There’s a story around Arsenal that, when one of the old foreign players was first told of the demanding Christmas fixture list, he genuinely thought it was a wind-up.
Not wanting to get himself into another situation like cursing on TV because his team-mates had informed him it was a polite greeting, the player was going to stay at home rather than head in for a late December training session. He eventually had to be told that, no, this is serious.
As Lee Dixon says, the players from abroad “couldn’t quite understand it”.
To be fair, there are a few from these islands that don’t either. Last season, Brendan Rodgers spent a press conference bemoaning a frankly illogical schedule that, on average, sees sides play four games in 12 days.
“The people who put fixtures together do not have a clue about physical conditioning,” Rodgers said.
“If you look from a professional perspective, players have peaks themselves and they have not recovered from the exertions of the previous game.
“If we are having a normal recovery period from a game on a Saturday, the Sunday would be the first day of recovery and then the players really feel the effects on the Monday. They don’t properly come back up to speed until the Tuesday because of the tempo of the modern game.”
At the very least, that modern game has still seen some Christmas traditions change. Back in the 1955-56 season, Manchester United hosted Charlton Athletic at Old Trafford and beat them 5-1... only for both teams to get the same train down to London that night. The next day, Charlton got immediate revenge by winning 3-0.
Similarly, it was only four years later, in 1959, that the last First Division fixture was played on Christmas Day itself, when Blackburn Rovers beat Blackpool 1-0.
The festivities of the 25th have still had some effect on the fixtures since then, though, as it was St Stephen’s Day 1963 which produced the most prolific afternoon of scoring in English top-division history.
Ten fixtures saw 66 goals; with Burnley beating Manchester United 6-1, Blackburn winning 8-2 at West Ham United and Fulham utterly destroying Ipswich Town 10-1.
Undoubtedly, the chaos of the Christmas calendar is a quintessentially British football tradition.
Here’s the interesting thing, though: it isn’t completely chaotic or illogical. In fact, the general pattern of results across the period actually collates quite well to how the final table ends up.
Consider this: in 22 close races between two clubs over the past 15 years — for example, two sides locked in a title race or battling each other to avoid relegation — 16 have been won by the team that had the better record over the Christmas period.
Only last season, for example, City claimed seven points from 12, United just six. That ended up proving important.
The season before, Wolves accumulated six while the teams around them faltered, and ultimately stayed up.
Even back in that 1955-56 campaign, the double with Charlton provided United’s only defeat of the period.
The Busby Babes still beat West Brom 4-1 on Christmas Eve and crosstown rivals Manchester City 2-1 on New Year’s Eve, illustrating the kind of consistency and ability to bounce back from defeats that took them to the title that season. And this, really, is the point.
Although most domestic associations justifiably can’t see the logic in such Christmas programmes, the set of fixtures does almost represent a mini-league in itself. Over a physically demanding period of time, a squad’s limits are pushed as they must rotate players and still keep rhythm, while also proving they are capable of quickly recovering from setbacks.
As Gary Neville said on Monday, most players will generally only appear in between two and three of the four games. As such, those squads with deeper quality or less dependency on single players will prove much more capable of dealing with the demands — of both the Christmas fixtures and the entire season.
Interestingly, other than the 1996-97 campaign when Manchester United claimed 10 points from 12, the period rarely sees the complexion of a race completely change. In the Premier League era, for example, the lead has not swung definitively or decisively either way over Christmas. Instead, teams tend to develop a sense of momentum from the fixtures.
More often, despite the apparent irrationality of the period, it provides a good indicator of the level of a team.
Only one side in the Premier League era, after all, have come out of Christmas with a 100% record from all four fixtures: Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2004-05 and 2005-06. That, certainly, is not hard to understand.
Come out of seasonal festivities well, and you’re likely to come out of the season well.
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