As I write we await the confirmation of whether Arsenal will host Liverpool on Christmas Eve. Richard Scudamore of the Premier League has said the match won’t take place at 4pm as was originally planned, but hasn’t yet ruled anything else out.
Many supporters are up in arms about the idea of Christmas Eve football. Personally I have nothing against the principle, but it needs to be the right match at the right time of day. Away fans having to travel a couple of hundred miles home after a 4pm kick off when the trains have already stopped running is not right. However, if it was Arsenal against West Ham with a full tube service on, would people be as bothered? I don’t see a problem with that at all.
There are matches on Boxing Day every year, and there aren’t any trains then. Away fans are expected to go from Swansea to Liverpool on December 26 this year, and no one bats an eyelid. Man City fans will be off to Newcastle and Bournemouth fans to West Ham. I’m not sure why some people consider this not as bad as a local derby on Christmas Eve.
The League have perhaps messed up this year with their December 23 fixtures, as no one is playing a geographically close opponent, and they surely should have foreseen that Sky or BT would want to move a match to the 24th? The closest match on the 23rd is Stoke v West Brom, and let’s face it no one wants to invoke the Christmas spirit with that one. The League have also messed up with giving the TV companies so much power over scheduling – and in this case ‘the League’ is really ‘the clubs’, who saw the many pound signs and voted to sell their souls. Whatever is scheduled, the clubs are ultimately to blame as they agreed it.
Objections to Christmas Eve games that I’ve seen from fans include:
- People will be travelling to family for Christmas – well some will, but equally others travel on Boxing Day; you can’t please everyone all the time
- The stadium staff will have to work – well so will people in shops other service industries, and when Christmas Eve is a weekday, so does nearly everyone else
- It’s traditional not to play on Christmas Eve, so it’s just the TV companies taking advantage – this one makes me laugh most of all.
Christmas football is nothing new. Arsenal was founded in 1886 and for the first couple of years didn’t play much around Christmas, but from about 1890 fixtures on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day became the norm, plus Christmas Eve if it was a Saturday. If any of these days was a Sunday no matches were played, as Sunday football was not permitted until well into the second half of the 20th century. Arsenal joined the Football League in 1893 and from then on usually played League matches on both December 25 and 26. This made sense to everyone at the time: in midwinter even in southern England it’s too dark for football by four o’clock, so evening games weren’t possible, and most people worked a five-and-a-half-day week, finishing on Saturday lunchtime. Football was, where possible, fitted in on days and times when the majority of supporters weren’t working, and no one was working on Christmas Day or Boxing Day.
Prior to World War 1 if only one of the two holidays was taken up by a league match the other usually had a friendly – even if there was another league match on December 27, which there sometimes was. Christmas Eve football was perfectly normal in years when that day was a Saturday.
During the war the Football League was suspended, but Christmas matches continued, whether friendlies or one of the local war leagues. When the Football League Resumed in 1919 things continued as before – in 1921 Arsenal actually played League matches on December 24, 26 and 27 – Christmas Day itself being a Sunday.
The pattern continued through the 1920s and ’30s, with virtually a full league programme on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day unless one was a Sunday. Usually teams met the same opponent on the two days, often travelling together by train to get from the home fixture to the away fixture the following day. Most fans were still local, so if other transport options were limited it had little effect on attendances.
Another war interrupted League football, but in 1946 it resumed with Christmas Day fixtures still the norm. In the 1950s things started to change very gradually, and although Christmas Day still saw matches it was not always a full league programme. In the old First Division there were five matches on Christmas Day in 1952, eight in 1953. In 1954 Christmas Day was a Saturday, so it was back to a full league programme, and in 1955 with Christmas being on a Sunday, everyone played on Christmas Eve instead.
In 1956 December 25 saw nine First Division matches, dropping to seven the following year and three in 1958 – most teams played on December 26 and 27 that year.
In 1959 there was just one First Division match on Christmas Day: Blackpool against Blackburn. They played the return fixture on Boxing Day, while most other teams completed their double-headers on the 26th and 28th.
In 1960, Christmas fell on a Sunday – and there was still no Sunday football – so most teams played on both Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. After that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day football was largely abandoned. I believe the main reason for this was that the widespread use of floodlights from the second half of the 1950s meant evening games could take place at any time of year, taking the pressure off the Christmas schedule. Perhaps there was also a gradual shift in attitude among working people that they should spend more time at home at Christmas; working hours were gradually changing and people also got more time off in general so were free to watch football at other times. There may also have been a feeling that perhaps the players deserved some time off at Christmas too. Jimmy Hill may well have started agitating for the chance to enjoy second helpings of turkey!
No top flight matches took place on either December 24 or 25 from 1961-64, but Blackpool and Blackburn again played on Christmas Day in 1965 – the last competitive fixture in England to be held on that date. The following year Christmas Eve was a Saturday, but only two First Division (Chelsea / Liverpool and Newcastle / Leeds) and two Second Division matches took place. After that both December 24 and 25 became largely blank in England. The League and FA still had no qualms about teams playing on consecutive days, so when Christmas fell on a weekend there were often still full (or nearly full) sets of fixtures on the Monday and Tuesday Bank Holidays that followed.
As the 1970s progressed the First Division largely adopted the pattern of having matches the Saturday before Christmas (as long as it wasn’t Christmas Eve), Boxing Day (as long as it wasn’t Sunday), the Saturday between Christmas and New Year, and New Year’s Day (or Jan 2 if New Year’s Day was Sunday).
The next Christmas Eve football in England was a trio of FA Cup second round replays in 1979, including Halifax beating Walsall (actually a second replay) and Wimbledon drawing with Portsmouth. Halifax, then of the fourth division, went on to beat first division Man City in the next round.
In 1983 Brentford played Wimbledon on December 24, then in 1995 the sole instance of Premier League football on Christmas Eve occurred: Leeds 3 Man Utd 1. Since then, nothing – Boxing Day has become the ‘tradition’.
In Scotland they still often play on the 24th when it falls on a Saturday – there was a full Scottish programme in 2011 and Rangers and Celtic both played on Christmas Eve last year, as did many lower division Scottish teams. Distances to travel in Scotland are generally shorter than in England, which backs up my point about local matches being fine on pretty much any day.
We await the final verdict from the Premier League and Sky on Arsenal v Liverpool. Liverpool can afford to be a bit more belligerent about it, as they’re not hosting the game. Arsenal don’t want to claim they can’t put a fixture on for lack of staff or any other debatable reason, as the Premier League will never let that can of worms be opened – failure to fulfil a fixture is a certain points deduction. Anyway, give all the stewards three times their normal pay (an extra cost that barely scrapes into five figures out of a TV fee of £1m+) and plenty will be prepared to work.
I’m thinking kick off between 12 and 2pm. If Liverpool have any sense they’ll put a couple of free trains on for their own fans paid for with the TV fee. The stadium will be full. Some regular Arsenal fans won’t go, but Arsenal fans have bigger things to protest about than Sky reviving a tradition that lasted for 70 years of league football.