Shropshire Star

Johnny Phillips: Boxing Day reminds us of true meaning of football

Boxing Day football continues to energise those who love the game in this country and Monday’s fixtures will prompt renewed vigour after a unique hiatus in the football calendar.


Boxing Day is the opening act of a madcap spell of fixtures which managers loathe but fans love.

Football is the great release at a time of year when we can all buckle under the expectations of Christmas and the weight of festivities.

Boxing Day is the real Christmas Day for football supporters. And fans are the true pilgrims during this period, defying the best efforts of the country’s antiquated transport network to arrive at whatever destination the fixture list throws up.

Attendances are hugely important for Boxing Day, and the league administrators make every effort to ensure that local fixtures can be scheduled, encouraging as many spectators as possible through the turnstiles and giving clubs a welcome boost at a tough time of year.

This year, the juxtaposition between Monday’s full domestic fixture list and what has gone before is stark.

There is an inclusivity to Boxing Day football that provides a welcome antidote to the corporate show in the desert this past month, where some supporters were denied entry to stadiums while many others were literally paid to cheerlead and make up the numbers at the venues.

For all that the actual football generally delivered for Fifa, with the fairytale final ending, the event was a grim reminder that corporate greed rules the roost at the top.

The fairytale was there right up to the moment Lionel Messi was required to don a local black robe for the trophy lift, something he will surely regret in years to come, before being harangued for a selfie by Salt Bae. Two images which tell us everything about where Fifa’s priorities lie.

In many respects Qatar was the big winner during the World Cup.

The exercise in sports-washing was largely successful – illustrated by the tone of many pundits returning from the tournament with a new-found, all-expenses paid empathy with the actions of their hosts as the death toll continued to rise among migrant workers.

From Doha to Deepdale then, and hundreds of other grounds up and down the land as for the first time in over a month all four divisions are in action at 3pm on Monday afternoon, along with a huge supporting cast in the non-league ranks.

Returning supporters will renew acquaintances with matchday friends who have been missed this past month.

Football is the bit that often brings communities together. A tangible escapism that provides certainty and structure and Boxing Day is the finest illustration of this.

Boxing Day fixtures have long captured the imagination here.

In 1920, more than 50,000 turned out to watch the famous Dick, Kerr & Co factory women’s team play a charity match at Goodison Park in aid of disabled and unemployed soldiers who had served and suffered during the First World War.

The sell-out crowd could easily have been more with a reported 14,000 locked out.

It was a record attendance for a women’s fixture and did not go down well with the FA, who banned women’s football for 50 years before finally coming to their senses in 1971.

The recent explosion in interest in the women’s game is not a new phenomenon – interest goes back more than 100 years as that famous Boxing Day afternoon in Liverpool illustrates.

In Sheffield, the Boxing Day massacre of 1979 has gone down in folklore with one half of the city and infamy with the other.

It was the 100th derby between Wednesday and United, staged at Hillsborough. A record crowd for a third tier match of 49,309 turned out for the game, with an 11am kick-off to avert trouble on the terraces, as Jack Charlton’s Wednesday side routed their arch-rivals 4-0 before eventually going on to win promotion from the Third Division.

Boxing Day 1963 is the benchmark for any top division fixture list, with 66 goals scored across 10 matches, including six hat-tricks and four red cards, as the Beatles provided the soundtrack to life back then, topping the Christmas charts with I Want To Hold Your Hand.

After Ipswich lost 10-1 at Fulham, their chairman John Cobbold bemoaned: “Our goalkeeper was the only sober player on our team.”

Boxing Day is not just the preserve of football. Many sports embrace this festive date.

Those present at Kempton Park during the latter half of the 1980s will never forget the dominance of Desert Orchid, the supreme grey gelding who dominated the King George VI steeplechase on four occasions.

And on the other side of the globe, the Boxing Day Test match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground usually attracts in excess of 90,000, particularly for an Ashes battle.

That sort of attendance is impossible to achieve in this country, but there will be some big gates across all four divisions.

Despite the best efforts of the schedulers, not all matches are local so a shout out to fans of Blackpool who will be required to travel from west coast to east coast for their match at Hull.

And Shrewsbury fans probably wanted an easier trip than the cross country one to Cambridge, too.

But overall, there have been genuine efforts to make journeys as manageable as possible.

Community and companionship define the Boxing Day fixture list, so enjoy it whatever the result of your team.