Kevin Keegan was an even more popular figure than Santa Claus on Tyneside in late 1995. His Newcastle team had moved eight points clear at the summit of the standings following a 3-1 victory over Nottingham Forest on December 23, with closest challengers Manchester United proceeding to slip up against Leeds United on Christmas Eve.
The Magpies were averaging more than two goals per game at this stage of the season and had duly been dubbed the ‘Great Entertainers’, while it is interesting to note that they had also conceded six fewer goals than Alex Ferguson’s men after 19 matches. United ran out 2-0 winners against the table-toppers on December 27 but Newcastle responded with five wins on the bounce, while United were thumped 4-1 by Tottenham Hotspur on New Year’s Day.
From late February onwards, however, Keegan’s side collapsed. Five defeats in eight games – including a 1-0 reverse at home to United and that famous 4-3 loss at Liverpool – suddenly handed the Red Devils the initiative. Newcastle gave themselves a chance with consecutive 1-0 triumphs over Aston Villa, Southampton and Leeds, but United went to Middlesbrough and got something to finish four points clear at the top.
Liverpool may have only held a three-point advantage over second-placed Arsenal following a 1-1 with Leicester City on Boxing Day, but their post-Christmas collapse was arguably even more dramatic than Newcastle’s the previous season.
Roy Evans’ side, which featured the likes of Robbie Fowler, Stan Collymore, Steve McManaman and John Barnes, had been beaten by Manchester United, Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield Wednesday in the first half of the campaign, but a return of 39 points from a possible 60 meant it was they who led the way after 20 games.
The Reds’ next 18 matches yielded just 26 points, however, as losses to Chelsea, Aston Villa, Coventry City, Manchester United and Wimbledon sent them tumbling down the table. Liverpool ultimately ended the season in fourth, seven points adrift of champions United – and just as close to Villa in fifth.
Manchester United 2003/04
The 2003/04 campaign is now remembered for the Invincibles’ historic achievement, but it was Manchester United rather than Arsenal who occupied first place after the Boxing Day games. Alex Ferguson’s men had lost three of their first 18 matches in the Premier League but had only a single draw to their name; Arsenal, conversely, were undefeated but had dropped points in meetings with Portsmouth, United, Charlton Athletic, Fulham, Leicester and Bolton Wanderers.
Arsene Wenger’s charges went on a magnificent run in the first three months of 2004, though: they began the new year with another stalemate, this time against Everton, before winning nine games on the bounce until United’s trip to Highbury in late March. The Red Devils escaped north London with a point thanks to Louis Saha’s late leveller, but a failure to beat Newcastle, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Middlesbrough, Leeds, Fulham and Manchester City in preceding weeks meant they now needed a miracle to claim another championship crown.
It was not forthcoming. United won only two of their last six matches and slumped to a third-place finish, 15 points behind deserved champions Arsenal.