Historically Speaking… in the third of his series of peeks at the past Mick Chappell continues his look at ‘Festive Fixtures’ over the years…
It was sometime during the 1949.50 Third Division (South) Championship season that I began my life-long love affair with the Mighty Magpies by willingly following in the footsteps of my father and grandfather. In truth it was an easy decision to make because the Meadow Lane scene was reaching the zenith of its most glamorous era.
Prior to the arrival of Tommy Lawton in November 1947 home gates had hovered around the 20,000 mark, but once Tommy was playing up front in tandem with Jackie Sewell the goals really began to flow and attendances soared as 30,000 plus crowds regularly roared County on until the Maggies’ promotion challenge began to run out of steam round about Easter 1948. By the start of the following season the defence destroying duo had become a terrific trio thanks to the arrival of a goal-scoring left-winger by the name of Tom Johnston, who moved across the River to chip in with 24 goals that combined with Sewell’s 26 and Lawton’s 20 to ensure County accumulated more than a century of League goals (102) for the first time in their history.
At the other end, however, a leaky defence conceded on 68 occasions to ensure Notts finished a disappointing five places below the sixth spot they’d occupied in 1948. Nevertheless, the time was ripe for promotion especially as the ’Pies were by then on a par with Forest, who’d reluctantly joined them in Division Three (South) for the first time since 1935.
Consequently local rivalry was at fever pitch as the Old Rivals slugged it out towards the top of the table for most of the season. However, by the time 46,000 plus fiercely divided Nottinghamians saw County seal promotion by completing the double over the Reds the popularity pendulum had well and truly swung to the ’Pies.
No wonder then that with home gates averaging a staggering 35,176, “Get in early, or don’t get in at all!” was the Meadow Lane mantra for several seasons! Although Notts were undoubtedly the ‘Toast of the Trent’ for a while they subsequently struggled to come to terms with Division Two after failing to reinforce their Championship wining side; even so their average home gates continued to top the 30,000 mark and on Boxing Day 1950 a crowd of 35,649 saw a Leon Leuty penalty beat lowly Chesterfield who had held Notts to a 1-1 draw at Saltergate the previous day.
By the 1951.52 season Forest had also returned to the Division Two ‘mix’ so the battle for local fans resumed and, despite 44,087 turning up in early September to witness a 2-2 local derby draw at the Lane, County’s average gate slipped to just above the 25,000 barrier. Even so a 30,019 Meadow Lane Christmas Day crowd watched the Maggies beat Sheffield United 3-1 before the Blades proved much sharper as they won 1-0 at Bramall Lane on Boxing Day.
Sadly, however, Sewell, who was just about reaching his prime, had already been sold to Sheffield Wednesday, so the long-term die was well and truly cast when Talismanic Tommy, a former Evertonian, made his final appearance for Notts in a 0-0 draw at Goodison Park in March 1951. Significantly enough the ‘Lawton Era’ encompassed 10 of the 14 40,000 plus crowds that have packed Meadow Lane to the rafters in past times; since Tommy’s departure only two FA Cup ties have generated comparable attendances, most notably when 47,310 of us were scared for life by the anguish of a 0-1 Sixth Round defeat against Third Division York City in March 1955.
“B*gg*r Arthur Bottom!” I still say to this day! Still, the majority of those in that record-breaking crowd must also have been amongst the 41,457 who fondly remembered Albert Broadbent’s ‘halfway line’ Fifth Round winner against Chelsea on a skating rink of a pitch earlier the same season and the 42,489 who witnessed a 0-0 bore-draw with Division Two Champions elect, Leicester City, in February 1957. Somewhat ominously that game marked Meadow Lane’s last 40,000 plus attendance, not least because both Forest and the Foxes were promoted to Division One at the end of that campaign whilst the Maggies went the other way to Division Three 12 months later!
Still County’s fortunes had been in gradual decline between 1952 and 1957 so the loss of their Second Division status was hardly unexpected; under the circumstances the only real surprise was that attendances for their Festive Fixtures had held up remarkably well until the time when just over 9,000 saw Huddersfield win 2-1 at the Lane on Christmas Eve 1956. Nevertheless that figure looked fairly respectable compared to the 7,500 or so who then watched the Terriers’ 3-0 Boxing Day victory at Leeds Road.
Prior to that season 20,000 Christmas crowds remained the norm for games against West Ham (2-2 away and 1-1 home in 1952), Birmingham (0-3 away and 2-1 home in 1953), Bristol Rovers (2-0 home and 4-1 away in 1954) and Leeds United (0-1 away and 2-1 home in 1955). However, crowd appeal was clearly of little interest to the ‘powers-that-be’ and, therefore, in so far as most clubs were concerned, money-spinning, back-to-back Yuletide fixtures began to peter out in 1957.
Consequently, Bert Loxley and Gordon Wills had the dubious joint honour of scoring County’s last ever Christmas Day goals at the Lane, albeit in a disappointing 2-3 defeat against Barnsley, whilst John Sheridan bagged Notts’ goal in a 1-1 Boxing Day draw at Oakwell. The following year Boxing Day fell on a Friday when the Magpies lost 1-3 at Bradford City before completing their less than Festive Fixtures by suffering a 1-4 home drubbing against the same opponents the following day.
Sad to say by the turn of the year Notts were again heading for relegation, which eventually earned them the dubious distinction of becoming founder members of the newly formed Division Four in August 1959. Fortunately Frank Hill’s attack-minded Magpies then racked up a League record 107 goals as Notts bounced back into Division Three at the first time of asking.
Home crowds soared to levels the like of which haven’t been seen since and 14,582 rejoicing fans enjoyed a 2-1 Boxing Day home win over Rochdale before County completed the double with a 4-1 victory at Spotland the following day. Nonetheless that Christmas crowd was easily outdone by the 22,788 supporters who turned up at the Lane to see Notts virtually seal promotion with a 2-1 win over eventual Champions, Walsall.
Interestingly enough, a few games had survived the Yuletide cull before the curtain finally fell on all Christmas Day football in 1959 when Blackpool lost 0-1 in a First Division fixture at Blackburn and Wrexham went down 3-5 in a Third Division game at Coventry. Ironically that Highfield Road goal glut provided a fitting, final reminder of the sort of goal bonanzas that were frequently a feature of Yuletide football during the inter-War years; double figure aggregate scores were common place in back-to-back games, and no more so than at Christmas 1935 when Oldham Athletic and Tranmere Rovers served up enough memorable entertainment to satisfy any football fan.
That said, things kicked off in fairly routine fashion when Oldham beat Rovers 4-1 in a Third Division (North) encounter at Boundary Park on Christmas Day. However, they say revenge is best served cold and it certainly was when Tranmere were the Boxing Day victors on a frozen Prenton Park pitch.
Although the Latics netted another respectable quartet Rovers responded with 13 of their own thanks mainly to a triple hat-trick from Robert ‘Bunny’ Bell, who thereby established a then record individual goals total for a League game. Even so ‘Bunny’ would still be the joint holder of the all-time League scoring record had he not missed a penalty that would otherwise have taken his total into double figures. That said, I suppose you’d expect something special to celebrate considering ‘Bunny’ had been born on Christmas Day!
Anyway, although County played several December ‘double-headers’ in the mid-‘60s, Coventry, who had coincidentally put the final seal on Christmas Day football in 1959, also became Notts final genuine back-to-back Yuletide opponents when the teams drew 2-2 at Highfield Road on Boxing Day 1960 before Notts won 3-0 at the Lane in front of a 26,759 crowd the following day.
In spite of his successful management spell Frank Hill was surprisingly fired after a boardroom bust-up midway through a 1961.62 season during which Notts beat Boxing Day visitors, Shrewsbury, 3-2 in the only Festive Fixture of that campaign. Hill’s departure somewhat predictably sparked-off the bleak mid-winter period that characterised the ‘60s for disillusioned Notts’ fans who understandably turned out in ever decreasing numbers to watch Boxing Day games against Northampton (2-1 home win in 1962), Oldham (0-2 away defeat in 1963), Lincoln (0-1 away defeat in 1964), Tranmere (3-0 away win in 1965), Rochdale (2-0 home win in 1966), Bradford City (1-5 away defeat in 1967), Chesterfield (2-1 home win in 1968) and Colchester United (1-2 away defeat in 1969).
Apart from the Chesterfield game that attracted 9,801 spectators Festive Meadow Lane crowds rarely rose above a paltry 7,000 or so thereby confirming that even Christmas football was in danger of losing its unique appeal during County’s longest spell in the League basement. Fortunately, however, the cavalry was on the horizon because that final Boxing Day disaster at Colchester was in fact the first defeat suffered by a new Notts’ manager who had raised a few hopes and eye-brows by winning his first three games as gaffer.
“Jimmy who?” many had asked of Chairman Jack Dunnett, but, as we shall see in the final part of my look at Festive Fixtures, the doubters amongst long-suffering Maggies’ fans were soon starting to think all their Christmases were coming at the same time once Sirrel started to transform the Sorrowful ‘60s into the incredibly successful ‘70s!