For any self-respecting English football fan, Boxing Day is one of the most significant and iconic days in the sporting calendar. When the fixtures are released in June, you tend to look for who your team will be playing on Boxing Day before even your first and last games of the season.
There is something quintessentially British about post-Christmas football – when the masses, still weary from overfeeding and often copious alcohol intake, flock in their hundreds of thousands to football grounds around the country.
The obsession with festive football has meant that the game has spread itself across the month of December more than any other month of the year – between Boxing Day and on the 2nd of January, there will be 30 Premier League games. If you’re ‘top at Christmas’ the general rule is that you’ll go on to win the league, this saying has become entrenched in English football’s lexicon. In recent years, other European countries have attempted to make Boxing Day football an institution too – last season, Serie A saw its first-ever set of 26th December fixtures and it was perceived as a roaring success.
So, what is Boxing Day and how did it get its rather confusing name. Well, the etymology of the word is highly disputed. Some theorists say that the word is derived from the ancient tradition for workers to receive a Christmas Box – a parcel full of items like food, money and other small gifts – the day after December 25th.
Other speculators suggest that the term is actually much older, from the middle ages, in fact. This theory posits that a few hundred years post-BC, people would leave metal boxes at the doors of churches wherein passers-by would deposit offerings and gifts linked to St Stephen, St Stephen’s Day falling on December 26th also.
Almost 2000 years later, the day is linked more to eating left-over Christmas food, hour-long television marathons and, now, of course, football. Arguably the most stunning Boxing Day in the history of football, not only in the UK but worldwide, came in 1963. This was the season when Liverpool won the league with just 57 points and just 14 points separated the 1st and 10th-placed teams. Inexplicably, December 26th saw 66 goals shared between ten teams. Only two sides in the top division failed to register a goal: Bolton and Everton. Among the most baffling of results was Burnley beating Manchester United 6-1 at Turf Moor. Just a few days later, though, the Red Devils got their own back, beating Burnley by a five-goal margin at Old Trafford.
This baffling disparity in results was emblematic of a time in the game’s history when anyone truly could beat anyone else. No two games better exemplify that than another fixture from Boxing Day 1963. Fulham beat Ipswich Town, incredibly, by a 10-1 scoreline. But, just as Manchester United had reversed the deficit against Burnley, Ipswich recovered from their heaviest ever defeat to beat Fulham 4-2 just two days later! Other memorable results from this day include West Brom 4-4 Tottenham and West Ham 2-8 Blackburn. It was a veritable Christmas feast of goals.
In more recent years, December 26th has thrown up equally incredible results. In 2007, Chelsea played out a 4-4 draw with Aston Villa in a match which swung this way and that, and then back again. Both teams were competing at the top end of the Premier League table in the 07-08 season, with Chelsea gunning for the title and Villa in pursuit of what would turn out to be an elusive top-four place.
Five years later in 2012, Manchester United beat Newcastle 4-3 in another Boxing Day classic. Newcastle led the match 3-2 approaching the final whistle. But late goals from Robin Van Persie and Javier Hernandez gave Alex Ferguson a famous Boxing Day in his last, and triumphant, season at Old Trafford. Back in the 90s, Manchester United were involved in another rip-roaring Boxing Day affair when they clawed their way back from 3-0 down to scrape a point against an impressive Sheffield Wednesday side. With half an hour to play at Hillsborough, Brian McLair gave United hope. A few minutes later he gave them more than that, lashing home to score his second. In a flash, they were level, Eric Cantona scoring United’s third to complete a memorable comeback.
Will we see similarly incredible results this year? With games such as a repeat of the 2012 classic between Manchester United and Newcastle and a top of the table clash between Leicester City and champion-elect Liverpool, you certainly wouldn’t bet against it.
Writen by Adam Williams