Football at Christmas is one of the best times of the year for fans in England.
It’s not ideal for the players and coaches because there are games at every level coming thick and fast. But you might be able to watch your team three of even four times in little more than week in late December around the festive season.
Boxing Day football is a staple of the calendar, as is New Year’s Day. There will usually be another game in between those and one just before Christmas, depending on where the weekend falls.
Christmas Day used to be part of that, often a double header with Boxing Day when a team might play the same opponent home and away on consecutive days.
In 1957/58, reigning First Division champions Manchester United faced Luton at Old Trafford on Christmas Day and then travelled south to play them again at Kenilworth Road the next day.
It was par for the course in those days, and if it wasn’t back-to-back Christmas Day and Boxing Day games, it would be Christmas Day and 27 December, as it was when Manchester United and Liverpool played each other home and away in quick succession in 1948/49.
Christmas Day football was the norm from the very earliest years of the Football League, with champions Preston facing fellow Victorian era heavyweights Aston Villa on Christmas Day 1889.
There were Manchester derbies on Christmas Day in both 1896 and 1897, while there was also a north London derby on Christmas day in 1897, and again in 1911.
Arsenal had a run of always playing away from home on Christmas Day from 1913 when they moved to Highbury until more than 10 years after the First World War because the lease on the land the stadium was built on banned Christmas games from taking place there. That eventually changed in 1925 when the club bought the lease and could then use the land without restriction.
Perhaps the most famous Christmas Day football of all was not an organised game at all, but part of the brief Christmas truce on First World War battlefields in 1914, when soldiers from both sides left their trenches and greeted each other in ‘no man’s land’.
Unlike today, entertainment for the masses was much rarer in the Victorian era and into the 20th century, before the advent of television and even radio before the 1920s. Christmas was a rare public holiday and going to games was something to do.
Christmas Day football continued through the 1930s and into the Wartime leagues. Once the Second World War was over in 1945, Christmas Day football peaked in popularity in the final years of the 1940s, perhaps a response to the concessions made by millions during the conflict.
But despite huge attendances in the late 1940s – it is estimated around 3.5m people attended games over a three-day period in 1949 – Christmas Day football didn’t actually last much longer in England. Following an idyllic ‘white Christmas’ in 1956, the final full programme of Christmas Day fixtures scheduled by the Football League took place in 1957.
On that day, a teenage Jimmy Greaves scored four times for Chelsea in a 7-4 win over Portsmouth, while it was one of the final games that Manchester United’s Busby Babes would play together, just six weeks before the Munich air disaster of 6 February 1958, beating Luton 3-0.
Christmas Day games became suddenly sparse, with only three in the top flight on 25 December 1958 and just one the following year in 1959. That 1959 First Division contest between Blackburn and Blackpool at Ewood Park and a lower league clash between Coventry and Wrexham were the last Christmas Day fixtures in England for several years, with the last ever coming in 1965.
When it came it was another all-Lancashire affair in the top flight between Blackpool and Blackburn hosted at Bloomfield Road. The Tangerines won 4-2, with a young future World Cup winner by the name of Alan Ball among the scorers. And so, a decades-long tradition came to an end.
Even though Christmas Day football was tremendously popular immediately after the Second World War, times were rapidly changing and there are a number of factors thought to have contributed to its relatively sudden phasing out from the late 1950s.
One such reason was that public transport had always remained running on Christmas Day in the first half of the 20th century, making it possible for people to get to games. That changed in 1959, when suddenly there were no longer any Christmas Day trains or buses.
Another is the advent of widespread floodlight technology around a similar time. Although first experimented with as far back as 1878, floodlights at stadiums weren’t commonplace until the 1950s – Arsenal had lights on a stand at Highbury as early as the 1930s at the behest of manager Herbert Chapman, but the club refused to allow them to be used. But floodlights meant that games normally packed into the daytime at Christmas could be re-arranged for evenings at other times.
Another change was a spike in television ownership in households up and down the country in the late 1950s, where suddenly more and more families had access to their own TV set. That meant that there was a jump in new entertainment, negating the need to go out to football on Christmas Day.
Although it lasted longer in Scotland and there was an attempt bring it back by Brentford in 1983 that never happened, it has now been 55 years since the last Christmas Day game in English football.