Boxing Day football always attracts a curious mix of supporters. The hardcore don’t like the sightseers invading their patch and treating games like a mere dose of entertainment. But that’s what the club were going for this year and I don’t blame them.
You won’t get very far during Christmas before someone sanctimoniously reminds you of its ‘true meaning’. Typically, they are referring to Christmas’s Christian meaning. It’s almost competitive; an institution claiming ownership or guardianship of Christmas. But non-Christians rightly point to the non-religious connotations of the season. Alongside carols, there’s the pagan tradition of the tree, the Dickensian values of the family and, of course, the modern day focus on commerce. As the years pass, the best bits of each era are retained and the worst excesses are dropped. Most people will claim that Christmas has become ‘too commercial’, but post recession, the indulgences of present buying have been curtailed to some degree. We don’t have endless stories of people paying stupid money to get their hands on this year’s must-have toy, for example. What is emerging in our ‘social’ 21st Century, is the notion of a shared Christmas experience; outside lights, Christmas jumpers and pictures uploaded on Facebook. What Christmas has become, is not a uniquely Christian festival, it’s the distillation of all the good things that people do.
Boxing Day is the Christmas Day of football. And it too is an amalgam of all good football experiences. It’s not necessarily the best football you’ll ever see, but it’s a fixture that you can easily remember, after all it’s the day after Christmas day. For me in the early years, the games blur a little, but I remember the experience of going to games with my dad when we were visiting my grandparents in Abingdon for Christmas. This was pre-1980 and we didn’t live in the area at the time, so it was an early link with the club and an important one in the relationship I’ve developed with it over the years.
The earliest Boxing Day I specifically remember is a surprisingly late one; a 3-1 defeat away to Wolves in 1996. It was a perfect example of an away day; we didn’t really know where we were going, we got there ridiculously early and as soon as we parked there were Oxford fans everywhere. More recently, there was the venomous atmosphere of the Luton game in 2001 with the return of Joe ‘heart attack’ Kinnear; an example of the vitriolic rivalries that fuel football. There was the slow motion Julian Alsop winner against Leyton Orient – the joyousness of the last minute goal. There was the overblown hyperbole of the draw with Woking in 2006 and the rare treat of a TV win over Wimbledon two years ago. Each game becoming a quintessential element of what makes football great. With the benefit of time, these experiences are blur into one, making it an experience of all football.
But in the same way that the average of 1 and 7 is 4; Christmas Day and Boxing Day are both an all-encompassing average, and completely atypical at the same time. The Boxing Day game always attracts casual fans who may be going to their only game of the season. There are families visiting the area with no interest in the result, they just want to be entertained and get some relief from the stuffiness of Christmas day. Even the regulars and season ticket holders are likely to be with different people or be following a different routine. Everything is different; you don’t eat Quality Street at regular football.
Most Boxing Days, I find myself sitting in a different spot in order to sit with visiting friends, we talk about Premier League football (I never talk about Premier League football at Oxford games) and I have to work my way through our starting eleven; explaining each player’s strengths and weaknesses.
I wasn’t alone, against Plymouth, few around me seemed to have much of a clue as to who anyone was. There was a palpable sense of disappointment in the quality of the game, particularly in the first half. I guess if you’ve been educated in TV football, which most will have been, the sight of someone mis-controlling simple pass must come as a disappointment. At one point David Hunt took two touches to bring a ball under control and there was a loud groan all around me – had I been sitting in my normal seat, it wouldn’t have been noted. A man in front of me was told off by his mum for calling the referee a twat. And there was a huge exodus – 9 minutes from time – when we went 2-1 down (and the game was still alive); people were more bothered by avoiding traffic than finding out who might win.
When I initially conceived this post, it was going to be one about how much these sightseers get in the way of the serious business at hand, but in fact, I’m not complaining at all; it results in a nice atmosphere. We are the damaged people who go every week so it’s nice to be joined by people who have life in their eyes, who see football as an event, as entertainment, not as a routine or a compulsion. While we continuously chase, and fail to realise, the highs of our early football experiences; of walking up to the ground, the smell of the burger fan, the buzz of pre-match, and the game itself, these people are genuinely enjoying their rare indulgence of the game. A bit of it rubs off on you; it gives you a slightly refreshed perspective on what you’re seeing.
From a footballing perspective it was the last thing we really needed. What we’re looking for is consistency; the normality of picking up points week after week. The win over Dagenham seemed to engender some confidence at home, but on Boxing Day, the atmosphere that was created asked the players additional questions on top of the need to simply get on the pitch and perform. I don’t think they froze, they generally played OK, but in a season where the line between success and failure is thinner than tissue paper, any of the elements of The Big Match could easily have tipped the game away from us.
That said, the club did a fine job in almost doubling our average attendance for the game and the flags, opera singer and fireworks made an enjoyable spectacle. It could have looked terrible – not many League 2 clubs could have pulled it off – but it came across well. Some curmudgeons weren’t happy with the razzmatazz, it wasn’t ‘proper’ for ‘proper’ football fans. But, this wasn’t for us, we would have been at that fixture if it were held on a freezing Tuesday night in February. This was aimed at those seeking entertainment. It was competing for the money and time people would otherwise have spent on the local pantomime. When you’ve got the option of seeing a half forgotten soap actor in a dress, or some working class barely competent sport, there’s no real competition. These people don’t go to football because they feel obliged to attend by some undefined god of football, they will go if it is likely to be fun. If it isn’t going to be fun, they won’t go. People can complain all they like about those who left at 2-1, but it matters not. The club had to capitalise on their passing interest in the club. I doubt that many of them would ever be in the market for a season ticket, but I hope that some of them thought the general experience was good enough for them to consider a visit next time we’re drawn at home at Christmas.