In the third of his series of peeks at the past Mick Chappell continues his look at ‘Festive Fixtures’ over the years...
After 23,000 Meadow Lane fans waved goodbye to Division One when the Maggies lost 0-2 to Manchester United in May 1920 home gates began to decline markedly as Division Two opponents provided far less attractive opposition. Consequently it wasn’t until 27 December 1920 that a better crowd of 24,000 watched the Yuletide 3-0 thrashing of Sheffield Wednesday, who’d previously held Notts to a 1-1 Christmas Day draw at Hillsborough.
The following year Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, which was taboo for football back then; consequently just 10,000 turned up on a working day Christmas Eve afternoon to see Hull City beaten 2-0. County then lost 1-0 at Crystal Palace on Boxing Day before completing their congested festive fixture list with a 3-2 home victory over the same opponents in front of 20,000 fans.
How on earth would modern footballers cope with three games in four days I wonder? Even so, at a time when car ownership was a novelty and bus and tram services were minimal over the Christmas period, it was probably a good job that so many fans lived close enough to Meadow Lane to be able to get to the ground on ‘Shank’s Pony’ whatever the weather!
That said only 14,000 watched a 1-0 win over Fulham the following Christmas Day, whereas a surprisingly large 25,000 crowd saw the ’Pies perish by 1-2 in the return game at Craven Cottage the next day. Although Notts were back in Division One by the start of the 1923.24 campaign only 14,000 fans were tempted to witness a 1-2 Boxing Day defeat against relegation-threatened Arsenal, who in turn attracted just 16,000 spectators for the return 0-0 draw at Highbury.
Results were even worse the following year when 18,000 Magpies fans were disappointed by a 1-2 Christmas Day reverse against high-flying Liverpool, who then completed the double with a 1-0 win at Anfield. Sadly 1925.26 turned out to be another relegation season at the end of which rock-bottom County decided to ditch the white shirts adorned with a bold, black ‘V’ that had been adopted to celebrate their promotion three years earlier.
Nonetheless, it was at least a ‘V’ for victory Boxing Day when a 32,000 plus Meadow Lane crowd saw County claim a 4-0 win over Arsenal twenty-four hours after they had lost 0-3 at Highbury. Interestingly enough all four goals were netted by one, Neil Harris, who thus became the first Magpies man to achieve that particular feat since 1909.
What’s more Harris went on to score a very impressive 25 goals in 52 games before returning to Ireland after spending only two seasons at the Lane. That marked the start of a downward spiral as the ’Pies became rooted in Division Two for four seasons during which they failed to win a single Festive fixture; back-to-back home (0-1) and away (0-2) defeats against Southampton started the rot in 1926 before West Brom won 3-0 at the Lane after County had claimed a 2-2 draw the Hawthorns in 1927.
The next year Southampton came back to snatch a 1-1 Christmas Day draw at the Lane before dishing out a 4-0 thrashing at the Vetch Field the following day; thereafter Swansea Town, as they then were known, completed the Maggies’ Welsh woes with a couple of 0-0 Festive draws in a 1929 season that finally saw Notts escape from the dreaded Division Two.
Unfortunately County ‘exited’ through the back door, so to speak; consequently it was down to the dreaded Division Three (South) for the first 1930s campaign, but thankfully salvation came swiftly courtesy of the 39 goals that all-time record scorer, Tommy Keetley, netted in a mere 34 appearances.
Those goals included a couple of Keetley crackers that saw off QPR by 2-0 on brilliant Boxing Day win at the Lane, where Tommy returned to action after missing a 1-4 defeat at Loftus Road the previous day, thereby confirming how crucial he was to the club’s success. Significantly, however, the Boxing Day crowd was under 14,000 during an era in which, with the exception of numerous local derbies and occasional FA Cup ties, Yuletide attendances exceeded those for all other matches.
Once Notts returned to Division Two Keetley was at it again as he contributed a Christmas Day hat-trick to a 4-2 demolition of Port Vale before ruining the Boxing Day party by failing to score in a 0-2 defeat at the Recreation Ground, Hanley, which was Vale’s home at that time. With Notts due to visit Vale again this Christmas you can read what you will into those results, but one thing worth betting on is that, if fit for purpose, Hughesy will get a goal against his favourite(?) former club!
Although Keetley was out injured the following Yuletide County beat Spurs 3-0 at home on a Christmas Eve Saturday and saw off visitors Millwall by the only goal of the game the following Monday, whereafter a Keetley goal secured a 1-1 draw at the Den to complete another typically hectic three days. Unfortunately, however, Keetley was no longer around by Christmas 1933 when the Lions triumphed by 1-0 and 3-2 on successive days.
In 1934 a bumper Boxing Day crowd of almost 25,000 saw George ‘Stabb’ home the goal that sent Manchester United away pointless as the Magpies avenged a 1-2 Christmas Day defeat at Old Trafford; even so the ’Pies were propping up Division Two again by the end of that season, so it was back to Division Three (South) for the remainder of the inter-War years. That four season spell was notable for a 1935 ‘double’ disaster against Luton that consisted of a 0-3 loss at the Lane and a 0-1 Kenilworth Road defeat that was repeated, albeit by a 2-1 margin the following Christmas Day.
For reasons known only to himself the Wise Man who randomly compiled the 1936 Boxing Day fixtures then consigned County down to Exeter, where they nevertheless won 3-1. A 1937 season’s best crowd of almost 24,000 then attended the next festive fixture which ended in a 1-0 home win over Gillingham that went some way to easing the disappointment of losing the Saturday Christmas Day game to the weather rather than re-election bound Walsall.
The signing of former Forest favourite, Davy ‘Boy’ Martin, caused a bit of a rumpus in November 1938, but Maggies’ fans relented and welcomed him with open arms after he took his tally to six goals in his first four games at the Lane with a couple of Christmas Eve strikes that sealed a 2-0 victory over Swindon. After their Sabbath rest Notts then won 1-0 at Watford before going down 0-3 at Vicarage Road in their last Yuletide League fixture before more pressing matters ensured soccer took a back seat for the next six years.
Even so, ‘Davy Boy’ notched up seventeen goals in thirty appearances for the ’Pies before League Football was abandoned two games into the 1939 season, which suggests that in different circumstances he might have become as big a hero at Notts as he was at Forest. Although professional football continued throughout the Second World War it was a hit-and-miss affair that involved teams comprised of whatever players happened to be available locally, so we won’t waste too much time on what was essentially a pleasurable diversion from much more serious affairs.
Suffice to say that although Notts suffered some of their heaviest ever Yuletide defeats at Meadow Lane (2-8 and 0-8 against Coventry, 2-7 against Watford and 1-7 against Lincoln) it’s much more important to note that they did beat Forest 4-2 on Christmas Day 1940. Even more impressively they were undefeated throughout the whole of the 1941.42 season, though that might have had something to do with the fact that the Lane was ‘hors de combat’ due to bomb damaged caused by some inconsiderate German airmen’s misguided attempts to destroy Lady Bay Bridge.
More to the point, one post-War Meadow Lane goal-scoring legend made his low-key Notts County debut during those troubled years. I speak, of course, about Jackie Sewell who will be the subject of my first ‘Peek at the Past’ of the New Year.
However, for now we’ll continue with a look at the festive fixtures that attracted huge crowds of football-starved fans in the immediate post-War years. Having said that, Yuletide League football made a welcome reappearance with a relatively modest crowd of just 18,439 for the Christmas Day 1946 visit of Swindon Town, who became party-poopers by holding the Magpies to a bring 0-0 draw before winning 4-2 at the Vetch Field on Boxing Day.
In 1947 devastating floods disrupted local football for over a month during the build-up to the festive season, but, despite the absence of a Christmas Day game, things improved sufficiently to ensure that a Lawton brace and three others from Freeman, Marsh and Sewell sent 42,256 Boxing Day fans home happy after Notts went nap against a Swansea Town team that only mustered a single goal in reply.
In 1948 Sewell netted in both Yuletide games as Northampton were beaten 2-1 at the County Ground on Christmas Day before the rampant Maggies chalked up a comfortable 2-0 victory in the return game at the Lane in front of 31,171 festive fans. The following year County were fortunate enough to have festive home fixtures on Christmas Eve, when 32,079 fans witnessed the 2-0 defeat of Bristol Rovers and on Boxing Day when an even bigger crowd of 40,419 saw Ipswich despatched by a similar margin.
Just imagine, 72,498 spectators for just two games, which equates to more than half a season’s worth in present day terms! In fact home attendances only dropped below the 30,000 mark on a couple of occasions as Lawton and Sewell netted 50 goals between them to take Notts to the Division Three (South) title by the end of that campaign.
What’s more, the estimated crowd of 46,000 plus that saw the Maggies beat Forest 2-0 to seal the Championship on 22 April 1950 is, and probably always will be, a Meadow Lane League record. What would Ray Trew give for those sort of figures right now?
Nevertheless, post-War football euphoria began to wane and within 12 months a magical team began to disintegrate as the Jewels in the Crown were lost. Against his will Sewell was sold to Sheffield Wednesday for a record £34,000 fee and a year later to the day the ageing Lawton, who was admittedly well past his best, was on his way to Brentford, thereby leaving at least one Magpie-mad seven-year-old absolutely distraught.
It seemed a golden era was coming to an end and so it proved as Notts spurned an ideal opportunity to restore their reputation as one of English football’s elite clubs. Even so, no one really envisaged the depths to which County would plunge over the next two decades before a certain Mr Sirrel arrived to restore their fortunes in fairy-tale fashion.
Still, we’ll consider Sir Jimmy’s contribution to the cause when we complete this review of Notts’ Festive fixtures in due course…