Crackers and Turkeys - County at Christmas

Everyone loves a Christmas game, in fact after the first and last games of the season, they’re arguably the next one everyone looks out for when the fixtures are released. Such is the buzz that surrounds Christmas games that any anecdote usually has the day mentioned for extra emotive impact (“Two-down, won 3-2, Wrexham away, Boxing Day ‘96). There is an air of festive enjoyment and a certain relaxed atmosphere that accompanies the Christmas games, no doubt enhanced by the abundance of Christmas ‘spirit’! 

A Newcastle United supporting late-friend of mine used to tell the story of thousands of Geordies travelling to Stoke City in fancy dress for a Boxing Day game. His most vivid memory? After a delirious goal celebration, he saw Chewbacca being led away by the police! Where else would you find such scenes but at a Boxing Day game? In this article we’ll be looking back at County’s fortunes over the festive period, we’ll be digging into the archives, and also looking ahead to how Christmas games might look like in the future. 

Looking at the statistics there have been some Christmas oddities thrown up by the mythical ‘fixture computer’ (imagine if such a thing existed!). Where now we are all used to local games at Christmas, County have been forced to travel to all ends of the country for their yuletide match ups; Peterborough United (1973), Reading (1974 and 1993), Watford (1976), Northampton Town (1979), Bristol City (1983), Torquay United (1988, followed by an equally gruelling trip to Carlisle United on New Year’s Eve), Grimsby Town (1990 and 2000) and Barrow (2011). Christmas Day games were also a regular feature up until 1957 and the fixture computer went all kinds of crazy in 1975, 1977, 1983, 1986 and 1994 as County played two games within 24 hours over Christmas (imagine the outcry now!). 

Photo: Manchester Evening News

County, alas, served up the footballing equivalent of receiving bath salts or soap on a rope for Christmas in the 1970s and 80s. Between 1977 and 1989 County failed to win a Boxing Day game, although they did win one on the 27th; 3-0 win at home to Blackpool in 1982. The exception in that run of festive anguish was 1981 when bad weather caused the postponement of all County’s games between 5th December and 2nd January 1982. Incidentally, the winter of 1981 was the coldest in Britain for over 100 years and saw a temperature of -25c recorded. 1989’s 2-1 Boxing Day win over Rochdale at EP was worth the wait, however, as Malcolm Brown’s 35 yard thunderbolt helped County to victory. 

In the mid-90s County fans were treated to some real Christmas delights, Jim Gannon scored a very late winner in front of the packed away end at Blackpool in 1994. 1995 saw Tony Dinning deputise for the injured Neil Edwards in goal during a 2-0 win over Carlisle United on Boxing Day, by the way, John Jeffers' goal is worth watching on the highlights. County came from two goals down to beat Wrexham away a year later, the result arguably sparked the push for promotion under Dave Jones that season and in 1997 EP witnessed one of the most special team goals scored by The Hatters, as a seven-pass, flowing counter-attack lead to Tom Bennett's turn and finish, low into the Cheadle End goal during the resounding 3-0 win over Port Vale on Boxing Day. 

Photo: Phil Brennan

There is also the legendary story of Ian Moore when County faced Wolves on Boxing Day 1999. He missed the first half after being stuck in traffic but came on as a half time substitute and scored two goals, the second in the last minute, to give County a 3-2 win. 

Of course, we cannot mention the 1990s and forget Brighton and Hove Albion, trips to the south coast for successive New Year’s games in 1995 (the 2nd of January, actually) and 1996 will live long in the memory for those hardy County fans who made the trips (and fans complain about kick off times or long journeys on a bank holiday nowadays!).

The 2000s saw six successive Boxing Day defeats. After the sixth, Chris Turner threw in the towel after witnessing his County side, one which had clearly been sampling the festive sherry the day before, capitulate to local rivals, Macclesfield Town 6-0. Some guy called Jim Gannon was his replacement. Every cloud…

The 2008 Boxing Day clash at home to Leeds United was the high water mark of Jim Gannon’s first spell at County. Despite the 3-1 defeat in front of 10,273, County ended the calendar year impressively placed in the League One play off places. Rumours of County’s critical financial position circulated not long afterward and administration was the result before the season’s end.

In recent seasons, and aided by the Non-League penchant for arranging derbies over Christmas, County have seen several double-headers. Not exactly a derby, or even a game with a local interest, but in 2011 County squared off against Barrow, the 1-0 defeat away on Boxing Day was less memorable, however, the 3-2 win at EP on New Year’s Day saw County squander a two-goal lead before eventually winning 3-2.  

In 2012 our derby was with Hyde, and a grim 2-0 defeat at EP on Boxing Day was balanced by a solitary goal from a young Connor Jennings in a 1-0 win on New Year’s Day. 2014’s festive toe to toe with Colwyn Bay certainly didn’t whet the appetite (imagine your festive double header being against Colwyn Bay?!). An Elliot Osborne-inspired 5-1 win over Halifax Town in 2019 was the polar opposite of the reverse fixture on New Year’s Day this year (polar being the operative word!). In fact, that Boxing Day victory over Halifax was County’s fourth successive victory on 26th December (2016 - Harrogate 1-0, 2017 - Alfreton 1-0, 2018 - Altrincham 2-0), with Jim Gannon as manager of all four, you wouldn’t bet against it becoming five when we face Altrincham again on Boxing Day this year.

Photo: Stockport County

As fans, our enjoyment and anticipation of the Christmas games are unmatched. However, we are all aware of the pressure on players with so many games over such a short space of time, and plenty of managers, particularly those in the Premier League, have voiced their feelings about the lack of a winter break. The simple solution, if one consulted the football calendar, would be to scrap FA Cup replays after the third round (if indeed they are re-introduced in 2021/22), thereby freeing up several midweek slots in the spring for the Christmas games to be played. Hey presto, a winter break! Of course, that is too simplistic, but it’s certainly one way of working it out. 

A winter break would immediately destroy all the special Boxing Day atmosphere we have been accustomed to, the extra sprinkle of festive spice that makes a Boxing Day local derby so unique would also be decimated. While the winners of a winter break would be the players, the losers would be the clubs and fans. There are cases to be made for both sides, ultimately though, the financial case is a very strong one and the amount of revenue generated by Christmas games, with the increased attendances, will always win. 

No matter your feelings on a winter break, the Christmas games are here to stay. For anyone who has experienced the feeling of being relaxed and looking forward to some football after the stresses of presents, dinner, and exactly what we’re watching after the Queen’s speech the previous day, will get that same whimsical, fuzzy, warm feeling about Boxing Day games as I do. Whether we’re away at Torquay, Brighton, or hammering Halifax, nothing beats a good Christmas game.  


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