Premiership: Boxing Day Bonanza
Across Europe, most football leagues are taking a well earned break over the festive season. Players can rest their aching limbs, spend some quality time with their families and some may even go in search of sunnier climbs, while the worst of the continent's winter weather sets in.
One of the major exceptions is in the English Premier League where the fixtures come thick and fast between Christmas and the New Year. A total of three rounds of matches will be played between Boxing Day and up to and including New Year's Day. That's three games in just seven days.
Football over Christmas, in particular on Boxing Day, is a tradition in England going back the best part of a century. The fans love it, but most players hate it.
"Matches over Christmas are bad enough, but the worst thing is the training," former Tottenham and England international Darren Anderton told Soccerphile this week. "We would generally have to train on Christmas Day and if we had an away game on Boxing Day, we'd even travel then. The fixtures come around really quickly too. I remember one season playing an away game at Norwich on Boxing Day and then playing at home to Crystal Palace the following day."
The argument for a Christmas break in England is largely a non-starter, for the simple reason the football public in the country love going to games around Christmas so much. Attendances tend to rise dramatically over the festive season and for many there's nothing better than watching a game on Boxing Day, 24 hours after over-eating, slouching on the sofa and watching bad TV!
There have been some brilliant Boxing Day matches over the years and one round of fixtures that took place on the 26th December nearly 50 years ago stands out in particular.
The year was 1963. John F Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, USA while the 'Great Freeze', which saw sub-zero temperatures setting in between January and March that year, was the big news story back in the UK. Everton were the reigning League Champions, Stanley Matthews was the current Footballer of the Year and clubs including Barrow, Newport County and Workington were members of the Football League. England, shared the 'Home Nations' trophy with Scotland and Northern Ireland, with all nations having picked up four points. Not exactly the stuff of would-be World Champions!
At 5pm on Boxing Day the most incredible series of results from the top flight came over the wireless....
Blackpool 1 Chelsea 5
Burnley 6 Manchester United 1
Fulham 10 Ipswich Town 1
Leicester City 2 Everton 0
Liverpool 6 Stoke City 1
Nottingham Forest 3 Sheffield United 3
Sheffield Wednesday 3 Bolton Wanderers 0
West Bromwich Albion 4 Tottenham Hotspur 4
West Ham United 2 Blackburn Rovers 8
Wolverhampton Wanderers 3 Aston Villa 3
In ten games in the old Division One a total of 66 goals had been scored - a festive record which surely will never be broken. Amongst the goal scorers that day was the late, great Sir Bobby Robson - on target in Fulham's remarkable 10-1 win at home to Ipswich Town. Jimmy Greaves scored two goals for Spurs on their trip to the Hawthorns while both Andy Lochhead (Burnley) and Roger Hunt (Liverpool) bagged four goals each, in their respective wins over Manchester United and Stoke City.
The main headline maker of the day though was Scottish international Graham Leggat who got four goals in Fulham's aforementioned 10-1 win against Ipswich. Three of the goals he managed in just four minutes set a top flight record as the fastest ever hat-trick. The feat still stands to this day.
The festive period is often viewed as a decisive moment in the season. The team that is top of the league come the first week of January often goes on to win the championship, but that was not the case in this topsy-turvy campaign. Blackburn Rovers were top of the division at the close of play on the 26th December 1963. Their 8-2 win at West Ham installed them as strong favourites but after this result, the Ewood Park outfit had a decline in form that saw them finish only seventh come the end of the season.
If Boxing Day wasn't fascinating enough, the reverse fixtures were played just two days later.
Having been trounced 6-1 at Turf Moor, Manchester United turned the tide on Burnley beating them 5-1 at Old Trafford. West Ham would start Blackburn's decline in form, overturning the 8-2 defeat at Upton Park by winning 3-1 at Ewood Park. Incredibly, Ipswich Town recovered from their 10-1 mauling at Fulham by winning the reverse fixture at Portman Road by four goals to two.
The season ended with Liverpool winning the Division One title, pipping old rivals Manchester United and Everton to the top spot. Tottenham were fourth and Chelsea fifth. At the other end, poor old Ipswich Town finished bottom of the division. Perhaps that 10-1 defeat had been too much to take after all. Bolton also went down, while Aston Villa, Birmingham, Blackpool and Stoke all had narrow escapes.
16 of the teams in the division at that time currently play in the Premier League - with the exceptions of Wigan Athletic, Sunderland, Manchester City and Newcastle United. Wigan have come the furthest in the last five decades - the Latics weren't even a Football League club back in 1963.
Nine top flight fixtures take place on the 26th December 2010, at Craven Cottage, Ewood Park, Bloomfield Road, Burnden Park, Goodison Park, Old Trafford, St James' Park, Molineux and Villa Park. Supporters of a certain age inside those grounds might allow their minds to cast back 47 years to a day of fantasy football on Boxing Day 1963.
© Andy Greeves & Soccerphile.com