The decline of the Boxing Day derby

hammers arsenal 300x225 The decline of the Boxing Day derby

This year, Arsenal v West Ham is the top flight's only Boxing Day derby (Getty Images)

In football terms, Boxing Day is a collective sigh of relief after the familial confinement of the festive season. A chance to take in the air, talk and most of all drink, free from simmering tensions or dinner table discord, and with rare latitude for your post-pub condition.

Part of the package is, or was, a local derby, a large crowd and that special Boxing Day atmosphere. The tradition has been diluted recently; the authorities maybe deciding that testy derbies fuelled by booze are not the best way to mark the festivities. Which is a shame, as games on St Stephen’s Day have had something special about them since 1860, when Sheffield and Hallam, the World’s two oldest clubs, met at Hallam’s Sandygate Road. The visitors won 2-0 in a match played under ‘Sheffield Rules’, which introduced free-kicks, corners and throw-ins to the game, as well as headers; possibly not the choice of the wrung out or hung over among the players.

For the committed fan, few things beat leaving the house on the morning of the 26th, with nothing but football, several beers and the company of like-minded people to look forward to. The game is the thing; the level almost irrelevant.

East End stalwarts Clapton and Leyton provided a classic double header in 1999, with the day’s first fixture in Forest Gate a 58 bus ride from the second, three miles away in Lea Bridge Road. The final whistle at the Old Spotted Dog Ground sent a coterie of confirmed anoraks scurrying from Clapton’s Great Wakering fixture, to the Hare and Hounds (another ground with a pub attached) in time for a pint and a match programme before the Leyton v Ilford game. Four goals at Clapton – all for the visitors, sadly – and another couple at Leyton in another away win, were a profitable return for a small investment.

For football fans in their festive bubble, it was bliss; obscure and nerdish perhaps, but bliss nonetheless, and a footballing tradition now sadly neglected in the games upper reaches. In the past two seasons, Boxing Day has seen just two genuine Premier League derbies; Fulham’s 1-1 draw at Chelsea in 2011 and West Ham’s win at Craven Cottage the year before. Also gone is the footballing double-header. Scheduling, and to a greater extent, ticket prices, have seen to that. Two games for twenty quid? Not in this League, mate.

Things were different in the Sixties and Seventies, when you could have seen West Ham v Blackburn on Boxing Day morning in 1963 and Fulham v Ipswich in the afternoon – with a total of 21 goals. All thanks to public transport and staggered kick-offs; neither a regular feature of modern Boxing Day football.

Festive football’s last hurrah possibly came in 1979, when Hillsbrough saw the mother of all Boxing Day dust-ups. Wednesday and United had not played a competitive game for eight years; the Owls’ descent to the fringes of division four coinciding with United’s tenure in the top flight. But by ‘79, the Blades were in division three, while Wednesday, under Jack Charlton’s tutelage were finally on an upward curve.

Derby day arrived with United top and Wednesday fourth. And with five months for the city to prepare, there was huge anticipation for the fixture. An 11am kick-off and no public transport saw thousands ride Shank’s Pony to Hillsbrough, and when the turnstile tallies were counted, they read 49,309; a record for the third division.

Wednesday won 4-0; the Boxing Day Massacre possibly karmic retribution on United for scrapping their stripes for shirts akin to the TV test card. Wednesday’s Terry Curran, who played for both Sheffield clubs, recalled the genuine hostility between the sides, with threats of broken legs and worse exchanged as the players lined up together. The on-pitch presence of  Sheffield- born players, and a take-no-prisoners team talk from Charlton pre kick-off stoked things further.

This year, Arsenal v West Ham is the top flight’s only Boxing Day derby; while you have to wait for Chelsea v QPR on New Year’s Day for the next local collision. Things are little better in the Championship. December 26th sees Leeds travel to Forest, Watford to Bristol City and Birmingham to Barnsley, while Derby fans will hardly welcome a trek to Turf Moor.

The lower divisions have a more relaxed feel, with Pompey v Crawley, Preston v Bury and Bournemouth v Yeovil the standout fixtures on 26th. A level below, however, Torquay’s visit to Plymouth is the sole concession to festive tradition. Thankfully the Football Conference spares a thought for travelling fans, conjuring seven genuine Derbies on Boxing Day and another six to bring in the New Year.

But if the game’s leading coaches have their way, the lower divisions may soon be the only place to catch a festive game. The Premier League has also made noises about scrapping these matches, creating a de facto winter break. If they do, police objections over drinking and disorder would provide a handy excuse, along with the ‘needs’ of bigger clubs and the England team.

Quoted in The Telegraph, Roy Hodgson said; “It would be lovely to think that one day we could all get together and say, ‘England is important.’ Sadly for Hodgson and the FA, England these days is nowhere near as important to most supporters as their own clubs. You won’t find fans at any level sacrificing the most anticipated period of the season, or FA Cup replays come to that, for some spurious Jam Tomorrow from the national side. It’s a feeling shared by England players if lacklustre showings at major tournaments are any guide.

The practicalities are a problem too. Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore told The Telegraph that the ‘three key stakeholders’ in the English game, the FA, Premier League and Football League, had not worked out how to fit a winter break into the current schedule. His glaring omission was the supporters, who relish the festive programme, but are not ’stakeholders’ obviously. Steve Powell, Director of Policy for the Football Supporters Federation confirmed that they had not been consulted. Scudamore of course was the brains behind the 39th game, a plan hatched and scrapped with a similar lack of discussion.

The winter break would end the Premier League’s festive programme, much as the demands of the England squad and Champions League eroded cup replays. Premier League football could then mirror Rugby League, where Boxing Day friendlies (the “Festive Challenge”) are the meagre offerings to supporters deprived of their post-Christmas fix. But then talk of a winter break is just speculation; it’s a bad idea that will never happen. Next thing you know, they’ll schedule the Cup Final at 5.15pm for the sake of TV…

Back in the real world, the game continues as it always has. Well, almost. In London’s East End, Leyton FC are no more while Clapton cling on by their fingernails in the Essex Senior League; their ancient ground in desperate need of a facelift. And in South Yorkshire, Hallam host Dinnington Town on Boxing Day, kick-off 3pm. Thankfully, in a world of massive wages and misplaced priorities, some things in football don’t change.

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