Yuletide football, as idealised as a white Christmas

IT was the day after the day after Christmas Day and Chelsea were playing West Ham United at Stamford Bridge. 40 years ago. Chelsea had won 2-1 and the West Ham fans had been kept in the ground, the usual post-match ritual. This was, after all, the heyday of football hooliganism, tribal battles and non-stop taunting and posturing in London derbies.

At Earls Court that I witnessed a scene that was almost unprecedented at that time. A truce, a laying down of arms between fans that would normally have wasted no time in battering each other around the head. Some West Ham fans came out of nowhere and saw the Chelsea crowd streaming down the escalators. People started to run, some panicing. I wasn’t the only one whose legs had turned to jelly.

At the foot of the escalators, the West Ham fans seemed to have cornered the Chelsea fans. Then, suddenly, one burly Hammer, donkey-jacketed and woolly-hat atop his shaven head, stood with his arms outstretched. “We just wanted to say Merry Christmas lads….ha, ha, ha.”

It was a scene reminiscent of the truce on the battlefield. A Paul McCartney moment – play those pipes of peace.

For one moment, rivalries were forgotten and the funny thing is, there is little record of football fans fighting on Boxing day, although I’m sure they have done at some point.

Forty years ago, Boxing Day saw Arsenal play Chelsea, Aston Villa meet Coventry and Norwich and Ipswich battle it out for bragging rights in East Anglia. They were the only local derbies in the top flight, completely killing the myth that Boxing Day was all about games with your neighbours. The only derby this season is Crystal Palace against West Ham. “In this day and age, it is not relevant,” said someone to me once when I questioned this. In this day and age it is arguably more difficult to use public transport at holiday time than it was 40 years ago!

At the top level, it is debatable if we really need Boxing Day football. After all, we are saturated with the stuff 24 x 7 and attendances in the Premier are such that crowds cannot get any bigger than they are, so it is not a cash bonanza for the big clubs. In the old days, the equivalent of rationing compared to today’s football diet, clubs had their biggest crowds of the season at Christmas or Easter.

Boxing Day football was the morning or lunchtime that people donned their Christmas scarves and hats and gave them their first airing after unwrapping them on December 25. If you believe the stories, the terraces were packed with Dads and their lads wearing the woolies that their wives or grannies had knitted them for Christmas. These days, Dads and their children are wrapped in Helly Hansen or Barbour, iPhone’s in their hands rather than gloves and Bovril. Meanwhile, Mum is tapping her feet, wondering when they will be back for that Boxing Day lunch.

To some extent, this still exists in non-league football and the clubs often have a bumper gate during the festive season. It’s strange, but people greet each other like long-lost friends on December 26, as if they haven’t seen each other for weeks or months, when in reality, they may have been gathered at the same ground just a few days earlier.

What does it prove? That people like rituals, prefer routines, don’t really like the humdrum of life to be punctuated with artificiality or convention for too long. Christmas can get in the way sometimes and getting back to football allows them to sink back to normality. The Boxing Day match, invariably disappointing as over-indulgence chips away at the pace of the game, no matter how fit a team might be, is often the last game of the year. So, it permits the football fan to turn the corner of the season muttering, “better next year?”.

What the non-league fan really has is the bitter prospect of cold, bone-numbing midweeks in January, no FA competitions to break-up the season and the forlorn hope of contending for a play-off place. Christmas, at least, introduces a sprig of holly, the bonhomie of the clubhouse and a silly jumper or two to add some colour to the dark days of winter. Never mind the football or the cold, let’s have a drink!

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a real story to tell? I return to Chelsea for one of the best Christmas tales I’ve experienced. It was Chelsea versus Ipswich on December 27, 1971. A goalkeeping crisis at Stamford Bridge meant that David Webb had to play the entire 90 minutes with the green shirt on. Webb, a great character if ever there was one, kept a clean sheet and Chelsea won 2-0 against Bobby Robson’s side. “There was only one hero. And that was goalkeeper Webb, cheered off at the end as if he’d played the game of his life,” said the match report. A real Christmas hero!


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