Brian Viner: The ghosts of Boxing Days past return to haunt us

The Last Word
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Today, 26 December is surely the most resonant date in the sporting calendar.

Fans of football, cricket and horse racing in particular scarcely know which way to turn on Boxing Day, and great sporting Boxing Days that leap to mind include the first day of the fourth Ashes Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground three years ago, albeit typically catastrophic in that grimmest of series for England, who were sauntering along at 101 for 2, then lost their last eight wickets for a further paltry 58 runs.

That I include it in my own personal treasure trove of memories has much to do with the dazzling Shane Warne, making his valedictory Test appearance at his home ground in front of 89,155 people, and as ever rising flamboyantly to the occasion with 5 for 39, the first of which (Andrew Strauss, clean bowled) was his 700th Test wicket. Even for an Englishman it was a pleasure to watch. Moreover, the day ended with the Aussies 48 for 2, so it looked as though we might make a game of it. But only to Mr Magoo. England ended up losing by an innings and 99 runs.

In fact for me, now that I think of it, Boxing Days down the decades have been enveloped more in gloom than ecstasy. In 1977 I caught the bus to Goodison Park – in those days the Boxing Day service ran on mulled wine, and took almost two hours to travel 15 miles – in the hope of watching Everton extend an unbeaten run in the league stretching back to 23 August. But Manchester United, hardly the force then that they are now, beat us 6-2. The smell of defeat that day – steaming police horse manure, Goodison Road chips, and the urine-spattered top deck of the No 23 bus – lives in my nostrils still.

Oddly enough the Boxing Day football programme traditionally yields lots of goals, perhaps because defenders subconsciously like to hand the radio and TV commentators a line about seasonal generosity of spirit. At any rate, Boxing Day 1963 is still, and will surely for ever be, the most prolific goalscoring day of all time in the top tier of English football. There were 66 goals and the results included Blackpool 1 Chelsea 5, Burnley 6 Manchester United 1, Fulham 10 Ipswich Town 1, Liverpool 6 Stoke City 1, Nottingham Forest 3 Sheffield United 3, West Bromwich Albion 4 Tottenham Hotspur 4, West Ham United 2 Blackburn Rovers 8, and Wolverhampton Wanderers 3 Aston Villa 3. Can you imagine a set of results like that now? Jeff Stelling and his excitable Sky Sports pundits would have to be carried out of the studio, legs a-twitching, mouths a-foaming.

Still, there are some intriguing football fixtures today to get their juices flowing, and of course a Boxing Day Test in South Africa made all the more appetising by England's last-ditch draw at Centurion. But it is to Kempton Park that the sporting romantics will be looking, weather permitting. Tony McCoy reckons that Kauto Star cannot be beaten in the King George, except by snow, in which case he will become the first horse to win the great race four years in succession. Not even Desert Orchid managed that.

Whatever happens, let us strike forth, or sit back, and enjoy this greatest of all sporting days, sparing a thought for one Boxing Day event that I doubt whether anyone reading this page can remember. It takes us back to Goodison Park and took place in 1920, in front of 53,000 spectators, with a further 14,000 locked out. It was a football match between the works team from Dick, Kerr munitions factory in Preston, and a team from St Helens, and its enduring significance is that the players were all female. Indeed, such was the popularity of women's football, which had burgeoned while the men were away fighting, that within a year it had been banned by the movers and shakers at the Football Association, bloated with self-importance, then as now.

Personality gong has lost character

In my local the other night there was yet another debate about the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show, 10 days after the event. It's incredible how this annual ritual divides folk, though most viewers of my generation reckon it's nothing like the treat it used to be. I agree, but inevitably it was a bigger deal when sport on telly amounted to Grandstand, World of Sport, The Big Match and Sportsnight. Paradoxically, I now sit in front of Sky Sports and ESPN thinking wistfully back to those days. We were deprived, but we were 'appy.

Last orders to win a beer a day

You have one more week to complete The Last Word's festive quiz, which appeared in this space last Saturday and can still be accessed with a click or two of a computer mouse. I must say that I didn't expect anyone to answer all 30 questions correctly, but at the time of writing, with quite a few entries in, one reader has. If you can match him, and improve on his advertising slogan for Spitfire ale, the splendid prize – 365 bottles of Spitfire generously donated by master brewers Shepherd Neame – will be yours. Answers to sportsquiz@independent.co.uk.

Slogan inspiration at www.spitfireale.co.uk.

Comments