As Yuletide approaches, it seems fitting to strike a seasonal note and invoke the Spirit of Christmas Past for a nostalgic revisiting of one particular December 24th many moons ago. All the ingredients for happiness came together that day: we ate, drank and were merry; we were uplifted and raised our voices in chorus amid a mighty throng; and we experienced and passed on goodwill to all men – except for a select few in the red shirts of Manchester United.
It was Christmas Eve 1995, and I awoke unusually early for a home match because Leeds United were due to face that other United from across the Pennines in a late morning kick-off at Elland Road. I’d stayed at a mate’s house, the plan being to gather at a local hostelry and wait for the supporters’ bus, fortified by a breakfast of bacon butties and bottled beer, whilst perusing the morning papers, unanimously predicting some away-day Christmas cheer for Fergie and his not-altogether-likeable Manchester United team. Those journalists’ anticipation of my team’s likely demise left me feeling queasy, a sensation not lessened by the pre-breakfast intake of alcohol. By the time we left for the stadium, I was feeling fairly poorly, with an uncomfortable sense that I was not going to enjoy my day. And, although Man U were recovering from a poor result at Liverpool, the boys and girls at Betulator would probably have endorsed my pessimism; it felt like very long odds against a home win to gladden the hearts of the faithful.
How wrong could I have been? Leeds were coming off the back of a humiliating thrashing at Hillsborough, and the feeling among our partially inebriated band of United faithful was that we’d either be getting more of the same, to cast a pall over Christmas itself – or that we’d mount a spectacular recovery and return to form, sending the enemy back to Lancashire beaten and subdued. And lo, it came to pass. Our heroes in White rose to the holiday occasion and rewarded the Elland Road congregation by granting their dearest wish, outclassing the invading Mancunians and recording a 3-1 victory that guaranteed we’d be opening our gifts and engulfing our turkey dinners the following day in the very highest of spirits.
There was even a Christmas miracle as, against the normal rules of these occasions, Leeds were awarded and dispatched an early penalty, much to the disgust of apoplectic Red Devils captain Steve Bruce, clearly not used to that sort of treatment. We had a brief scare as Andrew Cole notched a leveller against the run of play, but then Tony Yeboah provided a majestic finish before Brian Deane sealed the win late on with a precise header from a Tomas Brolin cross. At the end, the home fans celebrated raucously, revelling in the Yuletide spirit and the discomfiture of the away fans, that gloomy and huddled bunch, as they departed on their long and dispirited trek back to Devon.
If it sounds as though I can remember all this in vivid detail across the intervening years, well – that would be somewhat deceptive; it’s just that I’ve watched and re-watched the highlights so many times since. My main memories are of the spectacular hangover I experienced in the remainder of that Yuletide Eve; the feeling that, nevertheless, all was right with the world and that Christmas would be merry indeed – and the look of relief on the faces of my wife and infant daughter, who had feared I’d be grumpy in defeat and not inclined to carouse. It’s ridiculous of course that a mere game of football should so influence my mood at such a time of year, but that’s the way it was – and I suspect it still would be.
Perhaps that’s why they don’t tend to have football on December the 24th any more, such intense rivalry being out of keeping with festive good cheer. I can quite see that – but believe me, when you beat your biggest rivals the day before Christmas, there’s no better way to ensure the happiest of holidays.
Have a great Christmas, one and all.