Georgina Turner
Friday December 24th, 2010

The Premier League table at Christmas is generally regarded as a kind of crystal ball, channelling the end of the season to reveal the likely winners and losers. Since 2005-06, the festive leaders have gone on to lift the trophy four times out of six, while only one bottom-placed club has escaped relegation with a new-year flourish in the Premier League era. If you want to delve even further -- all the way back to 1888-89, in fact -- you'll find that 41 percent of champions have led at Christmas, while 71 percent of last-place stragglers were already dawdling behind the pack by the time Rudolph skidded to a halt on your rooftop. Sorry, Hammers.

Last season, six of the league's 20 teams ended up exactly where they'd been at the start of the holidays, including the top three. But before you rush to the betting shop, a few cautionary tales. Though teams move, on average*, only 2.5 places up or down the table after Christmas, the second half of the season can still be a game of snakes and ladders. Norwich City once slid 13 places after the festivities, while climbs of eight places are practically commonplace. Especially when the table is as bunched up as now -- in 2008-09, 12 points separated Hull City, in sixth, and West Bromwich Albion in 20th at Christmas. In the end, Hull survived relegation by one point. It hasn't happened since 1994-95, but the Tigers wouldn't have been the first team to be relegated having been in the top half.

Lead balloons

The signs were there, after Norwich City had dropped a four-point Christmas lead to finish third in 1992-93 (Manchester United, five points back in fourth place, won the title) and sunk from sixth to 12th the year after, that the Canaries lacked staying power. But few would have predicted what happened in 1994-95, when Norwich plummeted from seventh to 20th and into the second tier after losing 14 of the final 23 games and winning just two of them.

John Deehan's side had looked like credible European candidates until that point, despite the loss of forwards Chris Sutton and Efan Ekoku. It didn't help that fellow striker Mark Robins (whose goals alone had earned six points) was also gone by mid-January. Chairman Robert Chase, who had overseen the sale of most of Norwich's best players since taking over in the mid 80s, was chased out of town the following season, as the club struggled to stay away from trouble in the division below.

Reading pulled off a similar trick by losing 12 of its last 18 matches in 2007-08, slipping from a comfortable 12th place on Boxing Day to 18th by May. Middlesbrough's tumble in 1992-93 was even more slapstick: 12th place became 21st (the league was made up of 22 teams at first) thanks to 15 defeats in 18 -- it lost touch with safety weeks before the season's end. Crystal Palace, one of the original yoyo clubs, lost eight consecutive matches after New Years in the 1997-98 season, finishing bottom having celebrated Christmas in 13th. Ipswich Town was slightly luckier in 1993-94, freefalling from a festive 10th to survive relegation by the point it secured at Ewood Park on the last day.

It's not unheard of for Christmas leaders' form to take a dive -- no less illustrious clubs than Sunderland (1936-37), Liverpool (1949-50) and Manchester United (1971-72) share the record for post-Christmas drops from first to eighth. More recently, Aston Villa, habitual Easter breakdown merchant, dropped from top to sixth in 1998-99 after taking one point from 24 between January and March. New boys Dion Dublin and Paul Merson had scored 12 goals between them before Christmas but managed only four afterward.

Newcastle, meanwhile, has relinquished a Christmas lead twice in the past 15 years. It wasn't such a big deal in 2001-02 -- only six points separated the top six and the Toon climbed from fourth to the summit and back again in the space of a month. More spectacular was its 1995-96 campaign when, having led the table for 29 game-weeks (and been 10 points clear of Manchester United, in second, on Christmas Eve), Newcastle suffered three springtime defeats in four -- including the classic 4-3 madness at Anfield -- to drop to second.

Perennial pantomime villain Alex Ferguson turned up the heat by saying that Newcastle's opponents would roll over to stop Manchester United winning the title, prompting Kevin Keegan -- by then in full meltdown mode -- to unleash his now famous "I will love it" rant. But Fergie was wrong, and as Spurs held Newcastle on the last day, Manchester United beat Middlesbrough to claim its third title in four years. Keegan resigned, saying he no longer wanted to be a manager, midway through the following season.

Up, up and away

Manchester United has a habit of lulling its competitors into a false sense of security, creeping from 'in the running' positions to unassailable leads with preposterously good post-Christmas form in, most notably, 1992-93, 1996-97, and 2008-09. But Arsenal's title in 1997-98 is probably the most outstanding leap in recent memory: sixth on Boxing Day and in indifferent form (P19, W9 D6 L4), Arsene Wenger's side then went undefeated until its last two matches, by which time United was four points behind with only one game left itself.

If you go back a bit further, you'll find Derby County winning the 1974-75 title having been 10th at Christmas -- and still only ninth in February. In fact, it didn't hit the top until there were just three games left to play, such was the competitiveness of that season's race. Manager Dave Mackay had taken over amidst mutiny after Brian Clough's sacking 18 months beforehand, but soon had a team that scored for fun -- netting 10 in three days as Derby moved towards the title. Only Liverpool (1981-82) has won the title from being in the bottom half of the table -- 12th, actually -- on Boxing Day.

Even more exciting, perhaps, are the great escapes -- Wigan fans stressed by the current table will be pleased to be reminded of its scramble from 19th to the safety of 14th in 2007-08, and doubly reassured by the fact that Portsmouth (2003-04) and Middlesbrough (2000-01) managed the same.

Blackburn doesn't know when it's beaten, either: 2006-07's 10th place finish looked unlikely when Christmas dawned with Rovers 17th, a point clear of relegation and having just been beaten 6-2 by Arsenal, and in 1996-97 it climbed from 18th on Boxing Day to a 13th-placed finish, despite winning fewer than a quarter of its matches and with the kind of away form that deserves a drop down the leagues (one road win all season). Ironically, however, without away draws at Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, it would have gone down.

With Glenn Hoddle newly appointed as player-manager -- and charged with hauling the club out of mid-table mediocrity, Chelsea kicked off the 1993-94 season with a 2-1 defeat to Blackburn, and embarked on a wildly inconsistent campaign that included home and away wins over runaway champion Manchester United as well as home and away losses to relegated Oldham Athletic. Rooted in 20th at Christmas, it found form enough to finish 14th -- in the end playing a part in Sheffield United's relegation by beating it 3-2, with a last-minute winner from Mark Stein, on the final day.

It had been coming for the Blades, though. The previous season it had celebrated Christmas in 19th, hit 21st in February and was still only 19th with two games left to play -- at which point only Nottingham Forest's relegation had been confirmed; there was space for two more and both Middlesbrough and Oldham could catch Sheffield United if results went their way.

In the end, Oldham escaped on goal difference while two wins helped United into 14th and earned manager Dave Bassett the LMA Manager of the Year award. Wimbledon manager Joe Kinnear must have felt slightly aggrieved, mind: he steered the Dons to an improbable 12th place finish having been 21st at Christmas and after spending 19 weeks -- half the season! -- in the relegation places.

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