Football: Few turkeys in the rush for seasonal cheer

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The Independent Online
PREMIERSHIP OFFICIALS will keep an interested eye on attendances at this weekend's 10 matches, but do not believe there will be any dramatic decline, as there was for last week's FA Cup ties. Christmas shopping, however, may prove an attractive option for supporters of such clubs as Aston Villa, Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Watford and Wimbledon.

On what is traditionally the worst weekend of the season for crowds at all levels of the game, a better comparison might be with a year ago, when six of the 10 matches attracted full houses and the only real sufferers were Coventry and Liverpool, who lost 4,000 spectators each.

Mike Lee, the Premier League's spokesman, said yesterday: "The Christmas fixture list is a great tradition in English football, and attendances can be slightly hit by Christmas shopping, but often rise over Christmas and the New Year period itself."

As football's balloon has continued to expand over the past decade - fuelled by much hot air - Premiership attendances have increased every year since the competition was set up. This season they are fractionally down, with the benefits of Sunderland's 40,000 regulars moving up from the Nationwide League outweighed by big drops at Villa (almost 7,000 per match) and Sheffield Wednesday (2,700).

The latter clubs come face to face today at Villa Park, where crowd congestion is not expected to be a problem; failure to win a league game since 18 September and a sense of deflation after losing on penalties at West Ham in midweek will probably count for at least as much as the prospect of some points at last.

Liverpool and Coventry also meet each other, with the home club hoping that, in contrast to a year ago, their form - six victories in seven games - will prove sufficient counter-attraction to shopping at St John's or Birkenhead market.

London's three weekend fixtures are enticing enough to draw capacity crowds, with Leeds, Manchester United and Arsenal all aiming to ensure that they can sit down to Christmas dinner as league leaders. With Leeds not playing at Chelsea until tomorrow, United will be on top for Sunday breakfast at least, if they win at West Ham in a fixture in which passions normally burn bright. It was at Upton Park, where Sir Alex Ferguson's side effectively lost the championships of 1992 and 1995, that he famously accused the home team of trying "obscenely" hard.

The presence of Paul Ince in the visiting team always fired up the West Ham crowd. These days the target is David Beckham, who last season had the misfortune to play there in his first away game since being sent off against Argentina; this time the locals will presumably be holding up 50mph speed limit signs. But Ferguson will doubtless be the first to point out that his players have had the unfair advantage of a 10-day rest while their opponents have been labouring through two demanding cup ties.

If United do not win, Arsenal can top the table by beating Wimbledon, who on their last two trips to Highbury have lost 5-0 and 5-1. As a good Marxist, Egil Olsen knows that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, and against a team who have scored 21 times in seven games, he might have feared a repeat, but the injuries, suspensions and now influenza afflicting Arsene Wenger's squad should level things up a little, with as many as eight internationals unavailable. "I have no idea at the moment what the team will be," Wenger said yesterday.

Having seen the worst that their rivals can do, Leeds will go out at Chelsea tomorrow afternoon for another fixture redolent of past battles like the 1970 FA Cup final; if Peter Osgood, now a match-day host at Stamford Bridge, bumps into Norman Hunter, a local radio summariser, they may shake throats rather than hands just for old times' sake. Jason Wilcox, signed from Blackburn yesterday to reinforce the Leeds midfield, could be thrown straight into the fray.

Sunderland ought to pull in another big crowd against Southampton, for whom centre-half Dean Richards is clearly the man to keep an eye on: nobody else has scored for the Saints since October. East Midlands rivalry and an early Christmas present for each set of suppporters should also keep the turnstiles clicking at Filbert Street, where Leicester's Darren Eadie and Derby's Belgian striker Branko Strupka are due to be unwrapped at some stage.

Bradford City and Watford are desperate for some festive cheer in home games against Newcastle and Everton respectively. For Tottenham, renewing auld acquaintance with Paul Gascoigne will have to be done off the pitch, as he will not be on it for Middlesbrough. Having barracked Bryan Robson at the last home Premiership game, then suffered cup defeats at Wrexham and Tranmere, some home supporters may vote with their feet today.

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