A season of ill-will to all men

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The Independent Online
THIS is about a time in football that the majority will find strange and are sure not to know about.

The scene is the waiting room of a railway station in South Wales. It is late on Christmas Day and outside snow is falling heavily, forming ridges along the tracks. A group of men, most of them young, one or two in middle age, some famous in their field, are huddled around the dying embers of a coal fire. All wear overcoats. Their train to London is already six hours late and they have not eaten properly since breakfast.

It is how the Fulham and England full-back, George Cohen, remembers the worst of Christmases past as they used to be in the Football League. 'I can still recall that experience vividly,' he said. 'We'd travelled to Cardiff overnight for an 11 o'clock kick-off on Christmas morning. Then it was back to play Arsenal on Boxing Day afternoon. It was the sort of Christmas we'd grown used to, but that year things took a turn for the worse when snow caused havoc with public transport.'

Cold and hungry, as Cohen recalls, dining on sandwiches and bottled beer, the Fulham players finally arrived home in the early hours. 'As the train jolted along, I remember looking at the lights in the houses and thinking that it was a hell of a way to spend Christmas,' he said. 'All for a maximum wage of pounds 20 per week and bonuses of two pounds a win, a pound a draw. Because they couldn't feed us on the way back from Cardiff I think we got five shillings tea money.'

Any number of Cohen's contemporaries can recall similar tales. Going back almost 40 years, the Aston Villa coach and former Chelsea and Manchester United manager, Dave Sexton, remembers being summoned to Middlesbrough as a replacement for an injured West Ham forward. 'Immediately after turning out for the reserves in the West Country I was told to travel north. There was no way of getting there directly and the journey on empty trains was a long one. Of course, in those days there wasn't a motorway system so even in normal circumstances it took ages to travel long distances by road. It's a lot more comfortable now.'

Frequently clubs met each other twice in two days, the lucky ones in local derbies that drew substantial crowds, especially in the immediate post-war years. Others were committed by the League's fixture planners to gruelling journeys by rail, this perhaps explaining some quite astonishing reversals of form.

The tradition of playing on Christmas Day had more or less been abandoned by 1963 when West Ham lost 8-2 to Blackburn Rovers in a Boxing Day fixture at Upton Park. Forty-eight hours later, making just one change, Eddie Bovington for Martin Peters at right-half, West Ham defeated Blackburn 3-l; this had serious repercussions for Peters who failed to regained his place in time to appear in the 1964 FA Cup final. Two years later he scored one of England's four goals in the World Cup final.

There are stories of players turning out on Christmas morning the worse for drink, their performances a study in wasted motion. It appears that one of considerable repute was so befuddled on the morning after that he galloped across to congratulate the scorer of an own goal, mistaking him for a team-mate. He ended up in the back of the net, put there by a perfect right hook.

My father, a professional with Everton and Southend, had his name taken one Christmas morning, doubtless under the heading of ungentlemanly conduct, for what the referee considered to be a sacrilegious utterance. The offending word was 'Christ'. The referee was Stanley Rous, later to become the Football Association secretary and president of Fifa.

It would be interesting to know how the Christmas Day fixtures came about, when they were incorporated into the League programme and whether there were any objections on religious grounds. So far nobody has been able to tell me. Astonishingly, you may think, the idea proved to be extremely popular. Attendances, especially for derby matches, were among the best of the season. Morning kick-offs set up the ritual of match, pub and home for Christmas dinner. Not that the players always went along with the seasonal notion of goodwill to all men. Feuds begun one day were unlikely to dissolve by the next. I have a scar to prove it.

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