The most wonderful time of the year: Exploring the origins and history of festive football

“We’re going to kill the players,” said Pep Guardiola in January last year. “I know here in England the show must go on, but that’s not normal, guys.

“They play 11 months in a row. They have to protect them and play with quality and not quality. We have to think about the artists.

“I know it is not going to change but for what? Life would survive without playing every two days. Nothing would happen.”

The Manchester City manager admitted that he could not understand why so many Premier League fixtures were crammed into the festive period. In Germany and Spain, the two other countries he has coached in, there is a break over Christmas so that players and staff can recharge their batteries – in both a physical and mental sense.

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Yet whereas Christmas is the quietest period for many other leagues in Europe, it is the busiest in England. It is also the time of the season that many football fans look forward to most, with several games taking place between Boxing Day and FA Cup third round weekend in January.

The tradition stretches back to the beginning of organised football in Britain. Football has virtually always been played at Christmas, and it is highly unlikely that that will change any time soon.

There have been slight changes to the format, though: games are no longer played on Christmas Day, as they were up until the 1960s, and the number of matches played has been cut back – although not enough according to Guardiola. It would, however, not feel right if there was suddenly no football at all over the festive period.

The first official Christmas match took place 26 December 1860, with Sheffield FC running out 2-0 winners over local rivals Hallam FC. Those who took part in the encounter could not have known that they were beginning a tradition which would remain intact over 150 years later.

The maiden match on Christmas Day itself came in 1889, when Preston North End locked horns with Aston Villa. The idea soon caught on; football was the ideal way to alleviate any post-Christmas lunch boredom, giving families a chance to blow away the cobwebs and spend time together at the local stadium.

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It soon became common to play on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Fatigue was not considered an issue; clubs simply wanted to please the paying public, who relished attending games over Yuletide. Attendances increased at this time of year, so it was a no-brainer for clubs to play as many matches as possible.

It also made sense to arrange games between local rivals for logistical reasons. The tradition of the reverse fixture was quickly established: two teams would play each other twice, first on Christmas Day and then again on Boxing Day.

This resulted in some anomalous results: one side might appear far superior to their opponent on the 25th, only to lose to the same set of players 24 hours later. On Christmas Day 1914, for example, the Sheffield Owls beat Tottenham 3-2 the next day they travelled to London and were beaten 6-1. Back then, of course, players were still partial to a Christmas drink or two, and the inconvenience of a couple of football matches was not going to stop them celebrating the occasion. Results were thus difficult to predict.

The Christmas double-header remained in place until the late 1950s, when calls for a reduction in the schedule were finally acted upon. The last full round of Christmas Day fixtures came during the 1957/58 campaign and within a few years football was no longer played on the December 25.

There was no interruption to the Boxing Day fixtures, though. They persisted, and continued to produce bizarre, often inexplicable results. In 1963, for example, 66 goals were scored across ten games in Division One. Burnley beat Manchester United 6-1, Fulham beat Ipswich 10-1, Liverpool beat Stoke 6-1, and West Ham lost 8-2 against Blackburn.

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Two days later, the reverse fixtures were played. Manchester United responded with a 5-1 win over Burnley, Ipswich beat Fulham 4-2, and West Ham beat Blackburn 3-1. The absurdity of it all was what made it so popular.

There are, of course, those who suggest the Christmas schedule is archaic and excessively demanding, that sentimentality should not preserve something which ultimately damages players and leads to an increased risk of injuries.

The TV companies dictate things now, though, and nothing will change as long as the demand for Christmas football remains. Perhaps there is too much of it, and perhaps Guardiola is right to warn of the potential consequences. He should probably be thankful, though, that his Manchester City side do not have to play on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

The most wonderful time of the year: Exploring the origins and history of festive football
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