Football history: Yuletide football in days of yore

George Best at Christmas

At Christmas time the busy football programme means most professional players see very little of their families. At best many of them train on Christmas Day but a lot also travel ahead of Boxing Day fixtures. But in days of old they used to play matches even on Christmas Day itself with another game the next day, Boxing Day.

The last time games were staged on December 25th was as recent as 1957 when 38 league games took place. The very last game to be played on the festive day itself was in 1965 at Bloomfield Road when Blackpool defeated Blackburn Rovers 4-2.

Another Blackpool game highlighted the hectic holiday schedule footballers endured during the 1950s. In 1954 Portsmouth had to travel to Blackpool for the Christmas Day fixture. When Blackpool had to make the reverse journey for the return fixture, two days later, the squad had to get a bus from Blackpool to Preston, then a train to London where they stayed overnight. The following morning the players boarded a bus for Waterloo Station to catch the train to Portsmouth where they had lunch before making their way to Fratton Park where they found the gates locked because it was a full house.

For ease of travel many Christmas fixtures over the years were local derbies. In 1935 Blackpool went to Burnley for their December 25th game and the reverse fixture took place 24 hours later. A similar situation occurred in 1958 between Blackpool and nearest rivals Preston North End and in 1946 and 1959 between Blackpool and Blackburn.

Going even further back, games played at Christmas during the Second World War threw up all kinds of stories. Players in the armed forces turned up all over the nation and played for lots of different clubs. Top England international centre forward Tommy Lawton and the legendary Len Shackleton each played for two clubs on the same day, December 25th 1940.

Greaves, Marchi and DysonLawton played for Everton in the morning, in the derby with Liverpool, and then scored twice for Tranmere Rovers that same afternoon in their 2-2 draw at Crewe. Shackleton played for both Bradford clubs; his own, Bradford Park Avenue, in the morning and then as a guest for City in the afternoon. On the same day Brighton and Hove Albion were at Norwich but arrived with just five players. Brighton made up their eleven with Norwich reserves and supporters from the crowd. The day did not end well for the visitors, Norwich won 18-0!

In 1963 during the worst winter in living memory the holiday period turned up what is perhaps the most extraordinary set of results in the history of the Football League. Boxing Day results in the First Division were;

Blackpool 1 Chelsea 5
Burnley 6 Man United 1
Fulham 10 Ipswich 1
Leicester 2 Everton 0
Liverpool 6 Stoke 1
Nottingham Forest 3 Sheffield United 3
WBA 4 Tottenham 4
Sheffield Wednesday 3 Bolton 0
Wolves 3 Aston Villa 3
West Ham 2 Blackburn 8

Amazingly when the return fixtures were played two days later the results included; West Ham winning 3-1 at Ewood Park, Manchester United trouncing Burnley 5-1 and Ipswich avenging their mauling at Craven Cottage by beating the Cottagers 4-2 at Portman Road.

For me the best Christmas football story ever comes from 1937. The Christmas Day fixture between Chelsea and Charlton Athletic had to be abandoned because Stamford Bridge became fog bound. The fog was so bad that Charlton’s legendary England goalkeeper, Sam Bartram, was unaware that the game had been called off and play ended. He simply assumed that his lack of action was due to his team taking the game to Chelsea and that play was at the opposite end of the pitch.

It was fully ten minutes, possibly more, before a kind policemen tapped Sam on the shoulder and told him everyone had gone home.

Merry Christmas!

Longest serving freelance football reporter for Sky Sports, 1,000+ games. Author of Breedon Book of Premiership Records and Three Lions.
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