to 5th place at the turn of the year. In February however, following a 5-1 drubbing of Arsenal, Liverpool went on an 11 game winning run which put them back on top just before the final 3 games of the season. Indeed the tenth match of that run saw the Reds beat title rivals Manchester City 3-2 at Anfield, seeming to all but end the Manchester side’s hopes. If Liverpool could win at home to third-placed Chelsea in late April, then the league championship would surely be going back to Anfield for the first time in 24 years. Chelsea had other ideas. In a nervy and frustrating first half, Jose Mourinho’s men took the lead just before half time, after captain Steven Gerrard miscontrolled a pass and then slipped inside his own half, allowing Demba Ba to run unopposed towards the Kop before coolly slotting the ball past Simon Mignolet. Chelsea continued to defend well after the break and following Gerrard unsuccessfully trying to make amends with several long shots, the Blues caught Liverpool on the break again, with former Anfield favourite Fernando Torres unselfishly setting up Willian to make it 2-0 in the final minute. The title was now out of Liverpool’s hands. The following match away at Crystal Palace saw one of the most remarkable games in recent years. Rodgers knew his side had to win to keep the pressure on Man City and looked like doing so with ease when Liverpool were 3-0 after 55 mins. However, with 11 mins to go Palace pulled one back and in the 81st and 88th minute, striker Dwight Gayle netted a brace to level the match and suddenly Liverpool’s title ambitions were up in smoke. That game proved that defending was Liverpool’s problem. Although they scored 101 goals in the Prem that season, a record for a runner-up, they also conceded 50 league goals which is an unrealistic number for a club to win the league. A 2-1 victory over Newcastle on the last day was not enough and the title went back to Manchester City. Rodgers was sacked 18 months later, replaced by German favourite Jurgen Klopp, but Liverpool are still searching for that first Premier League title.
I read recently that you can sum up the fates of these three Liverpool campaigns by a trio of single words: ‘Playstation’, ‘Facts’ and ‘Slip’. Very brutal.
Aston Villa (1998/99)
Points Clear On Xmas Day 1998: 3
Final League Position: 6th
At the beginning of the 1998/99 season, Aston Villa sold Dwight Yorke to Manchester United for £12.6 million. Villa manager John Gregory famously said when Yorke had told him that he wanted to leave, ”That really hurt me, and if I had had a gun I would have shot him’. A little harsh, but Gregory really thought he was building something at Villa that year, and for the first half of the season he seemed absolutely right. Villa quickly signed Paul Merson, then Dion Dublin (England internationals at the time) to replace Yorke, who both slotted into Gregory’s team of Englishmen. In fact this was the final season that a Premier League side fielded a team full of English players, when Villa took on Coventry in February 1999. To be fair Villa’s start was tremendous, breaking a club record for points massed after 12 unbeaten games and despite a couple of losses to Chelsea and Liverpool, the midlanders went into the festive period top of the Prem. A Boxing Day defeat to Blackburn though, started form that was more similar to teams involved in a relegation scrap, with Villa winning only two of their next 15 games – including a winless run of 12 matches. The damage was done and by the time Villa won 3 on the bounce in April it was too late to recover any ground. The Villans eventually finished in 6th place, which is the worst drop from the top spot at Christmas in Premier League history. John Gregory stayed on at Villa for a further 3 years, with just an FA Cup final losers medal in 2000 to show for his time. Dwight Yorke won a historic treble that season with Manchester United, justifying his move to Old Trafford. I bet Gregory wishes he really did have a gun now.
Leeds United (1999/2000)
Points Clear On Xmas Day 1999: 2
Final League Position: 3rd
Before Leeds United started spending way beyond their means to try and stay in the Champions League, they actually had an excellent young team under David O’Leary. Many players made the step up from the youth academy like Alan Smith, Jonathan Woodgate and Harry Kewell, joining the experience of Nigel Martyn, David Batty and captain Lucas Radebe. Together with astute signings of Darren Huckerby, Michael Bridges, Michael Duberry and Danny Mills, Leeds were becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League and made a brilliant start to the season. Despite holding on to top spot going into the new millennium, the Yorkshire side soon started dropping points to the top sides. Indeed that was Leeds’ problem throughout the campaign, losing twice to Arsenal, Aston Villa, Liverpool and eventual champions Manchester United. It was almost as if they didn’t quite have the belief they could compete with the big boys. As their form in the league tailed off, O’Leary’s priorities changed to the UEFA Cup, where they met Turkish side Galatasaray in the semi-finals. Unfortunately, tragedy struck at the away leg in Istanbul, as two Leeds fans were stabbed to death after a clash with rival supporters before the match. This obviously impacted the players massively, and it’s no coincidence that they lost four league matches in a row around this period. Leeds were beaten 4-2 on aggregate in that semi, but eventually regained some league form which secured Champions League qualification for the first time in 7 years. The following season Leeds spent over 40 million pounds on new players and incredibly reached the semi-finals of Europe’s elite competition. However, finishing 4th that season meant the Elland Road side missed out on Champions League football the year after, and when they gambled with more signings in 2001/02 and only finished 5th, they really were up a creek without a paddle. O’Leary left in 2002 and Leeds were relegated two years later whilst in massive financial trouble. Some fans see the turn of the century as the golden age for Leeds United and some see it as a period that they never recovered from. Whichever way you look at it, the 1999/2000 season certainly changed the club forever.
Although it can mean nothing who tops the table at Christmas, recent history tells us it probably helps. Indeed in the last 10 years only one team has been top at Xmas but not won the title; Liverpool in 2013/14. If you look at all 26 seasons of the Premier League, 14 sides who were top at the festive period went on to win the trophy (54%). Of the six different Premier League winners – Manchester United, Blackburn, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Leicester City, only Arsenal have won the Premier League without ever being top at Xmas. If Liverpool are at the top of Prem this Christmas, then only time will tell if they can finally break the trend they have set for themselves and go on to win the title for the first time. Overall though, I would definitely say it’s better to be number 1 at Christmas than not. Just ask East 17.
I’ll be back in the New Year with more football flashbacks. Merry Christmas everyone!
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