The evolution of Christmas and its place in an increasingly secular and commercial society is a topic best left for another day. Amid the ever-shifting festive landscape, however, one pivotal aspect of British life remains stoically resistant to change.
The Germans and the Allies may have nervously ventured out from the trenches to boot a makeshift ball around neutral territory back on Christmas Day 1914, but in the modern era football matches on December 25 have been notable only by their absence.
Christmas Day fixtures had once been a regular staple in the calendar in both Scotland and England, when thousands would leave behind the family parlour games to get their festive football fix. Not now, however. The games were phased out south of the border in the late 1950s, while in Scotland the ball would only roll on Christmas Day if it happened to fall on a Saturday. The last full Scottish card took place in 1971.
The new fledgling 10-team Scottish Premier League was only in its second season when the dates aligned again in 1976. A combination of poor weather and a reluctance to play on Christmas Day saw all top-tier games instead switched to either Christmas Eve, Boxing Day or December 27.
The spotlight, then, instead fell on two lower league games. In the 11am kick-off, Alloa Athletic got the better of Cowdenbeath at Recreation Park in front of a crowd of 731. More than ten times that number squeezed into the bijou Kilbowie Park later in the day when St Mirren were Clydebank’s visitors in the 3pm kick-off. Forty-two years later, it remains the last British senior football match to take place on Christmas Day.
Those who delayed their Christmas dinner, and risked the wrath of their families by eschewing more traditional festive entertainment for an afternoon at the football, were well rewarded for doing so. These were the two best teams in the First Division at the time, with St Mirren a potent force under promising young manager Alex Ferguson, and Clydebank providing a platform for the burgeoning talent of a 20 year-old winger by the name of Davie Cooper.
By the summer of 1977, the teams had shared 180 goals between them on their way to clinching promotion to the Premier League. Fergie’s Furies would finish as champions in the club’s centenary year, with Bill Munro’s Bankies four points behind but well worthy of the runners-up spot.
Unsurprisingly, then, there was a tingle of anticipation in the air on Christmas Day 1976 that extended beyond the mere thrill of spending an unlikely day at the football. The crowd was officially given as 7,675 but those who were there remain convinced that was a conservative estimate at best. The crowd given was three times the attendance at Clydebank’s previous home match, and double the crowd at their next one. This was an occasion that undoubtedly caught the imagination.
“Both teams were going well that season which maybe explains the turnout but I think it was a game that attracted a lot of neutrals as well,” recalled Stevie McAneney, a Clydebank historian and now a club director. “There could easily have been 12,000 there.”
With next to no public transport running on the day, some St Mirren fans had little choice but to walk the three miles to the Renfrew Ferry from Paisley, before embarking on a mile-long hoof to the ground from Yoker. They then made the same journey in reverse on the way home, perhaps sustained by the thought of the Christmas dinner that awaited them.
Other supporters couldn’t wait that long for nourishment. Those who were there recall bags of mince pies being passed around the terraces, washed down with the warming contents from the nearest hip flask.
Festive bonhomie, however, wasn’t all-encompassing. There were skirmishes between rival groups of supporters both outside and inside the stadium, with the match interrupted at one point by St Mirren fans pouring on to the pitch.
Ferguson also found himself getting steamed up too, admitting in his book A Light in the North that he had taken out some festive-related stress on a poor unsuspecting match official. “There was an incident in the second half when the linesman gave offside against us and I reacted badly and chased up the touchline after him, only to be pulled back by the Clydebank manager,” Ferguson recalled in print almost a decade after the event.
“My reaction had been unnecessary, but at the time I was under a lot of personal strain. I had even had to personally prepare Christmas dinners at one of my pubs three nights in a row as my cook had quit,” he admitted, revealing a perhaps surprising culinary side to his character.
Fortunately, there was greater goodwill in evidence elsewhere. Clydebank issued a commemorative joint match programme – “on the house” as they described it – that featured a Santa bedecked half in Clydebank’s red and white, and half in the black-and-white stripes of St Mirren for a match it dramatically described as the battle of “the gladiators of the first division”.
The first 200 young fans entering the stadium were also presented with a free poster of their heroes created by the cartoonist McCormick, while both managers also took to the front page of the programme to offer a festive message.
“May I, on behalf of all connected with St Mirren Football Club, wish the Bankies and Saints supporters a very Merry Christmas and good wishes for the coming year,” wrote Ferguson, while in a calmer frame of mind.
Munro was equally as generous in spirit. “It is with pleasure that I wish you, our supporters, and in the particular the folk who come with us to Arbroath and Perth, a very Happy Christmas, and let’s trust that Lady Fortune continues to smile on us in the New Year and, in this, I’m glad to include the St Mirren fans,” he wrote.
The match itself was entertaining and bursting with talking points. Clydebank, who as well as Cooper had future Manchester United assistant manager Jimmy Lumsden in their ranks, went two up through goals from Mike Larnach and Billy McColl, the latter prompting that sea of black-and-white to wash on to the pitch in frustration.
Once the fans had been safely shepherded back on to the terraces, play recommenced and St Mirren belatedly got into their stride. Theirs was a squad rich in gifted players too – the team that day included Tony Fitzpatrick, Jackie Copland and Frank McGarvey – and provided the platform for St Mirren to go on to become a mainstay of the Premier League throughout the 1980s.
On this occasion, it was substitute Bobby Torrance who got them back into the contest with a goal, before Billy Stark – like the afore-mentioned Cooper, only 20 years old at the time – earned them a draw with a strike 20 minutes before the end. It was the last significant act of an eventful afternoon.
“As players we were used to training on Christmas Day but a game was a whole different experience,” said Stark. “It was a sell-out as we had a really good rivalry with Clydebank at that time and both ended up going up to the Premier League. I think there was actually a bigger demand than normal as people wanted to be part of something a bit different.”
Clydebank at that time were run by Jack Steedman who evidently spotted the commercial benefits of opening the doors on Christmas Day when all the Premier League clubs were inactive. The bumper attendance vindicated that decision while significantly bolstering Clydebank’s coffers. The biggest surprise is that nobody has tested the festive waters since.