Christmas tree outside Old Trafford.

United's Christmas tale: Transfers, derbies & more

Saturday 25 December 2021 07:00

For many, Christmas is associated with mince pies, turkey, trees and presents, but at Manchester United it means one thing: a festival of festive football. Over the years, we racked up quite a rich history during late December, with matches coming thick and fast.

Below, we've explored the Reds' Christmas stories, which includes everything from derbies, transfers and even a disappearing goose... 

It may seem unfathomable now, but a Manchester derby on Christmas Day was a relatively regular event around the turn of the 20th century, occurring three times between 1896 and 1902. Manchester City were the club’s first Christmas Day opponents, twice as Newton Heath and once after being renamed as Manchester United, and the Blues were never victorious. A bumper crowd of an estimated 18,000 swelled the Heathens’ Bank Street stadium in Clayton, in a fixture so popular that the following day’s Athletic News reported: ‘I never saw so many lads at a football match. The hoarding behind the goal lines gave way in several places. At the interval, Mr J Parlby, one of the League Management Committee, told the crowd point blank that if they did not keep beyond the touchline, the game could not proceed.’ The masses refrained, and the game ultimately finished in a 2-1 home win, the same margin of victory achieved by Newton Heath when the sides reconvened at Hyde Road a year later. City’s promotion prompted a two-season gap without derby football, but their subsequent relegation back to the Second Division reunited the clubs on 25 December, 1902. By now rebranded, United hosted a 1-1 draw at Bank Street in the final ever Christmas Day derby.

Long before Fred the Red’s pitchside capering, United’s very first mascot was Michael the Bank Street Canary, although closer inspection of Michael’s back story lifts the lid on a shady tale of false pretences. For a nominal fee, Newton Heath supporters could gain access to the bird before games, on the premise that he would sing for their entertainment. However, Michael was quickly identifiable not as a melodious canary, but a tuneless goose which was, reportedly, being fattened. Mysteriously never seen again after December 1898 (come on, you join the dots), Michael was replaced by Major, a St Bernard belonging to captain Harry Stafford. The dog would soon wander aimlessly into the arms of future benefactor John H Davies, inadvertently saving the debt-ridden Heathens to ensure a far happier place in club folklore than his predecessor.

Only two United players have been born on Christmas Day. In 1919, outside-right Eddie Kilshaw came into the world, exactly a year before full-back Sammy Lynn. The latter joined United first, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, ensuring that his 13-year Reds career (1938-1951) yielded a mere 13 appearances, while Kilshaw’s half-dozen appearances all came as a guest player in the Wartime League fixtures of 1938/39.

Amid the Great Depression of 1931, with United heavily indebted and in serious danger of going out of business, James W Gibson followed John H Davies’s lead by saving the club from extinction with an act of enormous generosity. After meeting with Reds club secretary Walter Crickmer less than a week before Christmas and learning of the banks’ refusal to lend the struggling Reds any further funds, Gibson donated £2,000 on the spot. As well as clearing the backlog of unpaid wages, the money meant that the club could continue its tradition of presenting each staff member and player with a Christmas turkey. Having secured the club’s short-term future, Gibson then agreed to pledge further funds if he witnessed a sufficient appetite for football from the people of Manchester over the festive period. He attended the Reds’ Christmas Day game against Wolverhampton Wanderers, and, crucially, so too did over 33,000 supporters – an increase of 28,000 on the previous home game. Satisfied, Gibson took control of the club the following month and United’s future was safeguarded.

For United, 33 games in 61 war-hit years rendered Christmas Day football a regular event on the Football League calendar, until it suddenly ceased in 1957. The Reds’ record win on the date came in 1953’s 5-2 triumph over Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford, in what proved to be the penultimate Christmas Day game. Four years later, the final instance brought the same margin of victory, as goals from Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor and Bobby Charlton secured a 3-0 win over Luton Town. Tragically, it would prove to be the final Christmas for both Edwards and Taylor, who died less than two months later as a result of the Munich Air Disaster.

Defences across English football’s top flight bought particularly heavily into the season of charity and goodwill on Boxing Day 1963, when a division record 66 goals were scored across 10 fixtures on that single day – a net-bulging 6.6 goals per game. While the highest-scoring game came in Fulham’s 10-1 obliteration of Ipswich Town, United and Burnley accounted for seven of the day’s goals. Sadly, David Herd’s solitary strike was the Reds’ only contribution to the scoreline at Turf Moor, as the hosts’ Andy Lochhead struck four times and Willie Morgan – later of United – hit a pair. As was often the case over the festive period, however, revenge was a dish served piping hot; just two days later the teams reconvened at Old Trafford and the Reds won 5-1. Herd scored twice this time, as did Graham Moore, while a twinkle-toed youngster named George Best hit his first goal in senior football.

In 1981, a particularly freezing winter prompted a spate of postponements across the country and left then-league leaders United trying to plug a four-week gap between competitive games. Ron Atkinson’s side managed to squeeze in three games between a 3-2 defeat at Southampton on 5 December and a 1-0 FA Cup exit at Watford on 2 January, including a Boxing Day trip north of the border to face Hibernian. Easter Road was one of the few venues with under-soil heating, so a friendly was hastily arranged and attended by a shade over 12,000 supporters. A feisty 1-1 draw represented a worthy runout for Atkinson’s men as Frank Stapleton and Willie Jamieson traded goals. A clash with the late Erich Schaedler left Bryan Robson nursing a bruised rib, but Captain Marvel shrugged off the injury to score a hat-trick at Portsmouth in another friendly just four days later.

While hindsight sees the 1986/87 season as a watershed campaign in United’s history, the end-of-season review at the time could reflect on just a solitary win away from home all term under the management of both Atkinson and his replacement, Alex Ferguson. Yet, while that meagre return carried scant cause for bragging in the grander scheme, the fact that those three points were procured at Liverpool allowed the briefest bout of crowing. Incredibly, the Reds lost just one league game at Anfield throughout the 1980s, and Norman Whiteside sent the travelling support wild with delight once again on Boxing Day 1986 when his solitary goal secured a fourth win at Anfield in seven seasons. Moreover, it marked a significant early blow in Ferguson’s lengthy psychological battle with the era’s dominant force.

While some players have been known to abhor playing over Christmas (Denis Law openly jokes that his suspensions often led to long yuletide returns to Aberdeen), that could not be said of former Reds striker Brian McClair. Choccy scored two goals on three successive Boxing Days between 1990 and 1992, helping himself to pairs against Norwich City and Oldham Athletic in 3-0 and 6-3 wins respectively, prior to another brace at Sheffield Wednesday in 1992. The latter hauled the Reds back from a 3-0 deficit, before Eric Cantona prodded home a late equaliser to secure a comeback more befitting of Easter than Christmas.

Christmas Eve fixtures are a rarity in the club’s history. United have taken part in just one in the last 55 years, and it was hardly an affair to invoke seasonal joy as it involved a chastening defeat to fierce rivals Leeds United. Coming just a week after a similarly comprehensive loss at Anfield, Elland Road’s away end was only briefly cheered as Andy Cole levelled Gary McAllister’s early penalty, only for perennial cross-Pennines pest Brian Deane to head the hosts back ahead. Tony Yeboah struck a late clincher to leave United fans everywhere preparing for a particularly bitter turkey dinner to see off 1995.

Such was the clamour to sign Nemanja Vidic from Spartak Moscow that United clearly marked the Serbian defender as club property by announcing his agreed capture on Christmas Day, 2005. Then aged just 24, Vidic was attracting serious interest from Fiorentina and Liverpool, prompting Reds officials to speed through an agreement and spring a surprise present on supporters everywhere. Although it took him six months to settle and showcase his best form, the Serbian went on to play 300 games for the club he would ultimately captain.

Only two men have been dismissed while in action for the Reds during Boxing Day fixtures. The first was firebrand midfielder and United Review columnist Paddy Crerand, who was sent off during 1963’s crushing 6-1 defeat at Burnley. The most recent was Antonio Valencia, who amassed two bookings in 2013 at Hull City’s KC Stadium. Fortunately, the Reds were able to see out a 3-2 victory, despite closing out injury-time a man light.