When double-headers on Christmas and Boxing Day were the norm

They were once a staple of the football programme, but Yorkshire has not hosted a top-flight football match on Christmas Day since 1957.
Alan Finney: Former Sheffield Wednesday footballerAlan Finney: Former Sheffield Wednesday footballer
Alan Finney: Former Sheffield Wednesday footballer

The final game was one to remember, Sheffield Wednesday and Preston North End sharing four goals as the two left-wingers – both called Finney – scored a brace each.

The Yorkshire Post saw it as a wasted opportunity for Wednesday, who would end the season bottom of Division One. Preston won the return at Deepdale 3-0 the next day.

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“Defensive lapses cost Sheffield Wednesday a valuable point,” ran the report after the Owls took a 2-0 lead through Redfern Frogatt and Alan Finney in the opening half-hour of the Christmas Day match.

Derek Pace: Played for Aston Villa on one day and Sheffield United the next.Derek Pace: Played for Aston Villa on one day and Sheffield United the next.
Derek Pace: Played for Aston Villa on one day and Sheffield United the next.

Third the previous season heading for second in 1957-58, Preston had the legendary Tom Finney on the wing and he started to take control late in the first half.

It was a baptism of fire for right-back Albert Broadbent, signed from Rotherham United on Christmas Eve in exchange for Peter Johnson.

Tom Finney and Tommy Thompson shared the goals as the Lilywhites took a 4-3 lead in front of 26,825 fans, only for Derek Wilkinson to add to Alan Finney’s second with what was described as “a scrambling goal” in the final 10 minutes to secure “a fair result”.

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The traditional Christmas Day-Boxing Day double-header was notoriously inconsistent, with just 10 league clubs winning both in 1957.

Tom Finney: Scored in same match as namesake Alan.Tom Finney: Scored in same match as namesake Alan.
Tom Finney: Scored in same match as namesake Alan.

The most dramatic turnaround came at Fratton Park where Portsmouth responded to a 7-4 defeat at Stamford Bridge – where Jimmy Greaves scored four on his return from a six-week lay-off – to win the Boxing Day game 3-0.

Both Finneys caught the eye when Wednesday and Preston met again the next day – the Owls changing only their left-half, Preston’s only alteration in goal – but only Tom, “in tantalising form” according to the Yorkshire Post, found the net.

“Sheffield Wednesday could not grumble,” read the report, “for, if the home team had taken all their chances, the score could well have reached double figures.”

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Ralph O’Donnell cleared three times off his own line and amateur goalkeeper Mike Pinner, who had played for Great Britain at the 1956 Olympics, “saved shots from all angles.” Wednesday’s Albert Quixall left the field for 10 minutes because of a clash of heads before returning to play on the right wing.

The game was no great advert for playing twice in as many days over Christmas, “and its mediocrity was only brightened by the brilliance of Tom Finney and to a lesser extent by his namesake, Alan Finney.”

Preston’s No 11 was not the only one who kept up his goal-scoring form, Thompson scoring goals either side of Finney’s “masterpiece”.

The extra point they passed up on Christmas Day would come back to bite the Owls, as Newcastle United and Portsmouth stayed up on goal average that season with only a point more.

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Relegation saw Eric Taylor go from secretary/manager to secretary/general manager and new chief Harry Catterick led the Owls to the Division Two title in his first season, and the FA Cup semi-final in his second. In 1961, they were First Division runners-up behind double winners Tottenham Hotspur but rather than take the team a step further, Catterick left for Everton.

Alan Finney, who made his debut at a 17-year-old in 1951, would play 455 times for the Owls before joining Doncaster Rovers in 1966.

Across Sheffield at Bramall Lane, Derek ‘Doc’ Pace had an eventful Christmas.

He spent Christmas Day as an Aston Villa inside-forward, and Boxing Day as a Blades centre-forward.

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The Yorkshire Post reported that “United’s attack lost its poise” in the 1-0 defeat at Blackburn Rovers on the 25th, but Joe Mercer wasted no time rectifying it, paying Aston Villa £12,000 for Pace the next morning. After his debut that afternoon, the newspaper was already sold on him, reporting that he “promises to solve United’s centre-foward problems” after being involved in three goals on his debut for the Second Division club.

Pace was noted for his heading ability and by the time he nodded his side in front after six minutes, he had already hit the crossbar.

Derek Hawksworth found the net when goalkeeper Harry Leyland could only push Pace’s shot towards him, and Mick McGrath put a ball from the centre-forward into his own goal. Winger Kevin Lewis, 17, completed the 4-2 win with a late header.

Pace became a popular figure at Bramall Lane, and when the Blades won eight consecutive league matches in the Spring, he scored nine goals.

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He was the Blades’ top-scorer for six consecutive seasons, including 1960-61 when they won promotion back to Division One and reached the FA Cup semi-final. In all, he scored 175 goals in 302 games for the Blades.

Huddersfield Town beat Middlesbrough 1-0 home and away in Christmas 1957 as one future managerial legend got the better of another.

“Mr Bill Shankly, the Huddersfield Town manager, does strange things at times in the way of team selection,” Richard Ulyatt wrote in the Yorkshire Post, but the changes he made on Boxing Day were credited with the not inconsiderable feat of keeping Boro centre-forward Brian Clough quiet. “Clough, the leader on whom Middlesbrough so much rely was able twice only to test (Sandy) Kennon,” said the report from Ayresome Park.

The Division Two fixture planners were cruel on Doncaster Rovers and Rotherham United, sending them to Charlton Athletic and Leyton Orient, respectively, for 2-0 and 4-2 defeats. Rovers lost 2-1 on Boxing Day, but the Millers at least managed a 2-2 draw.

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Barnsley recovered from a 3-2 defeat at Notts County to draw 1-1 on Boxing Day.

Eight changes could not stop Bradford Park Avenue losing twice to Southport in Division Three North but their city neighbours made up for a 5-2 loss at Mansfield Town with a 1-1 Boxing Day draw.

Hull City drew 1-1 at Gateshead, then beat the Tynesiders 3-1 the next day.

A Christmas Day crowd of 14,295 watched Huddersfield beat Charlton at Leeds Road in 1958 in Division Two while Sheffield United were winning 2-1 at Grimsby Town, but the Festive tradition was changing. The return matches did not take place until the 27th.

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Lancashire clung onto December 25 football until 1965, and Scotland’s last full set of Christmas Day fixtures was 1971.

Now Boxing Day has become one of the highlights of the annual football programme, and back-to-back slogs a relic of Christmas past.