Football: Football's Christmas spirit was all humbug

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WELL, IT'S that time of the year again, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, holly and jingle bells, Yo, ho, ho, and all that jazz.

A time to remember, which someone on radio was up to the other night, recalling when League football was played on Christmas Day in a jovial atmosphere of back-slapping goodwill to all men.

He had to be kidding. What some of us call to mind, everyone who was then employed in the game, is 11am kick-offs on Christmas morning; long, jolting journeys on steam trains to fulfil return fixtures the next day; the cheerless waiting rooms of deserted railway outposts, feuds carried over, nursing injuries in heatless carriages, dry curled-up sandwiches washed down with a bottle of ale.

Because witless administration had yet to see the sense in playing derby matches over Christmas, many teams covered hundreds of miles to play each other twice in 24 hours. Often, the results were ridiculous too. Frequently, home defeats were turned around on the morrow.

Old players speak not only of chaotic Christmas arrangements but the results of premature festive celebration. A personal favourite concerns a normally abstemious winger whose equilibrium on Christmas morning was sorely disturbed by a fall from the straight and narrow. Able to conceal this from stern management but fearful of disgracing himself on the field, he begged not to be given the ball.

When his centre in the final minute led to an own goal that won the match, still finding it difficult to distinguish clearly between friend and foe, he proffered a congratulatory hand to the culprit. A punch, unseen by the referee, left him flattened in the back of the net.

Cautions, never mind sendings-off, were rare in those days but cursing in the earshot of some referees on Christmas Day could bring down retribution. My father discovered this in a match controlled by Stanley Rous, the schoolmaster who was knighted after becoming an autocratic secretary of the Football Association and later president of the game's governing body, Fifa. In Rous's view my father's exclamation of "Jesus Christ" on a holy day justified a booking for blasphemy.

Probably because Christmas is associated with snow it usually brings me around to thinking about Sulky Gowers. Sulky, who ran a small night- club in the West End of London to which footballers were drawn in the long ago, hated snow. He loathed it almost as much as racecourse stewards and people who tried to put the arm on him. Snow made it difficult to remain upright on a gammy leg and put up the cost of carnations for his button-hole. When it snowed and the damn stuff settled, nothing much happened in sport, which was a problem for Sulky, who claimed that denials of his gambling instinct brought on a headache. Sulky hadn't suffered a headache since he was 10 years old.

Sulky was exceedingly fond of footballers. He was fond of winning jockeys too, but footballers were his favourites.

In the days when greyhounds ran around Stamford Bridge there was a cafe across from the main entrance where Sulky held court before the commencement of racing. On the Saturday evening before one Christmas he was taking tea there when a prominent London footballer crossed the threshold.

"How did you get on?" Sulky asked, warming his hands around a large cup, and with a wary eye on the weather because he smelt snow. "Lost 4-1," the footballer growled. "Listen," Sulky said. "I want you to give up the game. Take a six months course in etiquette and be my butler."

One New Year's Eve Sulky was in a London pub with a group that included the former Arsenal inside-forward Jimmy Logie, who was criminally passed over by Scotland for all but one international match. Sulky was standing on a table singing one of his favourite refrains when a man he had conned in the guise of a solicitor, entered the premises. "Sulky, Sulky, give it a rest," one of his friends said, "look who's here." "So what?" Sulky replied. "Can't a solicitor sing?"

Like Sulky, the sound of supporters tramping to matches on Christmas morning has long gone. Doubtless, the majority now are astonished to hear of it happening. As for today's pampered heroes, the worst they can expect is the rotten inconvenience of a training session.