Historically Speaking... In the third of his series of peeks at the past blogger Mick Chappell takes a look at ‘Festive Fixtures’ over the years.
Time was when the Festive Season wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to the Lane on either Christmas Day or Boxing Day, which, in the days when there were back-to-back fixtures between the same two teams, often turned out to be precisely that as grudges from 24 hours earlier were quickly settled. Sadly such feisty favourites died the death in the 1950s when the league decided that over-worked footballers should be allowed to put their feet up on Christmas Day in preparation for providing the Boxing Day entertainment that encouraged the punters to cure their hangovers with a healthy afternoon of fun and fresh air.
Nonetheless the situation was very different during Notts County’s earliest days when the harsh Victorian winters produced inhospitable playing conditions that inevitably resulted in the sort of mid-season breaks that are currently a source of considerable discussion. Consequently it was hardly surprising that players and spectators alike were influenced by the lure of port and plum pudding during an era when effectively ‘ad hoc’ fixtures were in any case restricted to a dozen or so games each season.
However, affairs began to become more formalised with the advent of the FA Cup in 1877 and thereafter Yuletide matches became more frequent as football’s popularity soared. Even so it wasn’t until 1883 the first Boxing day game was played at Trent Bridge where the Magpies thrashed their nearest and dearest neighbours 5-1 to warm the cockles of their supporters’ hearts.
Understandably that whetted appetites for regular festive football, but the outcome of the following year’s Boxing Day game was far less palatable as the Reds gained revenge by a 3-0 margin at the same venue in front of the ground’s first officially confirmed 10,000 crowd. Thanks to the burgeoning glamour of the FA Cup that record was soon exceeded by the 17,000 spectators who turned up to watch a 2-2 draw in the Sixth Round tie against the then most famous Scottish Club, Queen’s Park, in February 1885.
After that it was back to Boxing Day business with a 3-3 draw against Bolton Wanderers in front of another 10,000 attendance before Forest spoiled the 1886 Christmas party with a 2-0 win that didn’t really count because it took place on 27 December as a result of Boxing Day falling on a Sunday! The following year another record-breaking non-Cup crowd of 12,000 turned up for a boring 0-0 draw with the Reds that proved to be the last of the pre-league festive fixtures.
Perhaps the greater travelling involved in the new ‘professional’ Football League was responsible for the subsequent demise of Yuletide games, but, for whatever reason, with the exception of a visit to Blackburn that ended in a 1-0 defeat on Christmas Eve 1892, the ’Pies were left to enjoy their turkey and trimmings until 1894 when Walsall became their first ever Christmas Day victims thanks to a 5-0 Meadow Lane thrashing. That win was inspired by hat-trick hero Jimmy Logan, who must have thoroughly enjoyed repeating the feat that had been largely responsible for County becoming the first Division Two side to win the FA Cup the previous season.
Understandably, perhaps, only 4,000 fans turned up to watch lowly Walsall and there were a thousand less spectators in attendance when even less fashionable visitors, Loughborough, went down 2-0 12 months later. The following year there wasn’t a Christmas game, but the ‘Pies were eventually promoted back to Division One via the Test Matches, so setting up an 1897 Yuletide trip to the Baseball ground where the majority of the 12,000 spectators present had their Christmas celebrations spoiled after Derby lost 1-2.
County’s home attendances really boomed during the subsequent campaign and, although a bumper crowd of 20,000 rewrote the record books as Notts and Forest drew 2-2 in early October, the Christmas Eve game against eventual champions, Aston Villa (1-0), also attracted an impressive 16,000 festive fans. Obviously they enjoyed the experience because seemingly every single one of them returned on 27 December (Boxing Day fell on the Sabbath that year) to see a 2-2 draw with Liverpool, who were another of only four teams who finished above Notts at the end of the 1898.99 season.
Although there was no Christmas match to mark the turn of the century County did celebrate the event by emulating the third placed finish that they had achieved a decade earlier when they were also the beaten FA Cup finalists at the conclusion of their best ever campaign. Thereafter the Maggies embarked on a series of Boxing Day meetings with the Old Enemy with a 1-0 win that attracted another capacity 20,000 crowd before the roles and result were reversed in front of a similar City Ground turnout in 1901.
Parity was maintained in 1902 with a 1-1 Trent Bridge draw, though I’ll leave you to guess the size of the crowd. However 15,000 of those football fans must have been psychic because they didn’t waste their time and money watching the 1-3 home defeat the Magpies suffered the following Boxing Day. Local rivalry was then briefly interrupted by a 1-1 draw at Derby before hostilities were resumed during a 2-1 win that sadly helped to consign the Reds to Division Two at the end of the 1905.06 season.
Initially that parting of the ways helped neither results nor attendances as County suffered Christmas Eve and Boxing Day defeats at Derby (0-3) and Sheffield United (1-2) respectively before chalking up a 2-1 home win over Everton and a 0-0 draw at Birmingham a year later. In 1908 back-to-back Yuletide matches at Everton (1-0) and Trent Bridge (0-0) were then witnessed by capacity crowds of 35,000 and 25,000 respectively thereby emphasising the need for a move to larger pastures new, so the Christmas curtain was brought down for the last time at the Bridge after an aggregate crowd of 32,000 had celebrated a 2-1 win over Chelsea and a 2-2 draw with Blackburn Rovers.
So, were the dreams of the ‘Powers That Be’ justified as they planned the Magpies move to a new Meadow Lane Ground that was originally built to accommodate upwards of 50,000 fans? Well initially their optimism seemed to be spot on as 25,000 spectators watched a 1-1 draw with Forest at the Lane’s inaugural game on 3 September 1910.
Although a similar number witnessed the same outcome in the Boxing Day game against Bradford City later that year, gates were subsequently rather disappointing as evidenced by the fact that only 20,000 turned for the 1911 Christmas Day fixture that ended in a 0-1 defeat against Manchester City. The ‘Blues’ followed up with a 4-0 win at Maine Road 24 hours later, thereby setting the trend for back-to-back Christmas Day/Boxing Day fixtures that was to last for almost 50 years.
Woolwich Arsenal were next up in 1912 as a 0-0 draw at Highbury was followed by a 2-1 home win that briefly encouraged the 16,000 supporters present to think Notts might be capable of turning around what was until the current campaign their worst ever start to a season. Sadly another defeat at West Brom left County with the present day equivalent of 14 points from their first 20 games, which may sound painfully familiar; whilst I have no wish to depress anyone at this festive time, it must be said that the seemingly inevitable transpired when the ’Pies accompanied the Gunners into Division Two in April 1913.
Still, the good news is that Notts then immediately bounced back into the top flight as Champions of Division Two despite the fact that they only managed to take a single point from the two Christmas fixtures against Forest who held out for a 2-2 Christmas Day draw at the Lane before chalking up a 1-0 Boxing Day win at the City Ground. Naturally both games were watched by the footballing tallymen’s curiously ubiquitous 20,000 crowd that has already featured so frequently in this Christmas review.
A year later the First World War was in full swing in France by the time Middlesbrough suffered a 5-1 Boxing Day battering that more than made up for Notts 1-0 defeat at Ayresome Park the previous day. However, early expectations that the family squabble between the Kaiser Bill and his English cousin, George, would be a short-lived affair proved wildly optimistic, so for the next four years Christmas crowds had to be satisfied with a sequence of Midland Section League games that started with 1-2 home and away defeats against Leicester Fosse in 1915.
Although County lost 0-2 at Hull the following Christmas Day they trounced the Tigers 7-1 at the Lane 24 hours later, thereby recording their best and last Yuletide victory of a War era that continued with a disappointing 0-1 Christmas Day home defeat against Forest and a Boxing Day 0-0 draw at the City ground in 1917.
For understandable reasons attendances had declined substantially by the time hostilities ended after the Armistice of November 1918 so a predictably low-key Christmas followed as Forest won 2-0 at home on Christmas Day before holding the Maggies to a 0-0 draw at the Lane on Boxing Day. Thankfully, however, the records seem to indicate that Arthur Clamp, the great-grandfather of Central TV’s Sports’ reporter, Steve Clamp, was Notts’ only high profile fatality of what was somewhat ironically labelled the ‘War to end all Wars’.
According to Steve a huge crowd reportedly attended Arthur’s funeral in the City centre after he died in Nottingham as a result of wounds he’d suffered in 1918. That said the conflict had obviously taken a heavy toll in many ways so there were little more than half-a-dozen familiar names in the Maggies’ team that beat Burnley 2-0 in the first post-war League game at the Lane on 30 August 1919.
Sadly it was all downhill from there on and, despite impressive home wins over Blackburn Rovers (5-0) on Christmas Day and Bradford City (5-2) in a Yuletide Saturday match that attracted a then record Meadow Lane gate of 35,000, Notts lost their Division One status at the end of that season and thereby forfeited a share of the post-war footballing financial bonanza that was to follow.
Still, more of that next time…
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