Saturday, December 05, 2009

SPAOTP's Advent Calendar: Day 5

Christmas is less than three weeks away and thoughts no doubt will be turning to the 25th, a day when many of us will relish the chance to loosen our belts, stuff our digestive systems with the richest foods we can lay our hands on and watch the sort of TV that none of us in our right minds would normally tolerate at any other time of the year.

In short, it's a time to relax – even for football players up and down the UK. It wasn't always like that, though, as our Advent Calendar tale will show.

Right up until 1957, there was a full programme of matches played on Christmas Day, and very often they produced some of the biggest attendances of the whole season. The entertainment provided was often of a high standard too. Quite what prompted teams to play so well on a day when they should have been eating, drinking and being merry, we're not quite sure, but let's just say the Christmas spirit was often to be found in abundance.

On Christmas Day 1957, Portsmouth's trip to Chelsea was a little out of the ordinary to say the least. Jimmy Greaves scored four times (not as good as Jermain Defoe against Wigan, but you can't have everything) as Chelsea won the match 7-4. On the same day, Blackpool scored five against Leicester while Nottingham Forest put four past Newcastle United.

You'd possibly be forgiven for thinking Portsmouth's short journey to Chelsea on Christmas Day came about as the result of a fixture computer's calculations but you'd be wrong. Actually, if you thought a computer existed in 1957 that could work out such things, you deserve to be taken away to a lunatic asylum, but that's not the point. Back then, the men in charge of working out the Football League fixtures thought nothing of sending teams to the most distant backwaters – and on consecutive days of the festive season too.

Christmas 1946/47 was memorable for Tom Finney and his team-mates at Preston North End as he confided in an interview from 1979.
"We travelled down to London on Christmas Eve, and then after playing at Stamford Bridge [on Christmas Day], we all trooped to the station – both teams – and headed back North for the return fixture on Boxing Day.

"We all ate together on the train. What a strange way to spend Christmas Day, eating turkey and cranberry sauce with your opponents!

"It really was strange how you could go out and whack a team by five goals one day and then find yourselves on the receiving end of a similar lashing from the same team 24 hours later. That seemed to happen almost as a matter of course.

"I think footballers today are very lucky not to have to play on Christmas Day. For most of my career I was never able to have Christmas lunch with my family because I was always away travelling or playing football, and that was something I really missed."
Modern-day footballers think on.

That festive season of 1957 lingered long in the memory for its extraordinary football, however. Down in Division Two the weekend before Christmas, Huddersfield Town found themselves 5-1 up at Charlton Athletic. All seemed to be going splendidly well for The Terriers but they hadn't counted on Charlton's Johnny Summers taking the game by the scruff of the neck. Summers scored five goals of his own as Charlton ran out 7-6 winners, picking up a vital two points for their promotion push that season.

The exploits of Johnny Summers were nothing compared to Bunny Bell of Tranmere Rovers though. On Boxing Day 1935, Bell scored nine as his side thrashed Oldham Athletic 13-4. In fact Boxing Day deserves a category all of its own as SPAOTP discovered back in 2007, but that's another story completely...

These days, Boxing Day offers us the nearest experience to those Christmas Day fixtures of old, but with the exception of Chelsea and Aston Villa's 4-4 draw in 2007 it can't hold a light to those free-scoring days of fifty years ago or more.

You won't find players pulling Christmas Day crackers over a roast turkey lunch on a train either, and that's quite a shame really. The thought of Emmanuel Adebayor talking about the good old days with William Gallas is something that would sustain us unendingly on those cold winter nights for sure.

Never mind. When you sit down to eat your Christmas lunch this year, maybe you'll spare a thought for those players that sacrificed their festive celebrations to entertain the paying public years ago. We're all rather spoilt these days, so raise a glass to an era when football was as much a part of Christmas Day as The Queen's Speech, The Great Escape and chronic indigestion.

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