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Five first team games in seven days. Christmas the Arsenal way.

Go back 100 years and you would find Christmas then similar to Christmas today.   Presents were exchanged (all tied up with string), there was an emphasis on religion, and it was a public holiday – although less so than now.  Families got together, and there was a lot of drinking.

No TV and no radio of course, and homes were often fairly crowded with two or three generations together, which meant people celebrated on the streets, and in the pubs – of which there were more than three times the number that there are today.

Additionally many shops remained opened and football was played.

In fact the usual approach was to play football on both December 25th and December 26th – the only exception to the rule being if either day fell on a sunday, in which case the games were shifted around.  100 years ago football was never, ever, played on a Sunday.

Two games in two days might seem a bit bizarre and crazy, and of course it was, but some years it was even worse than it might seem.

Take the Woolwich Arsenal schedule in Division One around Christmas 1904, by way of example…

  • December 24, Sheffield United (home)
  • December 26, Aston Villa (away)
  • December 27, Nottingham Forest (away)
  • December 28, Sheffield United (away)
  • December 31, Newcastle United (home)

Three games in three days, five games in seven days.  Try selling that to the modern player and manager.

One presumes that for those three away games over three days, the team moved from hotel to hotel like a rock band on tour, and taking that into account it is clear there was no chance for training.  The players probably got Christmas day with their families and then took the train to Birmingham on the morning of Boxing Day.

Quite why that season was so crazy I don’t know – there were eight matches played by Woolwich Arsenal in December that year, and only three in November.  So maybe others in November were postponed due to fog or heavy rain) and the rule was that one had to play a postponed game as soon as possible.   Certainly the proximity to the Thames meant that Woolwich Arsenal games could be postponed due to fog more often than in many clubs.

Christmas 1909, one hundred years ago, was a doddle by comparison.

  • December 18, Notts County (home)
  • December 25, Newcastle United (home)
  • December 27, Liverpool (home)

Three home games in a row – how do you explain that?  I have no idea, but it meant no travelling, and so in theory that was a benefit.   But, that also meant more time with friends and family, and more time down the pub (the notion of being a footballer and keeping your body clean and well maintained had not yet arrived.)

So playing games at home around Christmas might not be a blessing at all.

One other point of interest from this fixture list.

The idea of playing the same team home and away over two days had not yet come in.  Although this again might seem odd to us now, it became very much a staple part of the footballing calendar for fifty years.   The first record I have found of this sort of behaviour is 1911/1912, when Woolwich Arsenal’s Christmas adventure was Tottenham Hotspur away on Christmas Day, and Tottenham Hotspur at home on Boxing Day.

This approach continued all the way until the late 1960s – although it did not happen every single year.  Sometimes they abandoned the approach for one year, and then came back with it the following year.

It is also interesting to note that while there seems to have been some thought in 1911/12 to the issue of travel (Tottenham was easily the nearest team to Woolwich Arsenal that season, with all the other London teams being in Division 2 or the Southern League), generally the issue of long distance travel seems to have been of no concern to the people who drew up the league programme each year.

Teams travelled by train, and there were normal services on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, so the travel was possible.  But obviously no one thought about the logistical implications and the issues relating to training.

So while in future years we can find other examples of matches against Tottenham or Chelsea during the Christmas period, we can also find bizarre examples of long distance travel.  In 1909 Newcastle had to travel to Woolwich (certainly a time consuming trip).  On Boxing Day 1910 Woolwich Arsenal had to go to Manchester United.

(One might also take it that at this time players would certainly have not gone first class.  They might have gone second, but most likely it would have been third – which was not much above cattle truck level.)

I do hope you find this history interesting.  If you would like to learn more about life 100 years ago, and what went on in football, you’ll enjoy MAKING THE ARSENAL, the story of Woolwich Arsenal in their most eventful year to date – 1910.  You can buy through www.amazon.co.uk or direct from the publishers on the link above.

(c) Tony Attwood 2009.

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