Christmas Entertainment: The history of festive football in Britain

“We’re going to kill the players,” said an exasperated Pep Guardiola in January 2018. “I know here in England the show must go on, but that’s not normal, guys.”

Manchester City’s coach was bemused by the sheer intensity of the Premier League’s Christmas schedule. And he was not the first to voice such an opinion. Throughout Europe, it is customary to have a break during the festive period. In Germany and Spain, where Guardiola had coached previously, the break is an opportunity to unwind, to regroup ahead of the second part of the season.

In England, though, it is very different. Winter is the busiest time of the year. It is the time fans most look forward to: the promise of football on Boxing Day, of several matches played over a couple of weeks.

The tradition stretches back to the beginning of organised football in the country. There has never been a time when football has not been played at Christmas, and it does not appear likely to stop in the near future – regardless of the complaints voiced by those who feel it is too hard on players.

There have been slight changes, though: games are no longer played on Christmas Day, as they were up until the 1960s. And the number of matches played has been cut back.

But there would be something strange about a British Christmas without football. The first official match ever played between two clubs in the country was on 26 December 1860. Sheffield FC beat Hallam FC 2-0, and a tradition was born.

In 1889, Preston and Aston Villa met in the first Christmas Day fixture. It was an idea that caught on. Football could alleviate any post-Christmas lunch boredom; it gave families something to do on one of the few public holidays of the time.

Soon, it became common to play on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Fatigue was not considered an issue; clubs simply wanted to please the paying public, who delighted in attending games over the festive period. Attendances were up, and it made sense to play when supporters had more time on their hands.

It made sense, too, to arrange games between local rivals, for logistical reasons. Out of this logic came the tradition of the reverse fixture, where two teams would play each other twice, first on the 25th and then on the 26th.

This resulted in some anomalous results. Teams might appear far superior to their opposition on Christmas Day, only to lose the reverse fixture on Boxing Day. Back then, of course, players were still partial to a drink, and the inconvenience of a couple of football matches was not going to stop them celebrating.

On Christmas Day 1914, the Sheffield Owls beat Tottenham 3-2. The next day they travelled to London and were beaten 6-1. Results, clearly, were difficult to predict.

This continued up until the late 1950s, when calls for a reduction in the Christmas schedule were finally acknowledged. The last full round of Christmas Day fixtures came during the 1957-58 season and within a few years football was no longer played on the 25th.

There was no interruption to the Boxing Day fixtures, though. They persisted, and continued to produce bizarre, often inexplicable results. In 1963, for example, 66 goals were scored across ten games in Division One. Burnley beat Manchester United 6-1, Fulham beat Ipswich 10-1, Liverpool beat Stoke 6-1, and West Ham lost 8-2 against Blackburn.

Two days later, the reverse fixtures were played. Manchester United responded with a 5-1 win over Burnley, Ipswich beat Fulham 4-2, and West Ham beat Blackburn 3-1. The absurdity of it all was, perhaps, what made it so popular.

That desire for unpredictability, for nonsensical football, endures today. And there is still drama to be found on Boxing Day.

There are, of course, those who suggest the Christmas schedule is archaic and unnecessarily demanding, that sentimentality should not preserve something which ultimately damages players and leads to an increased risk of injuries.

The TV companies dictate things now, though, and little is likely to change while the demand for football at Christmas remains. Perhaps there is too much of it, and perhaps Guardiola is right to warn of the potential consequences. He should probably be thankful, though, that his Manchester City side do not have to play on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

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