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What happened to football on Christmas Day? The lost history of a Victorian tradition

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As far as white Christmases go, the Christmas of 1956 was one of the whitest on record. “Officials of Football League clubs are not among those who dream of a white Christmas,” commented The Guardian. However, although bad weather – plus a petrol shortage – kept many spectators at home, all of the Christmas Day fixtures went ahead. 1950s footballers were a hardy breed, and games were played in three inches of snow and driving winds. There was only one submission to the elements – Coventry’s match at Newport was abandoned due to a snowstorm, and the return match on Boxing Day was postponed. The Guardian subsequently referred to the unfortunate Sky Blues as “the club that Santa Claus forgot”. 

Christmas Day 1957 was the last with a full league programme. The arrival of floodlights and evening games had removed the need for fixtures to be squeezed into public holidays, and many fans were preferring to stay at home with their families on Christmas Day. In the First Division on December 25, 1957, Blackpool beat Leicester 5-1, Manchester United beat Luton 3-0, and Sheffield Wednesday and Preston drew 4-4. Chelsea beat Portsmouth 7-4, with 17-year-old Jimmy Greaves scoring four for the Blues.

Coventry’s match at Newport was abandoned due to a snowstorm, and the return match postponed. The Guardian subsequently referred them as “the club that Santa Claus forgot”

In 1958 there were only three First Division matches played on December 25, and in 1959 just one. The last English League match played on Christmas Day was Blackpool versus Blackburn in 1965. A crowd of 21,000 turned up to see Blackpool win 4-2. In Scotland, where Christmas Day football wasn’t as big a tradition as it was in England, football was only played when December 25 happened to be a Saturday. The last matches played were Clydebank versus St Mirren (2-2) and Alloa versus Cowdenbeath (2-1) in 1976. 

A planned revival of Christmas Day matches failed in 1983. Third Division Brentford had arranged to play Wimbledon at 11am on Christmas morning.

“We hope to revive the old tradition of the husband going to football on Christmas Day while the wives cook the turkey,” said Brentford official Eric White. However, the rather sexist plan backfired, and protests by both sets of fans saw the match brought forward to Christmas Eve. Wimbledon won 4-3.

Cold keeps fans away at Stamford Bridge in 1956

Christmas Day football is still played in Northern Ireland, where the Steel and Sons Cup Final is traditionally held on December 25. The tournament, for intermediate teams, is almost 120 years old, having been founded in the 1890s by Belfast jeweller David Steel. The 2012 final was won by Glentoran II, the Premiership club’s reserve side, who beat Ards 3-0. However, it was subsequently found that the winners had fielded an ineligible player in an earlier round, and they were stripped of the Cup. 

The television times

Armchair fans can wallow in football each Christmas now, but before the Premier League era, football rarely appeared in Christmas TV and radio listings.

In 1930, during the early days of radio, the BBC provided a Boxing Day treat in the form of live commentary for the second half of Arsenal versus Manchester City. The sides had drawn 1-1 on Christmas Day at Maine Road, and listeners heard Arsenal win 3-1 at Highbury. The commentator – football’s first – was George Allison, who later became Arsenal manager.

On Boxing Day 1939, fans got to hear a wartime match between Sheffield Wednesday and Chesterfield. Or part of it, anyway – the programme only lasted 30 minutes. The first Christmas match to be broadcast in full was Brentford versus Sheffield United on December 26, 1946. Brentford won 2-1, and live matches soon became a regular feature of Christmas radio listings. 

Christmas Day football was helped by a normal service on public transport

Christmas TV listings, though, remained football-free. Match of the Day began in 1964, but there was no festive edition until Boxing Day 1970. Football fans could watch Football Focus and Final Score during the Christmas holidays but, with Football League Scrooges fearing that TV coverage would reduce lucrative gates, there were no televised matches.

The League finally agreed a TV deal in the mid-1980s, and eventually, on December 27 1988, ITV brought viewers a televised Christmas match – Norwich versus West Ham, live from Carrow Road. Norwich won 2-1, and the commentator was Martin Tyler, who is still commentating on Christmas football almost three decades later.

This feature was originally published in the January 2014 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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