Professional footballers don’t need much persuading to let anyone who is listening, know quite how tough they have it at this time of the year.
Away games on Boxing Day usually mean a few swift hours spent with the family on Christmas morning, before they are communally bussed away for a quiet night in with the rest of the lads, no music, alcohol or festive debauchery allowed. The poor things.
You can only sympathise with the brief seasonal hardships that some of these wealthy, privileged and hugely popular young professionals have to go through at Christmas. It can’t be easy when the entire population, rather than just you and your mates, are living to excess and enjoying the fruits of their labours.
Despite their travails however, they do have it comparatively easy today when you consider how their peers did in the not so distant past. The first five decades or so of the last century saw football as a game that was primarily played for the purpose and pleasure of the spectating public (an alien concept today) rather than for any nefarious peripheral reason such as those we encounter now.
Football in the twenty-first century is sponsor rich and television led, with last minute kick off times and dates, plus all their assorted ilk, meaning the paying spectators convenience is often put aside in favour of the one sat on the sofa at home. Rightly or wrongly, this is systematic of a game that no longer has its priorities in order as far as its once lifeblood was concerned.
This has not always been the case – even if, for example, the arrangement of the fixture lists in those halcyon spectating days seemed to put the interests of the fans above the players and teams!
Take the 1935/36 season for example, the club’s first at Carrow Road. Norwich’s festive commitments in 1935 meant that the Canaries had to play three league games in just four days-including one on Christmas Day. That saw Norwich make the long trip up to Bury for a Division Two fixture, one in which we secured a excellent 1-0 victory, thanks to a goal from Cecil Russell. All good you might think, two points, festive cheer all round, the players and fans can now put their feet up and enjoy the rest of the holiday. Oh no. Boxing Day meant the return fixture, which entailed the players and staff of Bury FC joining their erstwhile conquerors on the train back to Norwich, suited, booted, and ready to do it all again in less than twenty-four hours time.
The very fact that this was possible says a lot about how things were different in society at the time – which football was merely reflecting. Yes, it was Christmas. But life did go on. The majority of people were on holiday, so it made perfect sense, as far as the FA were concerned, to put a few games on for them – and to hell with the players. But think of all the travelling involved. One of the main reasons that up to 46 league games could be played on Christmas Day is because, across the nation, a near to normal rail service was running throughout the day. This meant the Norwich and Bury players could get back to Norwich post-match, a journey that, even now, can take up to five hours.
Those were, as it is frequently said, the days. But I digress, this is a footballing commentary, not a social one.
So, fast forward 24 hours and the teams are running out again, this time at Carrow Road where two goals apiece by Jack Vinall and John Friar contribute to Bury’s 5-3 defeat. Two days, two games, nine goals and a 400 mile round trip for each club to make within that time. At least they got the next day off.
This was some respite in that spectator friendly festive programme that saw the weary hearts and minds of Norwich City travel down to London on December 28th to play West Ham United in front of a capacity crowd at Upton Park. The popularity of this festive logjam is now clear and perfectly underlined by that very fact as, when the two clubs had last met there, less than a year ago, the gate was half of the one the Hammers and their happy Bank Manager enjoyed on that day.
The Canaries also played a number of matches over the Christmas period during the years of the Second World War. A particularly memorable example, if not for all the right reasons, came in 1940 when Brighton & Hove Albion travelled up to Norfolk to provide the local population, residents and posted war-time personnel alike, with some festive football. However, the natural shortage of fit young men at the time meant teams often had to play ‘ringers’ in the form of guest players to make up the numbers. The unfortunate Seagulls were not even able to get a side together using this method, so, rather than abandon the game, they appealed for help from the crowd, making up the eleven with a motley gathering of keen locals. Naturally this was somewhat to the detriment of their performance, Norwich ending up the winners 18-0, the club’s record ‘unofficial’ victory.
One Christmas period best forgotten as far as Canary history is concerned, would be that of 1946. On Christmas Day that year, Norwich travelled down to the South Coast to play Bournemouth in a Division Three South fixture, notching up only their second away victory of the season in doing so with a 1-0 win, courtesy of a Syd Jones goal.
Suitably encouraged by his side’s success, Manager Cyril Spiers made just one change for the return game at Carrow Road the following day, dropping occasional forward Terry Ryder and pushing the then established Syd Plunkett into his favoured more attacking role. This ensured Norwich went into the fixture with close to their first choice starting XI featuring. His faith in the team and Plunkett in particular was justified with Plunkett scoring-only for Norwich to lose the match 6-1.
A festive one off surely? Not at all. Two days later the Canaries made the long trip westwards to play Cardiff City and lost by exactly the same scoreline.
Boxing Day 2012 sees the Canaries hosting the self appointed oligarchs of the game in Chelsea. It will be Norwich’s sixth game of a busy December and the first of three games to be played over an eight day period. Such demands are now regarded as ‘fixture congestion’ – a phrase that hadn’t been invented seventy-odd years ago when the interests of the fans came first and clubs danced to their tune instead of the one that accompanies the opening credits of a Sky Sports Super *insert day here* TV marathon.
Football for the fans. How quaint. And how very refreshing.