As the frenetic Christmas calendar swings into action English players are very much in the minority amongst major European leagues in readying themselves for the customary glut of games squeezed into the tightest of holiday schedules. While the Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 are embarking on at least a fortnight’s winter break, Premier League and EFL clubs face the prospect of three games in a week, starting with the traditional Boxing Day fixture. Up to 1957, there was even a full programme of games on Christmas Day itself, as one of the few public holidays that allowed working people to attend the matches.
Boxing Day has become enshrined in British football culture as a much-loved curiosity of the fixture list. One reason why Boxing Day matches gained popularity was the extraordinary events of 1963 when ten matches in the First Division produced a scarcely credible 66 goals, a feat which is still commemorated regularly to this day with the scores displayed on social media. What many are unaware of is the remarkable turnaround in fortunes of three of these much celebrated fixtures when the reverse matches were staged just two days later on 28 December.
Burnley’s 6-1 Boxing Day triumph over Manchester United was not a huge shock as the Clarets had won the title in 1960 and had finished in the top four in the three intervening years. While United were still rebuilding after the devastating impact of the Munich Air Crash, failing to reach the top six since 1960 and in the previous season of 1962/63 just escaping relegation in 19th place [out of 22]. Burnley striker Andy Lochhead scored four for the home side with Wille Morgan, who moved to Old Trafford in 1968, grabbing the other two. United’s side included the likes of Bobby Charlton, Paddy Crerand and David Herd who scored United’s solitary reply.
Just two days later the sides met again at Old Trafford and there were only two changes to the line-up with Shay Brennan replacing Willie Anderson and club stalwart Albert Quixall left out. That defeat at Turf Moor was Quixall’s last match for United after 165 appearances over six years. Quixall was replaced by a 17-year-old tyro, who then established himself in Matt Busby’s side. Having made his United debut in September this was George Best’s second match and he made an immediate impression scoring in between braces by Herd and Welshman Graham Moore..
Best became a regular starter for the remainder of the season, helping United to finish runners-up to Liverpool as well as reaching the FA Cup semi-final. The Northern Irish teenager would have become the youngest ever player to appear in an FA Cup Final if they had not lost out to West Ham. By coincidence, a player born on the same day as Best did play in that Final for Second Division Preston North End and, at just shy of his eighteenth birthday, Howard Kendall took the record as the youngest player, which he held until West Ham’s Paul Allen in 1980.
West Ham beat Preston 3-2 in the Final, and experienced an even more dramatic change in fortunes when turning the tables on Blackburn Rovers in two days over Christmas. In the Boxing Day encounter at Upton Park, Blackburn ran riot scoring eight against a West Ham side that contained the holy trinity of Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst, who would go on to play pivotal roles in England’s World Cup triumph. Johnny Byrne did manage two consolation goals for the Hammers but they must have dreaded their trip to Ewood Park two days later.
Peters was replaced by Eddie Bovington as the only change in the Londoners’ line-up but the transformation in the result could hardly have been greater. Byrne got another brace but rather than being a desultory footnote to a humiliating thrashing, this was the foundation for a 3-1 away win with Geoff Hurst scoring the other as they beat the league leaders for what was only their third defeat at home that season. By the end of the season Blackburn slipped down the table to seventh while West Ham’s FA Cup triumph was their first.
Those games at Old Trafford and Ewood Park were eclipsed by an even greater reversal of fortune after Fulham thrashed Ipswich Town 10-1 on Boxing Day at Craven Cottage. It remains Fulham’s biggest win and Ipswich’s joint worst defeat alongside their 9-0 loss to Manchester United in 1995. An individual record was broken in this match as Scotsman Graham Leggat scored the fastest hat-trick in top flight football, taking just over three minutes to do so between the 17th and 20th minutes. That record stood for over fifty years until Sadio Mané notched three in the space of 176 seconds when playing for Southampton against Aston Villa in May 2015. Leggat added a fourth for good measure and reached a century of goals for Fulham during this match. Amongst the other scorers that day was Bobby Robson, who would go on to manage Ipswich with great success between 1969 and 1982 before joining England, following the same path as one of his illustrious predecessors.
What made Fulham’s resounding victory even more remarkable was that the visitors had been crowned champions eighteen months beforehand. In their first-ever season in the top division with Alf Ramsey at the helm. Ramsey’s achievement led to him getting the England job in the summer of 1963, with former Newcastle hero Jackie Milburn taking over the team that finished seventeenth in Ramsey’s last season. This remains the worst performance by top flight champions in English football.
Milburn rallied his team for the return match at Portman Road on 28 December and although Leggat added his fifth goal in the two matches, Ipswich overcame the Cottagers 4-2 for only their third win of the season. But they remained marooned at the bottom of the table where they stayed until they were relegated just two seasons after Ramsey’s triumph, which represents one of the quickest relegations for top flight champions.
Although not quite on the same dramatic scale as the other three matches featured above, Sheffield Wednesday and Bolton Wanderers did manage some neat symmetry. Wednesday beat Bolton 3-0 at Hillsborough on Boxing Day, to be swiftly followed by the return at Burnden Park on 28 December when the hosts were again victorious by precisely the same scoreline of 3-0.
In the space of those two December days in 1963, when the sides were pretty much the same in both matches, the aggregate score swung from 27-4 in favour of Burnley, Blackburn Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday to 15-4 in favour of Manchester United, West Ham, Ipswich and Bolton. When it comes to seasonal goodwill, these clubs clearly recognised that it is as good to give as it is to receive.
This piece will also be available on the Guardian site later today.
That’s it from The Football Mine for Christmas so wishing all of you season’s greetings and hoping you have as merry a Christmas as is possible. A quick heads up – I will be on Adrian Chiles’ BBC5 Live show on Tuesday 28th December between 10.30 and noon chatting about Premier League Nuggets and firing the odd question so be ready and waiting.