10-1. No, not the odds on the winner in the King George on Boxing day, but the score at Craven Cottage on December 26, 1963, as NORMAN GILLER fondly remembers a more innocent age, and reports an expensive modern error of judgement
As I sit down to Christmas day lunch with my family, I will bore the grandkids with stories of how I used to have to arrange Christmas around reporting a football match. They will then go back to their chat about the latest Wii games, leaving grumpy granddad to his memories, ignoring my stories about how good I was at tuppeny-halfpenny football – the main game of my childhood.
For the record, the last Christmas day game played in England was Blackpool against Bolton in 1965. Before that, the previous Christmas Day games had been in 1959, when Ronnie Clayton-captained Blackburn beat Stanley Matthews-motivated Blackpool 1-0 in the old first division, and Coventry walloped Wrexham 5-3 at Highfield Road in a third division match.
The last Christmas day game I reported was at Upton Park in 1958, when West Ham beat Tottenham 2-1. They then hammered Spurs 4-1 in the Boxing Day match at White Hart Lane.
Any reporters/supporters from my old hack generation will recall the astonishing Boxing day results of 1963. Imagine listening to Sports Report on the wireless and hearing the distinctive tones of actor-turned-broadcaster John Webster as he read out the following first division scorelines:
Blackpool 1, Chelsea 5
Burnley 6, Manchester United 1
Fulham 10, Ipswich 1
Leicester City 2, Everton 0
Liverpool 6, Stoke City 1
Nottingham Forest 3, Sheffield United 3
West Bromwich Albion 4, Tottenham Hotspur 4
Sheffield Wednesday 3, Bolton Wanderers 0
Wolverhampton Wanderers 3, Aston Villa 3
West Ham United 2, Blackburn Rovers 8
In total, 66 goals were scored in the 10 matches at the top table, while across all four divisions there were 160 netted, with seven players bagging hat-tricks and four men sent off.
When I asked Ipswich Town’s wonderfully eccentric Old Etonian chairman John Cobbold what went wrong in the 10-1 drubbing at Fulham, he replied: “Our goalkeeper was the only sober player in our team.”
Graham Leggat, Fulham’s smooth-as-silk Scottish international striker, helped himself to four goals, including a speed-record hat-trick inside four minutes. He later emigrated to Canada where he became the Voice of Soccer on CBC.
“That 10-1 game was one of the craziest matches in which I ever played,” he said. “It seemed every time we attacked the ball finished in the back of the net. Our chairman, Tommy Trinder, said, ‘The Ipswich goalkeeper has strained his back picking the ball out of the net’.”
The results in the return matches just two days later were almost as crazy. West Ham beat Blackburn 3-1 at Ewood Park to ease their 8-2 humiliation, Jackie Milburn’s relegation-bound Ipswich bounced back to flatten Fulham 4-2 at Portman Road, Man United battered Burnley 5-1 at Old Trafford and Bolton beat Sheffield Wednesday 3-0, a complete reversal of the match at Hillsborough.
My old writing partner Jimmy Greaves reminds me there was an even madder first division game on Christmas day 1957. Portsmouth were the visitors to Stamford Bridge, and Greavsie had been recalled following four weeks in the wilderness after manager Ted Drake had rested him to take the pressure of instant fame off his 17-year-old shoulders.
Jimmy responded to his reinstatement with four goals in a see-sawing 7-4 thriller. He was never dropped again.
Now here we are coming up to Christmas 2012, a year during which I suffered a heart attack in the same week that Jimmy had a stroke.
We are both making full recoveries (so far), and for anybody out there who knows us, we wish you a happy and healthy Christmas and astonishing good luck throughout 2013, a year in which we will be celebrating a 35-year writing partnership.
Could be time for our 21st book together.
Afterthought: For those who have never heard of tuppeny-halfpenny football (which probably rules out anyone younger than 40, born post-decimalisation): we used two old pennies (as the players) and a halfpenny (as the ball). Put two matchboxes (goals) either end of a dining room table, and then using a comb (the shover) push the pennies against the half-penny and try to hit the matchboxes. Your opponent also has two pennies, but you only use one halfpenny.
You also need a fast pair of feet to get away from your Mum when she sees the mess you have made of her polished table top. Ah, such an innocent age.
A quick, true topical Christmas story: At 8pm on Wednesday night, five 2012 urchins sang a carol on my doorstep. Badly it has to be said. Once In Royal David City was punished almost beyond recognition.
I listened respectfully. I even joined in on the descant, which threw them a bit.
I wanted to reward their enterprise, but I had no change. So I gave them a £20 note on the understanding they would bring me back £15 change. I even shook hands on it with the biggest of them, their ages ranging from 13 to 15.
Here we are a couple of days later, and I am still waiting for my change.
It seems they are going to leave this trusting old git disillusioned. I was ready to reward their honesty by letting them keep the change, and I could have told them about when football used to be played on a Christmas day, when everybody knew the true spirit of Christmas.
I know at their age I would have brought the money back, and I just wanted to assess the modern lads. Sadly they failed the trust test.
Oh Come All Ye Faithful. Merry Christmas everybody!
- Entry forms for the 2012 SJA British Sports Journalism Awards are now available. ENtries have to be submitted by January 28. You can download the forms by clicking here.