Christmas feasts

First Division defences extended the season of goodwill to Boxing Day in 1963, when 66 goals were scored. Jon Spurling reports

As Christmas 1963 approached, weathermen warned a shivering nation to expect a recurrence of what had happened 12 months previously. The winter of 1962 was the worst since the big freeze of 1946, when the snow began on Boxing Day and wiped out football for virtually the next two and a half months. The occasional game was played here and there, but most were played out in the minds of the newly created Pools Panel, who met each weekend in a secret London location and guessed what each result might have been.

A year later, the population was warned the sea would freeze again and they would be unlikely to see much football until the end of February. Yet the big chill never happened. The Christmas programme of games remained almost unscathed. “What happened on Boxing Day 1963 was bewildering,” recalled Liverpool striker Ian St John. “It was as if the clubs were making up for the total lack of games the previous season.”

The ten Division One matches that day produced a record 66 goals. At Craven Cottage, Fulham defeated Ipswich 10-1. In one sense it was remarkable because virtually the same group of Ipswich players had been crowned champions under Alf Ramsey. But Ipswich, who were relegated in May with Jackie Milburn as boss, would go on to concede an astronomic 121 goals in the process. Scottish international Graham Leggat netted four, assisted by Johnny Haynes, George Cohen and Bobby Robson.

Other scorelines were high, but not entirely surprising. West Ham were thumped 8-2 at home by league leaders Blackburn. Stoke were destroyed by the striking prowess of Liverpool’s St John, Alf Arrowsmith and Roger Hunt (who got four). Bill Shankly’s side went on to lift the title. The only genuine surprise was Manchester United’s thrashing at Burnley, where four goals from Andy Lochhead helped the Clarets to a 6-1 victory against a side who were only four points of the top at the start of play.

Over the years, the day has passed into folklore because of the cricket scores piled up in front of supposedly gargantuan crowds. Upon closer inspection, that wasn’t always the case. A disappointing crowd of 17,163 filed into Bloomfield Road to watch Blackpool capitulate 5-1 at home to Chelsea, and just 27,569 (well below Molineux’s then 60,000 capacity) turned up to watch a 3-3 thriller between Wolves and Aston Villa. In contrast, Jimmy Greaves (who nabbed a brace) marvelled at the “rip roaring atmosphere at The Hawthorns”, with over 34,000 shoehorned in to watch West Brom and Spurs battle out a 4-4 draw.

Numerous players who played that day have denied that the crazy scorelines were due to over-indulgence during the Christmas festivities. “We had back-to-back games,” St John explained. “Bill Shankly was adamant that no one would get drunk at that time. ‘You have your Christmas in the summer,’ he said. ‘You can over indulge then, if you like’.” Likewise, Bill Nicholson at Spurs was a stickler for no drinking at Christmas and insisted his coaching staff searched the players’ hotel rooms for bottles prior to the West Brom game.

St John admits that in some respects, that remarkable Boxing Day belonged to a bygone age. “When Shankly started out at Liverpool,” he explained, “we went gung-ho attacking, and the crowd loved it, but after we qualified for the European Cup, we began to adopt a more defensive mentality. We didn’t want to concede away goals in Europe and that also reflected the way we approached league games. Don’t concede goals.” Liverpool’s success in European football up to the Heysel disaster was built largely around keeping hold of the ball, not the kind of all out attacking that saw them put Stoke to the sword on Boxing Day 1963.

The quirk of the Christmas fixtures in the 1960s was that the return matches would be played two days later. For some clubs, retribution was swift. Fresh from their 8-2 defeat in London, West Ham won 3-1 at Blackburn. Manchester United hammered Burnley 5-1 at Old Trafford. Most surprisingly, Ipswich avenged their mauling at the Cottage by beating Fulham 4-2. Statistical evidence backs up Alan Mullery’s claim that results at Christmas in the 1960s could be “wild and unpredictable”. Whether it was down to the “more relaxed atmosphere”, as Mullery has suggested, or because “there wasn’t the gulf between sides there is now”, as Greaves claims, the now fragmented festive fixture list means there will never be a repeat of that remarkable 66-goal haul.

From WSC 299 January 2011