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EFL Nostalgia: The Boxing Day Steel City Derby

It's 40 years since the Sheffield derby took place on Boxing Day, in front of one of League One's biggest-ever crowds.

24 December 2019

Sheffield’s big two Clubs are buoyant as this decade ends but there will doubtless be nostalgia in the Steel City this Boxing Day on the 40th anniversary of an extraordinary derby between the teams.

Wednesday and United were scrapping to get out of what was then the Third Division as the 1970s drew to a close, and the 49,309 crowd that watched their meeting at Hillsborough remains the biggest at that level for more than 70 years. 

Wednesday sit third in the Sky Bet Championship at present and if their fans’ enjoyment at their lofty position is tempered by the fact that their city rivals occupy a remarkable fifth place in the Premier League then they will recall the so-called 'Boxing Day Massacre' of 1979 with particular relish.

United topped the table but suffered a crushing 4-0 defeat, which is still the joint-biggest loss for either side in the fixture.  

The feverish anticipation of this match was understandable, given that the teams had not met for nearly nine years, which was – leaving aside the Second World War – by far the longest wait for a Sheffield derby since they first faced each other in the league in 1893.

The curiosity of the fixture occurring in the third division added to the sense of occasion: the Nottingham and Bristol derbies, along with Southampton-Portsmouth, had all taken place in the third tier but this meeting of two former champions was surely the biggest fixture held at this level.

The match kicked off at 11am and the teams walked out on to the pitch together rather than running out separately, as was the norm. Wednesday, managed by Jack Charlton, began the day sixth in the table but bridged the gap to the leaders with a fine display.

They led 1-0 at half time through Ian Mellor’s long-range shot and had good fortune when United’s Mick Speight was carried after taking a kick to the chest.

Wednesday winger Terry Curran then took centre stage, heading home from Andy McCulloch’s cross, teeing up Jeff King for the third and drawing a foul from United goalkeeper Derek Richardson that earned a penalty converted by Mark Smith.

Nostalgia for this famous match has been intensified because the Clubs have yet to meet again on Boxing Day, one of the biggest days on the football calendar. Indeed, nowadays the biggest derbies are rarely played on that date, as this chart shows.


Last time derby played on Boxing Day

  • Arsenal-Tottenham Hotspur: 1983
  • Norwich City-Ipswich Town: 1980. 
  • Sheffield Wednesday-Sheffield United: 1979
  • Southampton-Portsmouth: 1974
  • Nottingham Forest-Notts County: 1973
  • Newcastle United-Sunderland: 1967
  • Aston Villa-Birmingham City: 1901
  • Manchester United-Manchester City: 1898
  • Liverpool-Everton: never
  • Bristol City-Bristol Rovers: never

The 4-0 scoreline was a sign of things to come. Wednesday, who had already shown their pedigree in the third tier the previous season by taking eventual winners Arsenal to an FA Cup replay in the third round, went on to gain promotion and climbed to the top flight in 1984. United, by contrast, declined dramatically to finish 12th and were relegated a year later.

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