It might have been Christmas Eve but it was Leeds United v Manchester United. What more in football terms could 40,000 fans packed into Elland Road want for Christmas? Phil Hay reports.
Christmas Eve football would catch on at Elland Road if every year was like 1995. On that day two decades ago, Leeds United’s defeat of Manchester United was the only show in town.
“Neither club has had much pre-Christmas cheer,” said Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler as Tomas Brolin and Tony Yeboah kicked the game off. What followed was so good that Gary Edwards, Leeds fan and author, went home and wrapped up a recording of the fixture in time for Christmas Day. Sitting under his tree, the gift tag read ‘To Gary, Merry Christmas, hugs and kisses, love Gary’.
Howard Wilkinson would have been forgiven for doing the same. Tyler’s comments about the clubs’ respective form was right.
Eight days earlier, Leeds had been thrashed 6-2 at Sheffield Wednesday. Wilkinson attacked a “suicidal” effort and dropped goalkeeper John Lukic for the visit of Manchester United.
The mood at Old Trafford was similarly tense after four matches without a win.
A game on Christmas Eve – scheduled by Sky for a ‘Super Sunday’ afternoon – was a rarity. Brian Deane, who scored the third goal in a 3-1 win, was accustomed to spending December 24 buying last-minute presents.
Mark Beeney, who replaced Lukic in goal, had a bad habit of finding himself in hospital over the festive period. Compared to their usual experiences, 1995 was a treat. For a club who loved to turn Manchester United over, it felt better than that.
The date was less significant for Wilkinson’s players than it was for the public but however inconvenient the schedule was, Elland Road was at capacity with an attendance close to 40,000.
“Leeds-Manchester United was a guaranteed sell-out,” Beeney says. “It would have sold out on Christmas Day.
“You always got a big atmosphere at Elland Road but those games were different – fierce and bitter, blood and thunder. The result must have given the city a great Christmas but as a player you lose track of dates.
“Playing on Christmas Eve was unusual but my wife was used to me having games all over the place.
“More than anything I think she was happy that I came home for Christmas Day rather than going to hospital. That’s how it seemed to go for me at Christmas.
“One year when I was at Maidstone, I dislocated a finger in training on the 25th. I spent four hours in A&E before a consultant pushed it back in. Then the next day I played against Gillingham. So ’95 would have been one of my best Christmases, by a long way.”
Deane remembers the win over Manchester United as ‘one of those brilliant days’; a day when ‘even Tomas Brolin played well’.
“They were going for the title that year and they won it in the end but you could tell before kick-off that they were a bit tentative, a bit vulnerable,” Deane says. “Only they could tell you why that was but their form wasn’t great and the crowd was loud and hostile, the way you want Elland Road to be if you’re a Leeds player.
“It was a bit of a cauldron and we reacted better. Some people said it was a surprising result, a shock if you like, but it didn’t feel like one to me. I could tell from the start that we had a big opportunity.”
Sir Alex Ferguson’s team ran into trouble in the seventh minute when Nicky Butt conceded a penalty after Richard Jobson headed a corner into Peter Schmeichel’s box.
Butt’s left hand took the ball away from David Wetherall and referee Dermot Gallagher was perfectly placed to make a decision. McAllister took the penalty and cracked it into the top corner of Schmeichel’s net.
A goal up so early on, Beeney’s impromptu appearance in goal suddenly felt like less of an ordeal.
“I’d played quite a few games the season before that one but I’d been behind John (Lukic) for a few months,” he says. “In the 1995-96 season we traded places. He’d get a run and I’d get a run. If truth be told, from that point onwards it wasn’t until the club signed Nigel Martyn that they found an established number one.
“Manchester United were one of the top teams in the Premiership. You were always ready for a busy afternoon. But we had a few weapons up our sleeve – some good players and a certain striker by the name of Tony Yeboah. He was and he still is the most natural finisher I’ve ever seen. He’s the sort of guy who makes you think ‘I’m pleased he’s not playing for them’.”
Beeney was beaten on the half-hour by Andy Cole after Gary Speed lost possession to Butt inside United’s area.
“It’s been a straightforward return for Mark Beeney up to to this point,” said Tyler moments earlier, tempting fate. Cole’s low finish levelled the game at 1-1 and set the scene for a piece of magic from Yeboah six minutes later.
The powerful Ghanaian was first to react when Paul Parker lost his footing on halfway, spilling the knockdown from a Gary Kelly clearance. Yeboah left Parker behind him, turned Denis Irwin inside out and chipped the ball home from 12 yards out as Irwin slid in and Schmeichel tried to spread himself.
“When I watch that goal, the thing I always notice is how quickly Tony gets onto the chance,” Deane says. “There’s this split second where Paul Parker slips and everything seems to pause, and then straight away you’ve got Tony at full throttle and their defence is panicking.
“Tony had it all. He was great at one-v-ones and the way he let Schmeichel commit himself before chipping the ball over him was brilliant. If he wasn’t going to beat you with power, he’d force the goalie to make the first move. He’d be worth a fortune these days.”
Deane had his moment too, a 73rd-minute header which Schmeichel couldn’t reach and which killed the game. Eric Cantona – public enemy at Elland Road – was off the field at the time, receiving stitches in a head wound, and Ferguson looked on anxiously.
“The problem for him is the clock,” said Tyler but within seconds, Brolin exchanged passes with Carlton Palmer and dinked a beautiful cross onto Deane’s head. The striker’s finish gave Schmeichel no chance.
“I know Brolin gets a lot of stick,” Deane says. “His time at Leeds was a low point in his career, but that was a little piece of class from him.
“He did the work. I only needed to stick it in.
“At 3-1 up it was all over. I’d been confident all game and we were right on form that day. I don’t know if the schedule was difficult for them but it wasn’t difficult for us. The only worry for me was that I used to do all my shopping on Christmas Eve!”
As Gary McAllister said at full-time: “To get motivated for this game isn’t a problem. It takes care of itself.”