Don’t moan lads, just look at how they used to suffer

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‘KIDS today, they don’t know they’re born,’ is a lament that never seems to go out of fashion.

No matter what the subject or the context, the younger generation will, from time to time, be told how life was a lot harder in days gone by and that their relatively comfortable lifestyle should be appreciated to the full and not taken for granted.

This berating of the young may not be quite on the scale of the ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch from Monty Python fame when Palin, Idol et al tried to outdo each other with tales of suffering that became ever more preposterous as the conversation went on, such as one of the assembled Tykes having to “lick t’road clean wit’ tongue’.”

But the message is still the same: ‘It was a lot harder in our day’.

Today’s sports stars will, no doubt, have heard something similar at various stages of their career. This festive season, however, the words will have a ring of truth for the county’s footballers who are facing a less than punishing schedule of four games in nigh on three weeks.

Christmas Eve falling on a Saturday, and the 28th (usually the day when an extra game is squeezed in) being an ordinary working day, are the reasons – meaning footballers can look forward to what in theory should be an easier festive season.

To the generation of former footballers who can remember the years that followed the end of World War II, such a programme must leave them shaking their heads in disbelief at the hardships – no luxury coaches in those days complete with satellite television! – they were forced to endure at this time of year.

Barnsley, for instance, were a club who had cause to bemoan the fixture planners during the final few years of Christmas Day football (the last ever December 25th Football League game in England taking place in 1959) more than most.

The Tykes’ players were asked not once but twice to undertake punishing journeys by rail at a time of year when only a skeleton service was available. The worst came in 1946-47 when Barnsley were handed back-to-back games against Southampton, the Christmas Day clash taking place at Oakwell with the return at The Dell just 24 hours later.

With such a punishing journey ahead, the Reds and Saints could have been forgiven for taking it easy in the first game but instead they fought out a thrilling 4-4 draw as the Yorkshire side clawed back a two-goal deficit in the final 15 minutes.

There was no time, however, for celebrations, as the Yorkshire Post report previewing the Christmas programme pointed out: “The clubs’ chief worry is transport. Take the case of Barnsley. They are at home tomorrow versus Southampton.

“Immediately after the match, they start off on the return engagement and if there is a late train or a connection missed there is a possibility that the teams, who are travelling companions, will not reach Southampton by the 2.15pm scheduled kick-off.”

Thankfully, British Rail proved more reliable than the modern-day hotchpotch of train operators and Barnsley duly claimed a point from the long trek south.

Ten seasons later, Barnsley were again left cursing their luck, even though there was no Christmas Day football due to the 25th falling on a Sunday.

That was because despite having two home fixtures (Fulham on the 24th and Port Vale on the 27th) either side of a Boxing Day trip to Port Vale, the club’s 14-man travelling party were forced to be away from their families for the entire period thanks to the vagaries of the train system meaning they spent two nights in Manchester.

Barnsley were, by no means, the only Yorkshire club to suffer during the years after the Second World War. In 1948-49, for example, Leeds and Bradford Park Avenue were handed a double-header against London opposition – even though all four were in Division Two and, therefore, surely able to play derby football at Christmas.

Neither enjoyed the experience, either, with Leeds losing 3-2 at West Ham on Christmas Day and then 3-1 at Elland Road a day later, while Avenue claimed just one point from a possible four as Fulham triumphed 2-0 at Craven Cottage following a 1-1 draw in Yorkshire.

Packing so many games into a short space of time inevitably led to injuries and a possible chance for players on the fringes of a squad to stake a claim.

One who possibly wished it hadn’t was Norman Morton, whose solitary league appearance for Leeds came on December 27, 1947, in a 6-1 defeat at Luton Town. Not only that, but he was only available due to being back in Yorkshire on leave from his role as a physical training instructor with the Army.

Another player who will have had cause to wish he’d not made a long festive journey was Wrexham forward Ambrose Ward, whose appearance at Hull City on Christmas Day, 1936, lasted just 20 seconds before he was sent off.

It is doubtful Ward’s day was improved much by the bumper crowd at Boothferry Park that afternoon but the various club directors certainly were happy over the festive season as cash poured into the coffers.

Never was this more apparent than during the attendances boom that followed the Second World War.

The tone for the next few years was set in the League’s very first season after hostilities had ceased when more than one million fans watched the 44 Boxing Day fixtures, a figure that didn’t include the 30,000 plus who were at Ninian Park when Cardiff’s clash with Leyton Orient was abandoned after half an hour.

Three years later, the League’s attendance record was smashed not once, but twice over the holiday period.

Mild temperatures undoubtedly helped as 1,226,098 fans watched the Boxing Day programme, smashing the previous record for a single day by almost 60,000.

Then, just 24 hours later, a new record was set when 1,253,572 flooded through the turnstiles.

Yorkshire played its part in the record-breaking run as Middlesbrough’s home game with Newcastle United attracted a crowd of 53,596, while 52,939 watched Sheffield Wednesday host Blackburn Rovers and 48,587 saw Hull City take on Brentford.

The presence of Tom Finney within the Broad Acres also helped, as the ‘Preston Plumber’ and his North End team-mates were watched by more than 95,000 fans across the festive period as they followed a Christmas Eve defeat at Elland Road with a 1-0 reverse at Bramall Lane three days later.

All good things, however, must come to an end and the first hammer blow came in 1956-57 when a combination of fog and fuel rationing caused by the Suez Crisis meant just 810,000 fans were tempted through the turnstiles across both Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

A second major setback came the following year as an increasing number of local transport workers across the country opted to turn down the offer of overtime, meaning clubs were unable to stage games.

This led to just seven top-flight games taking place in 1957 and only nine in total across all four divisions a year later.

The end was in sight, as in 1959 only two games took place on Christmas Day – Blackpool v Blackburn Rovers in Division One and Coventry v Wrexham in Division Two.

After that, Christmas Day football was no more in England – though north of the Border games continued until 1976.

Players still had testing schedules with back-to-back fixtures still a common occurrence until very recently. But, compared to the older generation, maybe it really has been a case of the modern day player never having it so good.

richard.sutcliffe@ypn.co.uk

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