The Christmas Eve Game That Inspired The Fergie v Keegan ‘I’d Love It’ Rant

The last time Manchester United played on Christmas Eve, the game set the tone for something far from the festive spirit.

You wouldn’t be surprised, considering the location for the match was Elland Road against a Leeds United team inspired by a hostile crowd. It was one of those games where the occasion changes everything, as Leeds had endured what could be described as a torrid few weeks.

The heady days of Tony Yeboah’s goal of the season campaign in August and September seemed well and truly over by the time December rolled around. A home defeat to Manchester City was followed by a 6-2 capitulation at Sheffield Wednesday – Alex Ferguson might have thought that on paper, it was a good time to play the Yorkshire side.

They were not helped by the midday kick-off, but United were also hindrances by a few injuries in the team. Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe were missing, as was Gary Pallister, forcing Paul Parker to play in the middle of defence alongside a struggling-for-fitness Steve Bruce and in front of a recently-returned-from-injury Peter Schmeichel.

The unfamiliarity was compounded by the selection of Nicky Butt on the left wing – and when Butt conceded an eighth minute penalty, the tone for the game was set. The noise of the home crowd was only matched by the barks of Schmeichel who could be heard frequently lambasting his defenders.

Andy Cole equalised against the run of play before half-time but Yeboah broke a lean spell of form to restore his side’s lead, and Brian Deane (remember him from the first ever Premier League weekend?) made it three in the second half.

“I can’t say why I seemed to score so often (against United)!” Deane told this writer in 2015. “I just really looked forward to it. Those were big games, United were seen as the biggest team to beat and I seemed to have a knack of getting the best of Gary Pallister and Peter Schmeichel. I scored quite often against them for Sheffield United and for Middlesbrough at Old Trafford in 1998 too. Maybe I was just a bogey man!”

And Leeds a bogey team. This was the second defeat in succession at Elland Road, and The Telegraph reckoned the manager “must have felt like joining in with Peter Schmeichel’s constant chastising” whilst The Independent’s report said : “In the space of eight days, the Manchester United manager has seen his team’s title credentials look as tatty as last year’s tinsel.”

Not quite. A few days later, United defeated league leaders Newcastle and set upon clawing back a twelve point deficit. They had managed that by the time Leeds visited Old Trafford in April – on the back of increasingly worse defeats, 2-1 at Arsenal, 3-1 at home to Forest, and 4-1 at Chelsea.

It could have been five at Old Trafford – but Leeds put up another resilient display to contradict their recent form. It was even more impressive considering goalkeeper Mark Beeney was sent off early on and had to be replaced between the sticks by Lucas Radebe.

United sensed an opportunity to add to their goal difference – but with twenty minutes to go they were still trying to get three points. Roy Keane finally found the breakthrough in the 72nd minute and United had to settle for one goal.

“I just cannot understand Leeds,” Ferguson told the press afterwards. “Howard does not deserve his players to play like that tonight with the position he has been in after the last few weeks. If they played like that every week they would be in the top six. It is pathetic, because it seemed like it was only against Manchester United. No wonder managers get the sack. Howard has done a lot for that club and deserves better. Leeds play Newcastle in their next game and I would like to see the video of that one. We have watched Leeds in our last three games and I could not identify them tonight.”

Ferguson also went on television, where he continued the tone. “Why are they not in the top six?” He said. “I just don’t understand it.They’ve got good players and if they produced the effort like that, they would be top six. But of course you think for some of them it’s more important to get a result against Manchester United to stop them winning the league than anything else, which to me… they’re cheating their manager, that’s all it is. Of course, when it comes to Newcastle, you wait and see the difference. You know? It’s sad to say that but I’m very disappointed in Leeds.”

Brian Deane felt there was more to it. “Afterwards, Alex Ferguson made remarks about us letting the manager down,” he said, “obviously there was some kidology in there but at the end of the day I felt it was wrong for him to criticise us as players. It’s easy to come out with statements like that but as a professional you always give one hundred percent. We were a little bit low on confidence and perhaps not playing as well as we could but you couldn’t criticise our effort. It was probably aimed more at getting under Kevin Keegan’s skin than at us and I don’t suppose it will bother Man United fans too much, but I thought it was harsh and unprofessional.”

It was clear that Ferguson had been irked since the Christmas Eve game where Leeds had first displayed their capability to put on such a contrasting performance to their usual form when it came to Manchester United. It was a long time to plan these comments – and, given the context, it probably suited him more that Leeds had been so resilient in the second game.

In his 1999 autobiography, however, Ferguson insisted he was not looking at Newcastle, saying Leeds “appeared to draw a new determination from the opportunity to reduce Manchester United’s chances of gaining more glory” and also claiming that : “My remarks on 17 April were never meant to have anything to do with Kevin Keegan; they were aimed entirely at Howard Wilkinson’s players.”

In truth, Newcastle had never looked comfortable leaders. Keegan had talked about hoping his team could maintain the advantage. When United started clawing the lead back prior to that infamous game at St. James Park, the Newcastle manager had even said finishing second would be a great achievement.

Ferguson had a ruthless winner’s mentality. His team clinically took apart Nottingham Forest with a five goal thrashing, meaning Newcastle had a lot of pressure as they travelled to Elland Road on April 29th. They won 1-0 – Leeds making them work every minute for the victory.

The game, of course, is remembered for what happened afterwards, when Keegan donned the headphones and spoke to the Sky Sports studio.

“I think you’ve got to send Alex Ferguson a tape of this game haven’t you?” Keegan asked Andy Gary and Richard Keys. “Isn’t that what he asked for?”
Andy Gray : “Well I’m sure if he was watching it tonight Kev, he can have no arguments about the way that Leeds went about their job, they really tested your team…”

“And we’re playing Notts Forest on Thursday, and he objected to that!” Keegan responded. “Now that was fixed up four months ago.We were supposed to play Notts Forest. Now that sort of stuff, we’re bett… we’re bigger than that.”

“But that’s part and parcel of the psychological battle, Kevin…” Keys interjected.

“No!” Keegan blasted. “When you do that with footballers like he said about Leeds, and when you do things like that about a man like Stuart Pearce… I’ve kept really quiet but I’ll tell you something, he went down in my estimation when he said that.We have not resorted to that. But I’ll tell you, you can tell him now, he’ll be watching it, we’re still fighting for this title and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something. And I’ll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them. Love it. But it really has got to me. I’ve voiced it live, not in front of the press or anywhere. I’m not even going to the press conference. But the battle’s still on and Man United have not won this yet.”

Before the Newcastle team had even left Elland Road, the news of their manager’s outburst had spread around. “I overheard a conversation between two Newcastle players who I won’t name, but they seemed really surprised by what he had said,” Deane recalled. “Bemused. But, after losing, I was reflecting more on my own performance and feeling bad about not scoring.”

Newcastle subsequently went to Forest and drew – handing United an initiative they did not relinquish. They were crowned champions after winning at Middlesbrough on the final day.

Ferguson was not able to have his way in terms of results, though you might say he inspired an extra ounce of effort from Leeds on the night. However, it is without doubt the most significant result that Keegan exploded as powerfully as he did – many people agreed with him, feeling Ferguson had crossed the line, but at the end of the season the Premier League title was heading back to Manchester.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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