Tales of football at Christmas: Heritage, record crowds and surprise scorelines

In a special festive feature written by our club historian Rick Glanvill, the history of football being played over the Christmas period is explored, from tales of yore to present-day quirks…

‘At Christmas play and make good cheer

For Christmas comes but once a year.’

Whenever the prospect of a European-style winter break in English football has been raised the klaxon has sounded to preserve one much-loved aspect of the national game: football at Christmas.

Whether it is a World War One truce, the crowd’s newly acquired handwear, the ‘shock results’, the players’ over-indulgence, the testy weather or the frisson of local derbies, Advent and the soccer calendar have been inextricably linked for a century and more.

The Christmas Truce match remains one of the most evocative events of the Great War

photo of  Rick Glanvill Rick Glanvill

Enduring memories of Yuletide matches are embedded in childhood. In 2005 the late Tony Banks MP, a season ticket holder at Stamford Bridge, recalled:

‘The image that I’ve got was on Boxing Day, all the men and the boys would go over to the match. I think it used to kick off usually at 11.30 so you could get off and you could come back for your Christmas dinner.

‘I remember you used to meet up and you’d all go over there on the bus, or if one of them had a car, we’d all pack into it, and people would be wearing their new yellow gloves that they used to get – it was one of the traditional Christmas presents: new yellow gloves and Will’s Whiffs [cigars].

‘Everyone was feeling very expansive. And sometimes of course they’d take a tot of whiskey – not for the kids – but they’d take a tot of whiskey and they would pass the whiskey round and smoke the Will’s Whiffs and everyone felt really affluent. And you know it was a great feeling.’

Banks (‘Lord Shedend’ to his friends) was born in 1942 and died in 2006. His recollections of family days out at the Bridge would have been stored in the post-war era but they reverberate back and forward down the years.

While Banks was still a toddler in 1945, the pages of the Essex Newsman were able to claim that ‘Christmas football is a tradition. To millions of people Christmas without football would not be Christmas at all. It adds spice to the Christmas holiday.

‘All over the country – snow and frost permitting – people will flock in their tens of thousands to the Christmas Day and Boxing Day “local Derbys”.

‘For many years football was the only permitted organised public entertainment – such as theatres and cinemas – on Christmas Day.’

’Twas not, sadly, ever thus. The argument that playing football on Christmas Day – a holy day – was heresy was a powerful and ancient one. In fact participation in all sports except archery and jousting on December 25 had been forbidden by Henry VIII in 1541. (Although he owned a pair of football boots as a prince, the king banned the game outright in 1548.)

In 1900, the Daily Express could look back in time to paint a gloomy picture of an English Christmas in which ‘all the merriment and festivity was bottled up behind the walls of suburban villadom, and within those two unlikely mansions, the workhouse and the hospital.’

It was the time before Britons were able to break out of the bottle and take in the ‘festive footer’, which launched in the late Victorian era.

In 1889, when organisation of the beautiful game was in its infancy, the Football Association considered preventing games being played on Christmas Day and Good Friday.

Religious observance failed to killed off the match-up between festivals, precious leisure time and a good kickabout that was established in medieval times, though, and in 1893/4 the Football League scheduled games on December 25 and 26 for the first time.

Some resistance remained. In 1905 when Exeter City arranged to play a match on Christmas Day against local rivals Plymouth Argyle 2nd XI, a local newspaper was apoplectic, damning City for a decision taken ‘for the purpose of making money.’ The Reverend Philip Williams was quizzed why he had attended the match on a holy day. He replied, with eminently good judgement, that he saw ‘no more harm in outdoor games than in indoor games at Christmas.’ And his curate, Reverend Reid, was actually one of the Exeter players.

That same year featured Chelsea’s debut on 25 December, and a significant Division Two match at Bank Street, home of Manchester United. A win for the third-placed Pensioners (who also had a game in hand) would have pressurised the fellow promotion-chasers, but the game finished 0-0. Intimidated by the Londoners’ giant-sized goalie Willie Foulke, United’s Bob Bonthron placed a late penalty wide and was berated by his manager. He protested: ‘I looked at Foulke, then the goal, and there was nowhere left to put the ball.’

The fact that Yuletide meant two days off work for England’s working multitude helped establish the habit. This was not the case in Scotland, where there was no public holiday at this time of year until 1958, and little Christmas soccer.

South of the border, from the early 1900s busy turnstiles underlined why clubs liked the arrangement. On Christmas Day 1914, during the Great War, a total of 173,000 attended the nine top-flight games played. Over the 1949 holiday period the English league attendance record was broken twice. On 26 December a new high of 1,226,098 had passed through turnstiles across the four divisions. Twenty-four hours later the bar was raised again to 1,253,572.

To the masses the relationship between Yule and soccer was about heritage, whatever the circumstance. On 1 January 1915, The Times carried a letter from an officer on the Western Front, revealing: ‘On Christmas Eve the Germans burned coloured lights and candles along the top of their trenches, and on Christmas Day a football match was played between them and us in front of the trench.’ Chelsea had raised funds and sent dozens of balls off to fans serving in the trenches, as well as match day programmes.

A year later, in one of several examples of a low-key armistice, a war correspondent at the Western Daily Press revealed that both sides took it easy over Christmas and ‘during the afternoon every available acre of meadow under any sort of cover at the rear of the lines was taken possession of for football.’

The Christmas Truce match remains one of the most evocative events of the Great War, and confirms the deep association between ‘footer’ and winter festivities.

Christmas’s flurry of domestic fixtures – sometimes involving three games in four days – was already established as a crucial season-changer at the halfway stage. From 1908/09 and for several decades the seasonal schedule was made simpler for clubs with back-to-back encounters over the two days.

The Pensioners’ first partners were Manchester City and a promising 2-1 Division One win at Hyde Road ‘was received in London as evidence that Chelsea were at last attaining that pinnacle which thousands of Metropolitan supporters had vainly looked for,’ according to Athletic News. David Calderhead’s team then dashed hopes by losing to the Citizens by the same scoreline in the Boxing Day return at the Bridge.

For these fixtures the two teams typically shared a train between cities. Travelling south on December 25 1931, Blackpool and Chelsea dined on a convivial ‘3s 6d luncheon’ of tomato soup, lemon sole, roast turkey and trimmings, Christmas pudding, cheese and celery.

Alcoholic drinks are not mentioned, but it is a truism of football lore that an unusually poor display can be put down to ‘unprofessionalism’ over the festive period.

Pre-empting generations of terrace wits with their ‘too many mince pies!’ jibes, the Burnley Express in 1882 was ‘alive to the difficulties of enjoying true Christmas fare, and playing football shortly after. I venture to hope, however, that the consumption of an over-abundance of good things will not be the means of [Burnley] losing a match with Kirkham next week.’

As many a professional from any era will tell you, this period of games is not fun for all. ‘A footballer cannot enjoy his Christmas or indulge in cheering beverages like the ordinary mortal,’ wrote Chelsea centre-forward Jack Cock in December 1920, ‘but I bet he is glad of the fact on 27 December, when bad headaches are flowing around!

‘It is a very arduous [time]. We do not go into special training, for the simple reason that the first round of the FA Cup is due on 8 January and we should be stale for that if wound up too tightly just before.’

Some spectators have definitely overdone it at this time of year. In December 1945 the Essex Newsman reported that a spectator had thrown a ‘very hard, icy snowball at a player whose rather hefty tackling had brought the wrath of a good part of the crowd upon him. The spectator was unceremoniously ejected.’

At Grays a few years earlier, visiting Chelmsford players were attacked by home supporters as they left the field of play after a bitter, dirty derby. Chelmsford’s diminutive Tich Freeman had three teeth knocked out in the melée before police arrived mob-handed. Hardly the seasonal spirit.

That example of fractious neighbours chimes with popular memory but Yuletide yahoos with deadly local rivals only became regular in the mid-1970s. One of the most memorable in living memory came in 1976, when Eddie McCreadie’s youthful promotion-chasers tore into the grand old men of Fulham (Bobby Moore, George Best and all) to win 2-0. One of the biggest talking points was the 55,003 crowd – the largest at the Bridge in more than a decade. But that took place on the Monday 27 December as no trains were running over the previous two days.

Scheduling shorter football trips at Christmas actually coincided with British Rail curtailing, then finally ending, Boxing Day train services in 1981.

Times changed in other ways. The last Christmas Day fixtures list was fulfilled in 1957, although Portsmouth requested a postponement of their visit to the Bridge. As the only game on in the capital that day it was duly denied, and the Blues smashed the reluctant tourists 7-4, 18-year-old Jimmy Greaves finding four goals in his sack.

Christmas Day has not been a match day for Chelsea since 1958, when Ted Drake’s team won 3-0 at Blackburn. Peter Sillett netted twice and Greaves enjoyed the gift of his 23rd goal for the season.

Another tradition of sorts is surprise scorelines (and Charlton fans will long remember their 4-2 win against Chelsea on Boxing Day 2003). But was the Ghost of Christmas Past a more generous host? West Londoners who traveled to Anfield and witnessed the Pensioners’ 4-1 stuffing of Liverpool in 1907 (with a seasonal brace from ‘Gatling gun’ George Hilsdon) might think so. Not so happy were those at Villa Park in 1919 when the Villans pocketed the majority of the seven goals scored to beat Chelsea 5-2.

At least that year Stamford Bridge had the consolation of being chosen to host that season’s FA Cup final for the first time, announced on Christmas Eve. Anticipation of that famous competition, traditionally providing the first football of the New Year, remains another part of the festive fun. For many years supporters would don fancy dress, such as harlequin costumes in the team’s colours, to welcome back the annual knockout.

Thankfully Boxing Day league matches also remain as firm a fixture as the Queen’s speech, a tragic denouement on EastEnders and Morecambe & Wise repeats. Our winter game is still ‘The Great Escape’.

The modern Christmas schedule, arranged to minimise travel distance for supporters, is one of the few quirks of the English fixtures list still created not by computer, but by hand.

These days TV has supplanted turnstiles as the biggest generator of cash for clubs, and broadcasters call the shots. Rights holders spread their Christmas feast over more days than ever and in 2010, for instance, there were live matches every day from Boxing Day to January 5, except for December 30 and 31. Over the past few league campaigns Amazon Prime Video expanded the festive offering, showing all the games in one round, initially on Boxing Day 2019 and the day after, then stretched over three days.

Such coverage is proof festive football is hale and hearty in England, if different. As the Essex Newsman timelessly proclaimed in 1945: ‘So let our Christmas football be good-humoured. Let it be exciting – let there be much to shout ourselves hoarse about – but let it be played in the true Christmas spirit.’

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