Day 21 of the WSC advent calendar and we're looking at Christmas football. These days it is something to look forward to but, in issue 131, January 1998, Olly Wicken's grandad claimed that this wasn't always the case
I went to my first Christmas game in 1933, at the age of twelve. I’ll never forget it. It was a cold and bright Christmas Day morning (Christmas Day fixtures were the norm in those days). My Christmas stocking was still hanging unopened over the hearth when my father wrapped me up in my muffler, cap and overcoat and walked me along frosty pavements to the ground. Once inside, I was passed over the heads of the crowd down to the front of the terrace. From there I saw the local derby end in a five-all draw. Our inside-left – I forget his name now – scored all five. Then, on Boxing Day afternoon, my father took me to the return match across town, which we won by the odd goal in thirteen, making the aggregate score twelve-eleven over the two days. It was typical of Christmas fixtures back then. Both games were shit.
Don’t let anyone tell you different. Christmas football was bloody rubbish in the 30s.
I don’t know why, but modern fans look back in awe and wonder at scorelines from that decade: when my grandson once read that Tranmere’s Christmas games from 1930 to 1938 produced 123 goals – an average of nearly six a game – he was filled with a wistful longing for good old-fashioned values. But I was around in those days. So I know that goal feasts only look great on paper, not on grass. The games were shit.
The truth is, football isn’t worth watching when you don’t have enough fingers to keep track of the score. When professionals imitate schoolkids, instead of vice-versa, the results are dire.
Most men of my age go around claiming that the old days were better because we can’t come to terms with our fading powers – so we glorify our useless past. And football fans are the worst suckers for it. If we started claiming that Jesse Owens could beat Linford Christie over one hundred metres, athletics fans would simply point to the two men’s respective personal bests, smile indulgently, top up our milk stouts, and prop us back up again in the corner. But when we lie about bygone standards of football, you take us seriously.
The reality is that 1930s Christmas results were plain embarrassing. If, after the holiday, someone asked me how my team had got on, I’d find myself talking pre-war telephone numbers: Brighton, eight-three two-seven. Portsmouth, five-four eight-eight. It was moronic. I used to crave sensible scorelines.
Take a look at the results from Serie A if you want to see what kind of scorelines the very best football produces. If you youngsters reckon a 7-7 draw must have been a classic game, your judgement is so badly impaired you ought to be in a home.
And it wasn’t just the results that were ludicrous, it was the number of fixtures. These days, you may think the amount of holiday football on Sky tends to bugger up a family Christmas. But in 1930 there were fixtures on the 25th, 26th and 27th. It was ridiculous. And it meant that Arsenal scored 14 times over Christmas. Arsenal, for God’s sake.
That year, on the 27th, First Division teams were playing their seventh game in the month. By the end of Christmas, Blackpool had shipped 34 goals in 29 days (including a five, two sevens and a ten). And the number of games totally confused Sunderland. Their first three December results were 6-5, 0-5, and 6-1, so they must have thought Christmas had come early. After that they only managed a slightly daft 2-5 on Christmas Day, and completely failed to fulfil their obligations of producing deranged scorelines on the 26th and 27th.
So, for Christ’s sake, get a sense of proportion. Don’t believe all those old duffers who tell you Christmas football used to be great. They’re wrong. If you don’t believe me, just listen to some of the things they say. Ever heard them say, “Young people today don’t know they’re born”? Excuse me, but these men used to believe they were delivered by storks. Do you trust their claims about Christmas football?
From WSC 131 January 1998. What was happening this month