Yuletide football, as idealised as a white Christmas

IT was the day after the day after Christmas Day in 1977 and Chelsea were playing West Ham United at Stamford Bridge. 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 I was embroiled in an incident 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 a ceasefire 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. The local derby at Christmas has almost become a thing of the past. This season, in the Premier, the only game is Arsenal v Chelsea on the 26th and Tottenham v Fulham on the 30th.

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 (often hand-knitted) 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. But not this year. Boxing Day will be strictly turkey leftovers and SKY or BT.

What does it prove? Football folk like their rituals, prefer routines, don’t really like the humdrum of life to be punctuated with distractions 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?”. In 2020, the world is praying for something better than what we have all witnessed this year.

Normally, the non-league fan has the 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 beer or two. Again, not in 2020-21.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a real story of heroism 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.

As we say farewell to a dreadful year for the human race, the prospect to returning to normal in 2021 is something to look forward to. How we will welcome standing in the freezing cold watching a game with several thousands other people. As long as we’ve got those Christmas scarves and hats to keep us warm, of course.

@GameofthePeople

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!

@GameofthePeople

Amid Boxing Day’s cobwebs…opportunity lingers

 

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Photo: Peter Else

BOXING DAY is a strange football occasion. People hand out greetings as if they haven’t seen each other for decades, talking about a single day’s eating and drinking to excess as if it was a once-in-a-lifetime event and men bring their wives to football for the one and only time in the season. It’s an odd ritual, especially when the previous game might have been just a few days earlier. And when kick-off times are altered, in this case, 1pm, everyone wanders around bleary-eyed and disorientated. “So this is what the ground looks like before 3pm?”.

Boxing Day matches were supposed to be all about Dad and his kids going to the game with their Christmas presents on display – new scarves, gloves and maybe a nice pair of sturdy boots to kick through the slush. Today, if the kids unveiled their haul, it would involve something electronic with the power cable trailing behind them. In some ways, Boxing Day football is a hindrance when you’ve got FIFA or Call of Duty to play. Generally, the romance of Bank Holiday football – I especially recall David Webb of Chelsea being called upon to play an entire 90 minutes in goal at Christmas due to snow delaying the club’s third choice keeper – has long been compromised by public transport.

But more locally, Hitchin entertained Dunstable at 1pm on December 26, 2016. I say entertained but there cannot have been many people in the 600-plus crowd that considered 90 minutes on the wooden terrace to be the most engaging part of their day. But never mind, these are title-challenging days for Hitchin and it is results over performance. Points are points after all, no matter how to grind them out.

It’s the first time this season that I have come away from a Hitchin game wondering what all the fuss is about. But equally, the 1pm kick-off, not long enough to digest the turkey or wash away the effects of Jack Daniels & Coke (or whatever players quaff these days) may have had a lot to do with that.

Hitchin and a robust and agitated Dunstable side failed to shake-off a day on the sofa watching TV and eating for England. But it all started to change when Dunstable’s extremely angular Josh Oyinsan allowed his elbow to floor Hitchin’s Dan Webb. Oyinsan was immediately shown the red card and strolled off to kick his way back to the away dressing room.

It helped change the game, but Hitchin were too sluggish to take full advantage of the extra man. But cometh the 82nd minute minute, cometh the man. Mason Spence was replaced by Kieran Barnes, a diminutive fellow who has been out on loan at Histon. Within a minute or so, Barnes sent a mis-hit shot into the net after the ball had bounced around the Dunstable area with little purpose. Barnes was buried by his team-mates, it was literally his first touch of the ball.

With the Dunstable dam breached, Hitchin went in search of a second, and in the 87th minute, they grabbed a spectacular points-clincher. Ben Walster must have been more than 20 yards out when he hit a free kick into the top corner of Jamie Head’s net. “Worth the money just to see that,” said one fan, and he wasn’t wrong, it was a goal that belonged to a higher level. Two-nil was just about right.

And a higher level is what Hitchin should be looking at right now. There is genuine reasons to believe that the club can move up a gear – not just because of their on-field resources, but also because Hitchin, as a town, may be changing. Various surveys and “lists” have placed the old Hertfordshire market town among the top places to live. Hence, house prices are rising, which is not necessarily good news for young locals wanting to get onto the monopoly board that is the property market, but also brings a certain affluence to a town as well as gallons of Farrow & Ball paint.

The website rightmove suggested that Hitchin is the ninth “happiest” place to reside – whatever that means. I was also reliably informed that Hitchin is slowly becoming a so-called “hipster” destination and the early signs are already there – a craft beer shop, vinyl records and artisan coffee – all of which makes the town a more appealing place. At the Boxing Day game, it was noticeable that there were a few people around who fit the stereotypical idea of a “hipster” – more likely just similar to the new breed of supporter that recognises non-league as something that provides an alternative to the sterile, corporate and expensive world of Premier League football.

This might be tomorrow’s audience for Hitchin, but it is also an audience worth reaching out to. Things like “craft beer” may or may not be passing phases, but Hitchin Town has a compelling offering for a number of reasons.

Hitchin is the number four non-league club in Hertfordshire. Boreham Wood, St. Albans and Bishop’s Stortford are ahead of them. Remember that the immediate circle around Hitchin – Stevenage, Luton and Bedford either have a Football League club or a non-league club in decline. Where can you go to see non-league football at a good level in a town that offers quite a lot of social and cultural attractions? The answer is Hitchin.

The status of Stevenage and Luton, and Bedford’s current malaise, is a big plus for Hitchin in attracting fans looking for an alternative, an antidote if you like.

Moreover, these are good times for Hitchin. They have a young team that has grown together over the past couple of years, they play positive football and they could finish in the top six for the second consecutive season – something almost unknown in post-war history.

At present, Hitchin’s crowds are sub-400, but they have an acceptable crowd/population figure of 1.11%. On Boxing Day, they attracted 613 and the vast majority were there to support Hitchin. There’s been a lot of new faces in the crowd in the dozen games I have seen in 2016-17 and it may just be that there’s a new type of fan waiting to coming through. Hitchin Town a trendy club? – now that would be something.

www.gameofthepeople.com