When Scottish football played on Christmas day

Hibs forward Arthur Duncan in a First Division fixture against Rangers at Easter Road on Christmas Day in 1971. Picture: TSPL
Hibs forward Arthur Duncan in a First Division fixture against Rangers at Easter Road on Christmas Day in 1971. Picture: TSPL
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ON CHRISTMAS Day, 1914 on a foreign field there might have been a football match, although no one is sure because the truce on the First World War frontline has become so mythologised – by those who understandably want to believe the game between British and German troops happened as proof of man’s humanity to man and currently by Sainsbury’s who have built their festive ad campaign around it. But on Christmas Day, 1965 there was definitely a match, Willie Johnston played in it and, for the Rangers legend, room at the inn wasn’t the issue, but: “Can you squeeze a wee winger onto your bus?”

“It was quite a job playing in that one,” recalls Johnston of the Ibrox encounter with Dunfermline Athletic. He was 19 and maybe didn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore but he was a committed Fifer. The scarcity of public transport on 25 December, however, and the risk of bad weather led to him being banged up in a Glasgow hotel the night before. “I woke up in the St Enoch, my first Christmas out of Fife. I can’t say it felt like Christmas playing a football match. There were no punters in Santa hats and all that nonsense you see now. To get home afterwards I had to hitch a ride with a Rangers supporters’ bus going back to Cardenden or Bowhill. Nice people. After that result, they could easily have made me walk!”

Gers 2, Pars 3 – a first-ever Ibrox victory for Dunfermline. “So Bud had to hitch a ride – that proves we were more sophisticated,” laughs Alex Edwards, a good friend of Johnston then and now, and a star that day.

Also a teenager in ’65, “Mickey” remembers a terrific goal by Bert Paton but is surprised when I tell him it was a historic win. “We had a very good team back then and beating Rangers wasn’t such a big deal, even if we’d never done it at their place before. But I’m sure we celebrated with a few drinks when we got back to Dunfermline, in the East Port Bar as usual. After all, it was Christmas.”

Football isn’t played on Christmas Day anymore. It was an English tradition for a long time, no matter which day of the week was the 25th, with the clubs reversing the fixtures on Boxing Day for the turkey sandwich re-match. In Scotland there would only be games when Christmas was a Saturday, which at first glance might suggest that it was Christmas which was doing football a favour and every so often sprinkling glitter on it. But the opposite was true: football was the sacred thing, unbudgeable in the grand scheme. When Christmas came along, just happened to fall on that day of days, it had to abide by football’s rituals, fit round the three o’clock kick-off.

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Then when the Yuletide games stopped in England in the late 1950s - with Blackpool v Blackburn Rovers in 1965 appearing out of nowhere like some freak snow flurry before the custom disappeared, probably for good – Scottish football continued to let Christmas share its Saturdays. There was a complete card of fixtures in ’65 and again in ’71.

From the perspective of today, where we can get self-conscious if we’re not experiencing the full, month-long Christmas festival as party-planned by the overly-sentimental film-maker Richard Curtis, we might feel sorry for the men who turned out on the 25th – but they don’t want our sympathy. “The games were there; they had to be played,” says Pat Stanton whose Hibernian journeyed to Aberdeen in ’65 and hosted Rangers six years later.

“For a long time Christmas Day wasn’t a holiday in Scotland,” points out Kenny Cameron, who scored a hat-trick for Dundee against Motherwell in ’65 and then helped Dundee United beat Dunfermline in ’71. “Most of us had dads who worked it – mine was a dyer with Pullar’s and he did.”

“I didn’t mind playing on Christmas Day,” says Partick Thistle’s Jimmy Bone. “Maybe it would have been different if I had family but at that point I was young and just so thrilled to have a career in football.” As Thistle were losing 1-0 at home to Ayr in ’71, Falkirk couldn’t give their fans any festive cheer, going down 3-0 to an Aberdeen team featuring Davie Robb.

“Football to me was business, it was work,” he says. “I didn’t regard playing on Christmas Day as punishment. If I’d had to play Christmas, birthday, Monday through to Thursday, so be it. Later I worked in the oil industry and spent one Christmas on a rig in the Middle East. That wasn’t exactly pleasurable but it had to be done.”

If you’re detecting a puritanical attitude towards Christmas among the players, you should see the match programmes. I collect these wonderful documents, all the more startling in their Scroogian reluctance when flicked through while TV screens those big-budget Christmas commercials on repeat. Sprigs of holly on the cover are rare, snow-topped lettering almost non-existent and compliments of the season are grudgingly given up, usually near the bottom of page seven. The exceptions are St Mirren (Santa on the front), Airdrie (plum-pudding cartoon) and East Fife who, by printing out the words to “God rest ye merry Methil men” look like the biggest, fattest Christmas over-indulgers there have ever been.

In what was very much the era of the dug-out disciplinarian, none of Scotland’s managers was rushing to don a red suit and white beard for some pre-match jollity. “That would have been a bit strange,” admits Robb, “although I seem to think Jimmy Bonthrone put sugar in our half-time tea as a wee treat.” Bonthrone’s predecessor at Pittodrie, Eddie Turnbull, was Stanton and Edwards’ boss for Hibs’ ’71 game. “The most crabbit man you could ever meet,” laughs Edwards, “but a brilliant manager and I got on great with him. Ned never deviated. Our routine that Saturday would have been the same for any match. Lunch at the NB [North British Hotel]: soup or fillet steak, orange juice, toast, no chance of any turkey. And he’d have recruited more spies for the night before since it was Christmas Eve. If you were ever caught drinking after Wednesday you got fined.”

Peter McQuade, whose East Fife hosted Motherwell in ’71, has similar tales of festive lockdowns. “The funniest applies to a New Year’s Day game although it could just as easily have been that Christmas. The goalie Dave Gorman and I wangled it with the manager of the Caley Hotel in Leven that we could evade the curfew of the night before and sneak out for a while. He wanted us back by half-past midnight because he was a big East Fife fan desperate for us to beat Raith Rovers and we were good boys. The next day I expected to see Benny McGuire for one of our regular duels but he didn’t play because he’d stayed out rather longer and ended up in a police cell!”

What were Yuletide games like to play in? The modern footballer might describe them as “surreal” because that’s what sportsmen say these days, about everything. In ’65, according to Stanton, the Hibs and Aberdeen players wished each other a merry Christmas, although this would have happened well before kick-off. It wasn’t just Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira who were tunnel-visioned in the tunnel. “Then when we stepped onto the pitch at Pittodrie I remember looking at the crowd and being amazed. I said to myself: ‘Should you lot not be someplace else?’ Since it was Aberdeen, I did think the home fans must have been allowed in for free. But there were a few of our supporters there too, which given that not many folk had cars in those days, was remarkable.” The attendance was 9535. In ’71 Hibs and Rangers drew 25,145. Further back the 1954 Christmas Day game between these teams attracted 43,000. Well, the Famous Five v the Iron Curtain was truly a special day.

McQuade was less surprised by big crowds on the 25th. “There are only so many times you can sit in and listen to Bing Crosby dreaming of a white Christmas,” he says. Tommy McLean, who turned out for Kilmarnock against St Johnstone in ’65, adds: “It’s the Christmas shopping which would have done the men in. By the day itself they’d have been desperate for a game.”

Christmas football produced some notable results. Celtic’s 8-1 thrashing of Morton in ’65, coupled with Rangers’ slump against Dunfermline, took them to the top of the league. On the same afternoon Berwick Rangers won by an identical scoreline against Forfar. It remains their record victory and meant a long journey back north for Archie Knox and his team-mates.

The Tayside derby between St Johnstone and Dundee in ’71 finished scoreless and doesn’t sound like much of a game. Indeed Jocky Scott has forgotten that he ever played football on Christmas Day. But it sticks in the mind of one young fan, Stuart Cosgrove. “There was an almighty punch-up in Perth after the game,” recalls the Off the Ball presenter who, despite loving the boot-boy gear, says he never had the stomach for battle and was soon disappearing up a close with his mates, with the mob in hot pursuit. “We ran straight through a house where the family were sat down with their turkey and their paper hats and asked if we could jump over the back wall.”

Thanks to leap years, Christmas Day returned to a Saturday in double-quick time but in ’76 football was no longer shining as brightly as a certain star in the east – at Easter Road or anyplace else. Clubs were given the opportunity to move their matches and many, fearing poor turnouts, took it. Only two games went ahead – Clydebank v St Mirren and Alloa Athletic v Cowdenbeath. “I don’t think we’ll ever see football played on Christmas Day again,” says Cameron. “A bloke can no longer say to his wife: ‘I’m off to the game – back for my turkey later.’ Even if he wanted to and I’m not sure he would.”

Respect, then, for the festive footballers. These guys also served, not once on Christmas Day but twice: Peter McCloy, Joe Harper, Jim Forrest, Arthur Duncan, Steve Murray, Jimmy O’Rourke, Drew Jarvie, Eric Stevenson. And who do you think is at the top of the tree for putting football before Brussels sprouts and rotten cracker jokes? It probably has to be Sir Alex Ferguson who achieved a hat-trick, having played for Dunfermline in ’65 and Falkirk in ’71 then managed St Mirren in ’76. The programme from that match is the most tinsel-trimmed in my collection, proof that Christmas was here to stay. The boss writes: “What better to complete your Christmas Day than producing everything that’s good in football?” Let the records show that the last ho-ho ended in a 2-2 draw.

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