At Christmas, after a surfeit of food and family, a chap’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of sport. At least, that’s the Anglo-Saxon tradition.
In Britain, this dates back before 1541, when Henry VIII banned sport on Christmas day. Nowadays, local festive tradition includes the reduction of public transport to Tudor levels. So sport is forgotten on the 25th: a prelude to a Boxing day bonanza.
In the US, where December 26 is a working day, major basketball and American football games are usually scheduled for Christmas night in the quest for TV ratings. But in most of Europe, sport is almost forgotten, with the main soccer leagues taking a midwinter break, for example.
This year there is an extra piquancy for Americans. The National Basketball Association, delayed by a labour dispute for nearly two months, finally starts its highly irregular regular season with five Christmas day games. To tide everyone over for the next few hours, here are some Christmas sporting memories.
1. Football (1914)
The Christmas day match in No Man’s Land between opposing soldiers supposedly ended in a 3-2 win for Germany. That seems to be mythical but the website www.christmastruce.co.uk believes one game did take place near Wulverghem – but no one kept score.
2. Football (1920)
Dick, Kerr Ladies 4 St Helens Ladies 0. This charity match attracted a Boxing day crowd of 53,000 to Everton’s football ground Goodison Park, far more than any of the men’s fixtures. The Football Association was so alarmed that it banned women’s matches from its grounds. The Dick, Kerr team, from a Preston munitions factory, kept going until 1965, being crowned world champions in 1937.
Having played for Everton against Liverpool in one league match on Christmas morning, Tommy Lawton, one of England’s greatest centre-forwards, turned out for Tranmere at Crewe that afternoon. Wartime league rules were flexible (though not for women).
4. Cricket (1953)
The New Zealand fast bowler Bob Blair, in the midst of a Test match against South Africa in Johannesburg, was told on Christmas morning that his fiancée had been killed in the Tangiwai disaster, New Zealand’s worst ever train crash. The next day, he walked to the crease, amid astonishment and silence, to take part in a heroic last-wicket stand with Bert Sutcliffe.
5. Football (1963)
The 10 Boxing day games played in the old First Division produced an astonishing 66 goals, including a 10-1 victory for Fulham over Ipswich and Blackburn winning 8-2 at West Ham. Bad weather was mentioned as a possible explanation; strong drink was not.
6. American Football (1977)
One of the most famous plays in history – “the Ghost to the Post” – came on Christmas eve in a divisional play-off. Dave Casper (“the Ghost”) accepted a 42-yard pass to set up a famous victory for the Oakland Raiders over the Baltimore Colts.
Desert Orchid won the great Boxing day race, the King George VI Chase, at 16-1. Dessie went on to win three more King Georges and become, perhaps, the best-loved of all British racehorses.
8. Tennis (1986)
Pat Cash led Australia to a Davis Cup final triumph against Sweden, coming back from two sets down against Mikael Pernfors. Across in Melbourne, England were winning the Ashes. Australia declined to notice.
9. Cricket (2010)
Arguably England’s greatest day of Ashes cricket: Australia 98 all out, England 157 for nought by the end of Boxing Day. This time the Aussies had to notice: the Melbourne crowd was a near-record 85,000.
10. Horseracing (2011)
Kauto Star beats Dessie’s record by winning his fifth King George. Maybe. We’ll know on Monday.