Arsenal/Villa: Classic clash for the seasons

More than anything, these are two of the greatest clubs in England, institutions with great reputations, winners of Championships and Cups, in England and Europe, that have created a tapestry of great football matches. And several of them have been festive occasions, games played over Christmas – very often on Boxing Day – that have stuck in the memory.

The fact that the two clubs are now sitting third and fourth in the Premier League, separated only by goal difference, merely adds to the savour and competitive edge. But it has nearly always been that way.

Indeed, in the first season that Arsenal and Villa met in league competition, in 1904/05, the first game was played at the ‘Manor Ground’ on October 8. Woolwich Arsenal, as it then was, ran out winner by a lone goal, a signature result that was full of foreboding. Two months later, the return in Birmingham, at Villa Park, was played on Boxing Day and ended with the home team triumphing 3-1. It was the first of many such Yuletide specials.

The most famous of these was the one played at Villa Park almost 31 years later, on December 14, 1935, when that phenomenal goal machine, Ted Drake, scored all seven goals in a 7-1 victory for the rampant Gunners that afternoon. The high scoring was not untypical of the times. Goals flowed in the 1930s in this fixture (in 1930/31, Arsenal won 5-2 at home and then lost 1-5 away, while in 1932/33, Villa won 5-3 at home and then lost 0-5 at Highbury).

After a 3-0 defeat at Villa Park on Boxing Day, 1957, there were few more Arsenal/Villa Christmas specials until more modern days. Villa won 1-0 at home on December 28, 1992, but the Boxing Day clash in 1994 was a goalless stalemate – a sign of the more defensive times. The results of the last decade or more point to Villa’s steady revival under the astute management of Martin O’Neill, who took over in August 2006.

On April Fools’ Day, just a few months earlier in the previous season, Arsenal had beaten a Villa team managed by David O’Leary 5-0, the teams having drawn 0-0 at Villa Park on New Year’s Eve. It was a damaging result for O’Leary, but a warning and a marker to O’Neill who, in his three successive visits to Arsenal since, had led Aston Villa to two draws and a victory (2-0 last season).

This means that Villa is unbeaten at the Emirates Stadium in the Premier League – a brief run of resilience that followed eight seasons of emphatic defeats at Highbury – and will arrive at Ashburton Grove on Sunday hoping to extend that record. Last season, on Boxing Day, the teams drew 2-2 at Villa Park.

So, what does all of this tell us? More than anything, it stirs respect for both clubs’ achievements, their longevity at the highest level and their well-established individual way of doing things. Just as there is an Arsenal way, so too there is an Aston Villa way.

It is another reason, too, why Frank McLintock is a special guest at the game as he celebrates his 70th birthday. The Scot, who led Arsenal to the league and Cup double in 1971, is a great traditionalist with huge respect for the game’s history – and a lover of the modern Arsenal style of play under Arsene Wenger.

He will relish the history of the fixture against Villa as much as its modern competitive value and the prospect of seeing two of the most entertaining and enterprising teams in the country locking horns again for the 178th time overall.

Yes, it is about three points on the day and the tussle for the English League title, but sometimes it is about more than just that: it is a part of the fabric of football history and therefore an occasion to enjoy with the same seasonal delight as Christmas.

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