I Believe In Christmas Football

We are coming to that time of year again, winter is here and soon we will see Europe’s leagues stop to allow their players a rest in the cruellest of the season’s weather. Of course, what will actually happen is a series of high profile friendlies in far-flung parts of the world, but ostensibly, football will stop in a number of places.

Italy will crown their ‘Campioni d’Inverno’, a title that looks set to be heading to Juventus for a sixth time in eight years, before they do so. While there is no real glory to be had in that statistic, it is a regular harbinger for the end of season champions. A few unexpected names feature on the list, namely Livorno in 1942. It took Il Grande Torino until matchday 27 out of 30 to overhaul the Amarante.

All the while, English-based players will look on in envy as their fixture list is as chock-a-block as ever, be it Premier League games or the FA Cup which will rear its head as 2019 hoves into view. It was ever thus.

Some of the most exciting and memorable moments

There is often talk that England should bow to the rest of Europe in this respect, but to do so would be to miss out on some of the most exciting and memorable moments in its football history. While few will remember Christmas Day football (1965 in England – 20,000 flocking to Bloomfield Road to see Blackpool’s traditional Christmas Day derby with Blackburn; a 4-2 win) everyone has been brought up with games on Boxing Day, on New Years Day and most if not all points in between.

The television companies are given a gift (pardon the pun) with the potential of their ‘Christmas Crackers’ and the press are always able to do the look back on that Boxing Day in 1963 when there was 66 goals across the first division games. There are occasionally memorable games on 26th December, too. Who can forget Arsenal being walloped 4-0 by Southampton in 2015? Who’s heart-rate has recovered from Manchester Utd’s breathless 4-3 victory over Newcastle Utd in 2012?

Looking back through these matches of recent years, I was struck by the opposite of what I thought was the truth. To my mind, Boxing Day games were generally played between teams who weren’t so far apart but with whom there would be no rivalry generally – my supposition being based on policing costs as much as anything; so Sheffield United would be a viable opponent for Huddersfield Town, but Bradford City would not. That’s how I remember it. Public transport is tricky to negotiate on Boxing Day, I remember one year struggling to get to a ballet in London, having to work out the best way to reach the extended tendrils of the Tube before knowing we’d be safe to get into the centre of the capital.

Somebody has to travel a long way

Not so in the Premier League; good luck getting to Croydon, Cardiff fans, and enjoy your Southern Rail experience to Brighton, Gunners. I suppose somebody has to travel a long way when there’s no teams close by. Newcastle could in theory get a Transpennine Express across to Liverpool (change at Manchester Piccadilly – wave at the Terriers fans, lads) but its three hours and change each way. I won’t be at Old Trafford, I hasten to add. That Peterborough game was enough, but I’ve had my fair share of 26th December fun at football.

My first was Boxing Day 1994, a trip to Hull City’s Boothferry Park. I remember standing on the open terrace in the bitter cold waiting for something to happen. While the Tigers printers might not have been ready (the programme retained the previous week’s Oxford United as the visitors for the team names) their footballers certainly were. A 1-0 victory was a poor start to my festive football history, though a couple of days later a memorable Andy Booth volley earned a 1-1 draw with Rotherham.

There was other Boxing Days to come. A last gasp Kevin Gray own goal gave Middlesbrough a 0-1 victory at Huddersfield in 1997; next year, when David May (not signed because he rhymed, I don’t presume) made a loan debut at Crewe. He was injured during the first half in a 1-1 draw.

A drab, cold and turgid affair

Some years later, we were blessed with a trip to Millmoor, again illustrating that wonderful ‘not so far to be too far, but not close enough to hate them’ rubric, for a clash with Rotherham. That was certainly my last trip to that famous old ground and it was a drab, cold and turgid affair, made a little brighter with a Gary Taylor-Fletcher equaliser in the last minute.

It may well have been Town’s only chance, I certainly remember thinking how one dimensional the football was as they swung ball after ball after ball into the box only for Colin Murdock and Gregor Robertson to head away with ease. Latvia played North Korea in Thailand that same day. That, too, was 1-1, but I can’t help but feel it would have provided more entertainment.

To some, Christmas football is an English tradition, and finding an excuse to get out of the house on Boxing Day (or New Year’s Day – I remember a snowy game against Stoke one year) is a big part of that tradition. By the day after the day, you can be sick of seeing the same faces anyway, so you might as well watch eleven men you are just beginning to despise look lethargic and disappointed that they’ve been made to run about in the cold about 50 miles away from where they live.

A sacred time.

To others, Christmas football is all about spending time with family, often those you don’t see as often as you’d like because you’ve moved away, or they’ve moved away, but it’s a sacred time that you can gather around the television and watch the same team you’ve always watched, just some years removed – the shirts the same but the names on the back different.

And it might not exist elsewhere, but that’s fine, too. Their Christmas traditions won’t involve football, but other things. I’m sure the Germans and French don’t flock to pantomimes either.

I do know that this year, I won’t be watching Huddersfield at Old Trafford. I do know that I’ll probably think of my mum when I see the highlights, though, and remember those games we did go to together.

For me, Christmas football is a good thing, and if I’ve not convinced you yet, allow me to offer two more points. Firstly, the English teams who are involved in games over the festive period will not be flying around the world to lucrative friendly games, instead staying home to play meaningful matches. Secondly, Sky always trail their Christmas matches with Prokofiev’s Troika which is shunned by Christmas music channels until the end of I Believe In Father Christmas by Greg Lake. For that alone, I’m happy to see it thrive.

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