For Manchester United, the Christmas period has always been an intriguing time. United fans have always enjoyed the festive period, understandably as United have been involved in, and please excuse the pun, some crackers. So I picked half a dozen of those festive games from the past few decades that I hope you will agree, are six of the best.
Manchester United 4 – 0 Wolves. 26th December 1967.
As the 1960’s drew to a close Manchester United could look back on the 1960’s with a strong sense of satisfaction. United as a whole, the club and its fans, still bore the scars both physically and mentally, of the Munich air disaster of 1958. As a new decade loomed however, guided by the late great Sir Matt Busby, the Old Trafford club had risen from its darkest hour in impeccable style. The 60’s saw United lift two First Division titles and two FA Cup’s, complimented by a couple of Charity Shields. Sir Matt’s rebuilding of the team culminated on that Wednesday night at Wembley stadium in 1968 when United lifted the European Cup with victory over Benfica of Portugal.
United began this particular season as First Division champions, however this season wasn’t destined to be a back to back as United only managed to finish as runners up. However on the way they served up some sumptuous football for the United faithful. There was a 2 – 1 win at Maine Road, both goals coming from Sir Bobby Charlton. Following that, there was a 1 – 0 win at Arsenal and a 2 – 0 home win over Liverpool with George Best getting himself a brace. On the Boxing Day of 1967 Wolverhampton Wanderers rolled into town, ready to do battle with Busby’s champions. An Old Trafford crowd of over 63,000 saw United put Wolves to the sword without breaking sweat. Goals from Sir Bobby and Brian Kidd with the Belfast Boy getting a couple saw United brush past Wolves with ease. Interestingly, United would face Wolves the very next game in the league at Molineux, and again would be picking up the three points from a 2 – 3 victory.
Derby County 4 – 4 Manchester United. 26th December 1970.
In 1969 Sir Matt Busby stood down as team manager, to be replaced by the only Mancunian to have managed Manchester United, Wilf McGuinness. The tail end of the 60’s and the early 70’s were to be quite a turbulent time for United, United legends would leave the club and new players would come in. United ended the 1969 – 70 season in 8th place, two points behind Newcastle. The new season started a few months later and when Christmas 1970 arrived, the Red Devils had only mustered four wins with eight draws and nine losses, on the pitch the club was on a bit of a downward spiral. On the 26th of December of that season, United’s team bus pulled up outside the Baseball Ground, eager to take on Brian Clough’s Derby County. The match was played in front of just over 34,000 fans, the pitch covered in a thin blanket of snow. United took to the pitch with a team consisting of Jimmy Rimmer, Tony Dunne, John Fitzpatrick, Paddy Crerand, Ian Ure, David Sadler, Bobby Charlton, George Best, Willie Morgan, Brian Kidd and Denis Law.
The game was only moments old when Dave Mackay put Derby ahead from a free kick just outside Rimmer’s eighteen yard box. Derby were beginning to impose themselves on the slippery surface. Not long after, after a goal mouth scramble, Frank Wignall put Derby two ahead with a shot only yards out. United got themselves back into the game with a fantastic headed goal from the King himself, Denis Law, who skillfully nodded in from Willie Morgan’s cross. George Best put United on level terms, following a Bobby Charlton corner. The game was quickly turning into something of a classic, it was end to end stuff on the snowy surface of the Baseball Ground.
United were to find the Derby net again after another Charlton corner, once again Law would head the ball in to give United the lead. United had scored three goals in less than five minutes, Derby didn’t really know what had hit them. Derby pulled themselves together and about halfway through the second half after a good run and pass from Archie Gemmill, Kevin Hector equalized for the rams to make it 3 – 3.
Reinvigorated, the Rams pressed forward, Archie Gemmill looking ever dangerous and indeed, it was Gemmill himself who put Derby ahead after a trade mark dash down the right. However, United were not to be denied. United’s 4th came not surprisingly from a Bobby Charlton corner, young Brian Kidd was there in the box to head the ball in to make it 4 – 4. The fans had most certainly been entertained that afternoon.
Everton 2 – 6 Manchester United. 26th December 1977.
The Manchester United of 1977 was a mix of experience and youthful flamboyance. After the stormy days of the early 70’s which concluded with relegation to the old Second Division and a quick return to the First, Tommy Docherty’s United were an exciting team to watch with the emphasis firmly on attack. Docherty’s players had quickly become fast favourites with the red army. Macari, Hill, Pearson, Coppell and the Greenhoff brothers Brian and Jimmy to name only a few, were the darlings of the Old Trafford crowd. United had lifted the FA Cup earlier in the year with a 2 – 1 win over arch rivals Liverpool, a win that stopped Liverpool winning the treble. Not long after that Wembley win, Tommy Docherty had been sacked as United manager.
Lightning would strike as Dave Sexton replaced Docherty at United, as he had done a decade earlier when he replaced Docherty as Chelsea team manager. Sexton’s United had a more conservative look about them than the United under Docherty.
Sexton’s reign at Old Trafford wasn’t a particular happy one for United fans. What really angered the fans was Gordon Hill’s exit out of United, the high scoring and likeable Londoner went on to rejoin Docherty at Derby County. United arrived at Goodison Park to face Gordon Lee’s Everton after two straight defeats, at West Ham and a 0 – 4 thrashing at home to First Division newcomers, Nottingham Forest.
Everton were flying high in the First Division in 2nd place, United wee languishing in 14th place. So as the referee blew for the start of the game at Goodison, few United fans were expecting to come away with the two points and fewer people thought they were about to witness an eight goal thriller. Despite the recent poor form, United started the game in positive mood having three forwards on the pitch in Louis Macari, Jimmy Greenhoff and a young Andy Ritchie who was making his senior debut for United that day. When the ref blew for full time, United had put six goals past Everton’s George Wood, Everton would only score two in reply. United’s goals came from Sammy McIlroy, Steve Coppell, Jimmy Greenhoff and Lou Macari got himself a brace. Everton would go on to qualify for European football, United would finish in 10th place and would not qualify for Europe.
Liverpool 0 – 1 Manchester United. 26th December 1986.
Every and any victory over Liverpool is a sweet one, I don’t think I need to tell you that. Sir Alex Ferguson had only been in the job for a couple of months or so, and United were still looking for their first away win of the season. Liverpool were going for the title, United under Fergie were still finding their feet with the new regime. There has always been particularly strong animosity between the fans of the two clubs, and the 80’s saw its fair share of fighting between United and Liverpool fans, on one occasion the United team bus was subjected to being pelted with rocks and stones by Liverpool fans. This lead Bob Paisley of all people to travel on the United bus as it made its way to Anfield. With United looking for its first away win of that season, Fergie decided to play Bryan Robson in defence alongside Kevin Moran. It paid off, those two United stalwarts provided a brick wall of a defence denying the likes of Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush.
On that Boxing Day of 1986 United arrived at Liverpool, still unbeaten at Anfield during that decade. United took to the Anfield pitch with a side of Gary Walsh, John Sivebæk, Colin Gibson, Norman Whiteside, Kevin Moran, Mick Duxbury, Bryan Robson, Gordon Strachan, Frank Stapleton, Peter Davenport and Jesper Olson. They would make their way back to Manchester still unbeaten. The Liverpool of the 1980’s had a reputation of a very good passing side, however their passing game that day was nonexistent, United dominated the first half. As you’d expect with these two clubs, the spirit of togetherness that both clubs tried to conjure following trouble between the two sets of fans went out of the window once the game began. There were yellow cards all over the place, oddly enough both teams managed to end the first half with all eleven players still on the pitch. United were bossing the game, however Liverpool did have their moments around the United goal but with Moran and Robson in defence, that’s all they would have. In the 78th minute Big Norman sent the travelling United fans into ecstasy when the young Irishman sent a shot past the despairing Bruce Grobbelaar. The Christmas of 1986 was particularly sweet for United fans.
Manchester United 2 – 1 Everton. 28th December 1987.
As the 1980’s were drawing to a close, United were in a major phase of transition. Alex Ferguson was planting the seeds for a long era of silverware and trophies, but as 1988 was drawing near, United fans were supporting a mid-table club, still the best supported team in the land, still the most sought after team around, but they were still very much a long way from challenging for the big prizes. Everton on the other hand were one of the best teams in the old First Division, if not the best. Colin Harvey’s team had built themselves a reputation for organisation and passing ability. Two days earlier, United had come back from Newcastle with a 1 – 0 defeat, the last thing Fergie’s evolving side needed was a meeting with probably the best side in the country.
The United team on that day was Chris Turner in goal, Viv Anderson, Colin Gibson, Steve Bruce, Kevin Moran, Mick Duxbury, Gordon Strachan, Captain Bryan Robson, Brian McClair, Norman Whiteside and the mercurial Jesper Olson, on the subs bench was Peter Davenport and Remi Moses. A crowd of just over 47,000 witnessed a hard fought first half, both teams having their chances but when the ref blew for half time it was still goalless. Whiteside’s game came to a close at the end of the first half as he was subbed for Remi Moses. The second half took off where the first half had finished, it was a physical game, as this fixture always has been. However, it was turning into a chess game to be honest, this was game in which both teams new each other extremely well. However, with about 5 minutes into the second half United broke the deadlock with a goal by Brian McClair, about twenty minutes later McClair scored once again to make it 2 – 0 to United. A few minutes later Dave Watson pulled one back for the Evertonians. Happily for United fans that’s how it finished, they would finish 1987 with a smile although Ferguson’s hard work would continue for some time to come.
Manchester United 2 – 0 Nottingham Forest. 26th December 1988.
Although Manchester United was very much a work in progress for Alex Ferguson, they had actually finished the previous season as runners up to Liverpool, sadly though United would not be playing European football as the ban on English clubs was still in effect following the Heysel disaster. New purchases were paying off for United, particularly Brian McClair who finished the previous season as top goal scorer with 31 goals in all competitions. Manchester United started the 1988/89 season quite poorly, a very disappointing start taking into account United’s impressive finish the season before. United’s first few months of the season was nothing to write home about as it included a nine match run of games without a win, however they gradually turned this poor start around. Before a disappointing finish to the season in which they ended up in 11th place, they had actually risen to third in the league.
United went into the game against Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in 10th place in the First Division. United’s previous league game before the Forest meeting was at Arsenal’s Highbury stadium, the Gunners running out 2 – 1 winners, so it was down to Bryan Robson to make sure the Christmas of 1988 was a good one for United fans.
Robson lead the United out, in goal was Jim Leighton followed by Lee Martin, Lee Sharpe, Steve Bruce, Russell Beardsmore, Mal Donaghy, Gordon Strachan, Brian McClair, Mark Hughes and Ralph Milne. Ralph Milne was a player often given unfair criticism by fans, he was a much better player that many gave him credit for being, and it was Milne who opened the scoring for United on that Boxing Day Monday.
It was free flowing game, Forest had some good players, and they weren’t a team to be taken lightly. United went in at half time 1 – 0 up. About thirteen minutes into the second half and United legend Mark Hughes made it 2 – 0 to the Red Devils. The holiday period would continue with smiles when United beat Liverpool 3 – 1 at Old Trafford, with goals courtesy of Russell Beardsmore, Mark Hughes and Brian McClair. Mark Hughes had returned to United from European exile, an excellent piece of business by Alex Ferguson as Hughes would go on to score some vitally important goals for Manchester United in the coming years.
Written by Richard Fenton. Follow him on Twitter.