My father's exclamation on a holy day justified booking for blasphemy

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The Independent Online
One of the things on which old British footballers are in agreement is that today's heroes have got no cause to complain about the restrictions imposed on them at Christmas.

They remember 11am kick-offs on Christmas morning; long, jolting journeys on steam trains to fulfil Boxing Day fixtures; the draughty waiting rooms of deserted stations, nursing injuries in heatless carriages; dry, curled up sandwiches. Happy Christmas - they had to be kidding.

George Cohen, who turned out for England in the 1966 World Cup final, recalls travelling back from Swansea on Christmas Day with Fulham. "You can fly as far as Los Angeles in the time it took us to get home from Wales," he said. "Teams travelled by rail in those days and there was only a skeleton service over the holiday period."

Finally getting to bed in the early hours, the team had to play again that afternoon. "I don't remember how things went at Swansea but I haven't forgotten the journey," Cohen, now a property dealer in Kent, said. "We were stuck at Bridgend for six hours with nothing to eat or drink, trying to fan some warmth from a miserable coal fire in the waiting room. I looked at Johnny Haynes, who was then captain of England, and thought the whole thing was bloody ridiculous."

Witless administration that had yet to see the sense of arranging derby matches over Christmas meant that teams covered hundreds of miles to play each other twice in 24 hours. Some of the results seemed ridiculous, too. Walloped at home; victors away.

On Boxing Day 1963, less than six months before defeating Preston North End in the FA Cup final, West Ham lost 8-2 at home to Blackburn Rovers. Two days later, showing one change, Eddie Bovington for Martin Peters, they won 3-1 at Blackburn. Peters would play a significant role in England's World Cup victory but the turnaround against Blackburn cost him an FA Cup-winner's medal, through being unable to regain his place until the following season.

Tottenham's 4-1 home loss to West Ham on Boxing Day 1958, their second over a congested Christmas programme, made relegation a serious possibility just two seasons before they became the first modern Double winners. Sitting at the back of the directors' box, Tottenham's manager, Bill Nicholson, heard a reporter declare that a club with such poor parking facilities deserved to be in the Second Division.

I reminded Nicholson of this many years later. "I was angry because it was such a stupid remark," he said, "but those Christmas results proved that we were in real trouble. Something had to be done."

Relegation was avoided but not before Nicholson took the sensational step of leaving out Danny Blanchflower, who spent a month in the reserves.

Old players speak not only of chaotic Christmas arrangements but some lively souls who turned out with hangovers. A personal favourite among anecdotes concerns a normally abstemious winger whose equilibrium was greatly affected by the drinks he was persuaded to take on Christmas Eve. On the field next morning, fearful of being found out, 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 unable to distinguish clearly between his own team and the opposition, he trotted over and congratulated the culprit. A punch, unseen by the referee, left him flattened in the back of the net.

Cautions were rare in those days but swearing in the earshot of referees on Christmas Day was not advisable, as my father learned in a match controlled by Stanley Rous, later Sir Stanley, who went on to become an autocratic secretary of the Football Association and president of Fifa, the game's ruling body. In Rous's view my father's exclamation of "Jesus Christ" on a holy day justified booking for blasphemy.

The sound of supporters tramping to matches on Christmas Day morning has long gone from English football. The majority today are astonished to hear of it happening. As for the players, the worst they can expect is a training session and travel in luxury buses. Pressure, strain, absence from their families? Forget it. They should have been around 30 years ago, when the bonus was two pounds for a win and a pound for a draw: the rent money.

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