Christmas football. It seems that everyone loves Christmas football. Apparently, football on Boxing Day is a tradition – so much so that Lewes’s decision to move our derby game with Bognor Regis Town to 24 hours later nearly caused an online riot. We made the announcement back in August when Christmas was still a speck on the horizon, after discussions with our opponents. Some saw the decision as simply pandering to the fact Brighton & Hove Albion were also at home – which came into our thought process but wasn’t the deciding factor, others bemoaning our lack of respect to the traditional festive game. With Boxing Day falling on a Friday AND the popular movement to return games to their Saturday 3pm position, that is what we did. With no Premier League/ Football League or even Conference football to be played on the 27th, we would have little competition – in fact there would be a very good chance we could draw the biggest crowd in England. Bognor fans, who had no public transport options on Boxing Day were happy, heck, even a few of our fans were too. Interestingly enough, only four games were played in the Ryman Premier League yesterday, with the remaining eight games kicking off today. Fair decent attendances for those local derbies too. Those seven other clubs hosting games today also saw sense in moving it to Saturday.
In the run up to the game, a small number of Lewes “fans” seemed to be willing the weather to turn, wanting the game to be called off, simply out of spite it seemed, the “told you so” mentality. The fact that dozens of people had put in an extra shift to get everything ready for one of the biggest games of the season seemed irrelevant. Fans are free to express their opinions on any decision a club makes but you have to question those who seems so hell-bent on being so disingenuous at every opportunity. When the team are losing it is “sack the managers”, when the fixtures are changed it is “disrespectful” and when all of those are going OK, dissent turns to the catering or the half-time crowd at the bar. These are of course the same “fans” who as soon as the fortunes of the team turn, disappear from public view.
Despite the game being moved to the 27th, it was still our Christmas game. Despite our nearest “rivals” now being Peacehaven and Telscombe, The Ryman League retained our traditional local derby. Lewes’s biggest crowds in recent memory have come over the Christmas period – over 1,000 versus Horsham in 2011/12 and crowds double that for games against Eastbourne Borough in our Conference days. Last season we were denied a bumper New Years Day crowd when our game versus Maidstone United fell foul to the weather, annoying as the weather the week previous on Christmas Day and Boxing Day had been so good.
A number of supporters of other clubs, who played yesterday, ventured down to the Pan to take in the game too – Barnet, Manchester United, Crystal Palace and Harrods fans that I knew of. Faces who come down once or twice a year such as England’s foremost female cricket writer Lizzy Ammon, as well as a couple of Dripping Pan virgins including the lovely Lucie Allen.
There was a time when Christmas Day games were the norm in England. Mr Fuller Snr talks fondly of getting on his bike and cycling to Upton Park to watch West Ham on Christmas Day, and up until 1957 there was a full Football League programme on December 25th. Interest waned in subsequent years with the last ever Christmas Day game played in 1965 between Blackpool and Blackburn Rovers, although a decent crowd of over 20,000 suggested that there was still significant interest in Yuletide football.
In 1983, Brentford announced that they would be hosting Wimbledon on Christmas Day with an 11am kick off, “to revive the old tradition of husbands going to football on Christmas Day while the wives cook the turkey,” according to a Bees spokesman. But the wives thought differently and the fans’ protests in the run up to Christmas saw the match brought forward to Christmas Eve, when a 6,689 crowd, the second highest League crowd at Griffin Park that season, witnessed a 4-3 Wimbledon victory.
The Christmas Day games weren’t always without their problems. Due to a lack of local derbies, Portsmouth ended up having to travel to Blackpool back in 1954. In 1940, with the war in full swing, teams often struggled to put sides out, and players were allowed to play for more than one team, which saw Len Shackleton play for Bradford Park Avenue and Bradford City on Christmas Day. That same day was a Christmas to forget for Brighton & Hove Albion, who turned up for their game versus Norwich City with only five players! Anyone who had a pair of boots was invited to play and unsurprisingly the Seagulls suffered an 18-0 defeat.
Obviously, bad weather affects the Christmas fixtures. Two year’s ago our Boxing Day game against Bognor Regis shouldn’t have finished due to the torrential rain, and we have suffered with postponements due to snow, such as the game versus Ebbsfleet United back in our Conference South days. But that pales in significance to the First Division game in 1937 between Chelsea and Charlton Athletic, when heavy fog caused the game to be abandoned.
Nothing strange about that until Charlton Athletic realised their goalkeeper, the legendary Sammy Bartram, was missing. The keeper was still on the field, completely unaware that the game had been abandoned, and just assumed that Charlton were putting pressure on the Chelsea goal. Now you know why Rikki Banks wears a bright yellow outfit.
So for my 51st game of the season so far, and the last time I will visit the Dripping Pan in 2014, Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present you with the story of The Rooks versus The Rocks.
Lewes 1 Bognor Regis Town 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 27th December 2014
In the 85th minute I had the pleasure of reading out the official attendance as 1,007, making it the best attended match in England. To put that gate in context, our last two games we have played on Boxing Day were against Bognor in 2012 where the crowd was 883, and against Dover Athletic in 2010 when it was 505. On both occasions the weather was similar to this year and Lewes were floating around the bottom of the table. So much for ruining Christmas tradition. Whilst some many still think we could have got more people, we will never know. The crowd was almost double our budgeted average attendance and thanks to the result, most went home with that warm smug glow of victory.
It wasn’t a classic but when you are fighting for every point it rarely is. Unbelievably, despite sitting just above the relegation places, The Rooks haven’t lost a league game since the 19th October – four wins and four draws. With the next two games against Margate and Dulwich Hamlet, it was important to get a positive result today, and that’s exactly what happened. The goal that warmed up the Philcox Stand came in the 58th minute. The very impressive Nicky Wheeler crossed, and Luke Blewden’s powerful header did the rest. The last ten minutes were a bit of a backs to the wall job, made harder by losing Matt Crabb to two soft yellow cards, but Rikki Banks’ goal stayed in tact.
Last season in the corresponding game at Christmas, the pivotal moment was the Bognor Regis goal keeper getting Lewes’s Jack Dixon sent off in the first half. After deliberately tripping the Lewes player as he ran back from a corner, unsighted by the referee, Dixon reacted and the keeper fell to the ground as if he had been taken out by a sniper. Great sportsmanship. The relevance of the incident seemed lost on the Bognor fans in the second half of this game when they were loudly accusing Lewes keeper Rikki Banks of feigning injury after a clash with Ollie Prior.
Full time and most fans went home happy including our contingent from the good ol’ US of A, Mr Luge Pravda, who couldn’t resist the chance to try to get the biggest every Lewes FC selfie. The Bognor faithful, who had come in numbers, made an excellent contribution across the bar and sang/shouted their hearts out may feel aggrieved at the final score. We’ve all been there before, we know how it hurts and we look forward to our fourth meeting of the season at Easter when we hope both of us are looking up the table with confidence rather downwards with concern.