We Used to Play on Christmas Day
Festive fixtures were part of the football calendar for a long time, as Geoff Wicken explains
‘Good Morning, Ladies and Gentlemen. The Compliments of the Season to all our followers for Christmas, and for the New Year good health and happiness.’
So began manager Neil McBain’s programme notes for the 11am pre-lunch kick-off at home to Ipswich Town on 25 December 1956. He went on to express the hope that ‘we should have a good turnout of our followers for today’s game, given anything like decent weather’.
This would turn out to be the last Christmas Day fixture in which Watford were involved.
For many years, Christmas Day matches were a staple in the football calendar. It was one of few public holidays, and there wasn’t much other entertainment available. Watching TV wasn’t an option for many: only a minority of the population had television sets until the late 1950s. Public transport ran as normal, so fans and players could take trains and buses for festive away trips. Not only did clubs have games on Christmas Day (unless it fell on a Sunday, when football was prohibited); they would also play the return fixture against the same opponents on Boxing Day. This was to ensure that teams paired up had equal distances to travel. Football was very much a part of Christmas.
The 1956 Christmas Day match against Ipswich was Watford’s 32nd in the 41 league seasons since 1905/06. Prior to that sequence there had been a Christmas Day friendly in 1897, when West Herts put the 2nd Scots Guards to the sword 4-1, and a 6-1 Southern League victory over Southall in 1899.
But the Southern League Christmas Day games didn’t go very well after that first success in 1899. The ten contested between 1905 and 1919 (the first seven all away games) produced only one victory, with six defeats. Luton Town were the opponents four times, with Watford having to travel to Bedfordshire for the ‘festivities’ on every occasion: two were drawn, two lost.
Once in the Football League from 1920, Watford did rather better in Christmas Day games: there were ten wins, seven draws and only five defeats from the 22 matches through to 1956. However, many of the fixtures were rather less local: there were as many as four lengthy trips to south Wales between 1923 and 1934 for Christmas Day games at Swansea, Newport (twice) and Merthyr Town. In all cases Watford and their opponents then had to get themselves to Vicarage Road for the following day’s return match.
Although Christmas games were lucrative for clubs, they weren’t so popular with all the players. The drinkers amongst them – a fair few – might have found it difficult to balance their professional responsibilities with the temptation for seasonal overindulgence. In his programme notes for the 1934 Christmas Day match the president of the Newport County Supporters’ Club, one Cyrus T Clissitt Esq, JP, mused obliquely on the subject:
‘We often sympathise with the Professional footballer at this time. He is surely to be sympathised with. The happy gatherings which we indulge in are not for him. Our own players are let off rather lightly this year for the journey to Watford tomorrow is not such a long one.’ (One supposes that, for a club based in south Wales, a Christmas trip to Watford would have been preferable to, say, Gillingham or Southend.)
Watford would win 1-0 at Somerton Park that day, and 7-0 the following day at Vicarage Road. One wonders whether Cyrus’s sympathy for his team’s players would have survived that result.
Newport were very charitable Christmas opponents during these years. In 1928 Watford had won 2-0 in Wales on Christmas Day and 3-0 at home on Boxing Day; in 1937 the Christmas Day game ‒ this time at Vicarage Road – brought another 3-0 Watford victory, before Newport finally managed a 0-0 draw at Somerton Park in the return fixture.
Watford’s biggest win on Christmas Day during the Football League era was 4-0 at home to Southend in 1946, the first post-war season, with a hat-trick from leading scorer Ralph Evans. The Shrimpers netted five times without reply to achieve revenge back in Southend the next day.
The record in wartime fixtures was also good. Taffy Davies bagged a hat-trick in 1939 as Watford dished out a 5-1 Christmas stuffing to Crystal Palace. In 1945, in a 7-2 romp against Notts County, George Lewis scored four goals – some of them gift-wrapped by the visitors’ defence, let us hope. There were consecutive wins away to Luton in 1942 and 1943, the second of which drew a crowd of 7,000.
Most remarkable though was 1940, when Watford played Luton twice on Christmas Day: in the morning at Vicarage Road (a 2-2 draw) and in the afternoon at Kenilworth Road (a 1-4 defeat). Ten of the Watford team played in both games; Harry Lewis scored one penalty each side of lunch.
Once the Football League restarted after World War II, the Christmas football tradition began to dwindle. Christmas Day train services went into decline, with passenger numbers falling throughout the 1950s, one reason being that cars were becoming more accessible. The last Christmas passenger train ran in 1964. By 1961 over 75% of households owned a television. The introduction of floodlights and consequently evening games reduced the need for fixtures to be squeezed into public holidays, and many fans were preferring to spend time at home with their families.
Inclement weather was also a risk. Heavy snow hit most of the UK at Christmas 1956; coupled with a petrol shortage this affected attendances significantly. This was not the ‘anything like decent’ weather for which McBain had hoped in his programme notes. Watford’s game with Ipswich attracted only 4,544 spectators, the third-lowest home crowd of the season. The Christmas game was up.
The hardy souls who attended at Vicarage Road that day saw Watford win 2-1. As a consequence, the very last visiting manager to taste Christmas Day defeat at Vicarage Road was Alf (later Sir Alf) Ramsey. One of the goals was scored by debutant John Reid, an Airdrieonians player who was on National Service at RAF Uxbridge and signed for the Blues on loan. This would be his only first-team game for Watford. He declined to play in the return at Ipswich on Boxing Day, apparently preferring to spend the day with his new wife, and McBain didn’t select him again. Neil McBain’s Christmas goodwill only extended so far. And as he bade farewell to John Reid, after the 1956 Ipswich game Vicarage Road bade farewell to Christmas Day football.