Thursday 22 August 2019

'My wife didn't go, she was making Christmas dinner'

It was December 1965 and Blackpool played Blackburn in the last Christmas Day match

'"We always used to play on Christmas Day because we'd get a bumper crowd of holidaymakers, they'd shut the gates at 2pm," recalls winger Graham Oates.' Photo: PA

Jim White

Fifty-one years ago this weekend a long-standing footballing tradition came to an end: the last English league match played on Christmas Day was staged that year. After Blackpool beat Blackburn Rovers 4-2 at Bloomfield Road on December 25, 1965, only in Scotland did the Yuletide fixture list remain intact. Not that, at the time, the historical significance registered with those involved.

"I can't remember too much about it; it was just another match for us," says Glyn James, who played in the Blackpool defence that day, speaking over the phone. "I'll just go and see if the wife can recall anything." He returns a couple of moments later after a muffled conversation with his other half, Jenny. "No, she says she didn't go to watch. She says she was too busy at home making my bloody Christmas dinner."

The Christmas Day match was a custom that lingered longer on the Lancashire coast than anywhere else in England. In 1957, the final year of a full schedule, 38 matches were played on December 25. By 1959, as public transport workers were given the day off and buses and trains no longer ran, there were just two games left. But in Blackpool, they kept at it, ploughing a lone furrow for a further six years.

"We always used to play on Christmas Day because we'd get a bumper crowd of holidaymakers, they'd shut the gates at 2pm," recalls winger Graham Oates. "Loads of people would go to Blackpool for a Christmas break, so the idea was to give them something to entertain them. And for the club to make some money, obviously."

The match was generally a Lancashire derby with Blackburn, with the reverse fixture played on December 26 at Ewood Park. Derek Jones is a lifelong Blackburn fan, who recalls making the 26-mile trip to the coast to be one of the 21,851 who gathered as unwitting witnesses to the end of an era.

"Funnily enough I saw my first ever football match on Christmas Day. It was 1951. We played Hull City. We won 1-0," says Jones, who is now historian at Ewood Park.

"In those days it was football first and foremost, so there was no doubt I'd go, whatever was going on at home. There was no public transport, so I remember getting a lift to Blackpool with a couple of mates. We just paid on the gate. There was no segregation; we'd have been in with Blackpool fans."

James recalls a tide of humanity making its way, slowly, to Bloomfield Road. "I remember arriving at the ground and seeing everyone walking there. There were no buses, no trams," he says. "Not many of us would have gone there by car, either, I reckon I was unusual. I imagine several of the lads probably walked."

Given that the match was specifically scheduled to take advantage of bumper holiday crowds, there was little in the way of additional entertainment on offer. The extent of the Christmas feel was the sprig of holly printed on the cover of the match programme. "The only festive touch I can remember was a brass band on the pitch beforehand playing carols," recalls Jones. "I'm not sure we joined in."

And while there may have been some cigars in evidence, and the odd hip flask passed around on the terrace, the most visible Christmas element came in the welcome the players received when they ran out. As was tradition, fans came along with their pockets stuffed with peel from the tangerine that was then a staple stocking filler, which they threw in the vague direction of the players.

"Looking back, those times seemed a bit austere," recalls Oates. "Not like now, when we're celebrating Christmas from the middle of October to the end of January. In those days there was much less hoopla, ordinary working people only got two days off at Christmas. And us footballers didn't get any time off."

There was no change in routine. "My Christmas lunch that day was poached egg on toast," says James. "I'm not sure I was ahead of my time nutrition-wise."

Nor, beyond the peel cascade, can James recall any sense of festive spirit. "Did the ref wish us Merry Christmas? He might have done," he recalls. "But we definitely wouldn't have wished Blackburn anything. Hospitality only went so far. We had two points to win."

The truth was, against Blackburn in those days, there was every chance of a maximum return. It was a miserable season for the club, one which would eventually end in relegation to the second tier. The misery was compounded after a polio outbreak in the town had meant several home fixtures were postponed. And they had nothing to match a Blackpool side who boasted two players who would, the following year, be part of England's World Cup-winning squad. Although one of them was absent that day.

"He must have been injured," suggests Oates of full-back Jimmy Armfield. "Which was very, very rare for Jimmy. He was such an athlete. I remember him playing in what seemed like every game. This was a guy who had more integrity than anyone I know. But Alan Ball was definitely playing. And he was the best I played with, Bally."

In his last full season for the Seasiders before he moved to Everton, Ball (one of four Blackpool players that day no longer around) dominated, creating a couple of goals in a 4-2 win. Not that players celebrated.

"You couldn't afford to over-indulge," says Oates. "Christmas Day or not, none of us would have had a beer in the dressing room. You couldn't go home and have a few either. Not when you had a game next day."

Though, as it happens, the reverse fixture was postponed as the pitch at Ewood Park was frozen. It was eventually played in May, by which time Blackpool's 3-1 win was irrelevant: Rovers were already down. So the Blackpool players went out in a group with their wives that night.

"We always went out altogether after the Boxing Day game," recalls James. "That was our Christmas do. Though you had to be careful. It all kicked off again over New Year." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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