Accompanied by ghosts of past and present

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The Independent Online
It would be understandable, if unseasonally negative, were English football to embark upon the annual slog of four games in nine days dubiously referred to as the" holiday" programme in less than festive frame of mind.

The build-up to Christmas has been accompanied by one scandal - allegedly, as they say on Have I Got News For You - after another. Bribery, "bungs'' and cocaine have all got up the nose of the domestic game, making corruption appear as endemic as in Italian politics. The only missing element has been sex, though Justin Fashanu and Frank Worthington were arguably ahead of the game on that one.

The name Fashanu serves as a reminder, for those fearful that football is about to be plunged back into the abyss created by Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough, that there is nothing new about controversy at Christmas. A year ago today, the actions of Justin's brother, John, were under review by an Football Association commission following the challenge which left Gary Mabbutt with four fractures of a cheekbone and three of an eye socket. Lancaster Gate, in its wisdom, decided not to charge "Fash the Bash" on the grounds there had not been "sufficient intent" to cause injury. At the same time, the FA was dithering over England's invitation to play in Germany on Hitler's birthday. Meanwhile in Wales, which has its own crisis right now, a mass brawl between Cardiff and Swansea fans delayed the pre-Christmas derby. There's nothing like dropping in on the neighbours over the holiday.

None of which evidently dimmed enthusiasm, except perhaps Mabbutt's, for the Yuletide war of attrition. Crowds were the season's highest in innumerable cases, a particularly healthy development considering that the destination of the Premiership title looked a foregone conclusion. Manchester United were 12 points clear going into Boxing Day, their nearest challengers being Leeds, yet the afternoon's events arguably prevented the race from becoming a procession.

United received Blackburn Rovers, lurking a distant third with games in hand, and were within two minutes of defeat when they forced a corner. Peter Schmeichel left his goal, unsettled the defence with his aerial presence, and Paul Ince equalised. But Kenny Dalglish's team responded better to the outcome - if they could run United so close in one match, why not in the League? - and embarked on a surge of seven consecutive wins.

Blackburn's reaction to United's eventual triumph has been equally positive. Entering the final week of the year, they hold a two-point advantage over the champions though with possibly the tougher schedule. Beginning with Manchester City on Boxing Day, they then face Leeds at home 48 hours later, followed by New Year's Eve at the Palace (the Crystal variety) and a homecoming against West Ham.

United's itinerary provides a potentially problematic start, away to Chelsea, who did the double over them last season, but then takes in Leicester (h) and Southampton (a) as well as a day's more rest than Blackburn before Coventry become Old Trafford's first visitors of 1995.

Not that it is necessarily a two-horse race. The beauty of the Christmas programme (which may be lost on the participants as they report for Christmas Day training or wile away the hours in a hotel) is that it offers teams a chance to develop a momentum which can transform their fortunes. Chelsea went into the equivalent stage 12 months ago without a win in 13 matches.

They amassed nine points in a six-day spell, Mark Stein finally coming good by scoring in all three victories, and went on to contest the FA Cup final. A similarly good run this time would propel Newcastle, Nottingham Forest or Liverpool back into contention. Even Leeds, by virtue of confronting Newcastle, Blackburn and Liverpool in rapid succession, could kickstart their staccato season.

At the other end of the spectrum the festive period is a godsend, temporarily alleviating cash-flow problems. Take the perennial paupers of Hartlepool, who stage attractive games against the Third Division leaders, Carlisle, and eighth-placed Fulham. Barely 24 hours after the first game, however, they will be stepping out at Torquay, a round trip of some 880 miles.

The fixture computer, which in recent years seemed to have been programmed with a bah-humbug factor, has otherwise been a little more sensitive, although Sunderland, and especially their substantial away following, are entitled to be miffed about trekking to Luton on Tuesday, immediately after hosting Bolton.

Nor do clubs want to waste their best derby on a time of year when they have no problem pulling in punters. Port Vale, for instance, would have expected a full house against Stoke City whenever the game was played (it is now set for 3 January). While sc andal would be too strong a word, a modicum of common sense would not have gone amiss. But then, as everyone knows, there is no sanity clause.

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