Christmas is a great roosting of families. People gathering to spend a day in an enclosed space veiled in an unnaturally consistent, artificially heated, climate. At first, there’s the gathering of the flock, a sense of togetherness, a sense of fellowship and well-being. But then, there is a point, usually signalled by the first sprouty burp of Christmas dinner, where you crave for the fug to be blown away by a chill wind, the increasing need to re-engage with the world beyond your living room, away from the constant call of food and drink. That release, for many, comes through football on Boxing Day.
As a result, the crowd at Boxing Day football is an unusual one; young women in those wooly hats with oversized fluffy bobbles neutrally coloured with matching gloves, the older brother back from London comparing the Kassam to when he watched a game from a box at Stamford Bridge, visiting friends in wonder at the novelty of it all, over-excited children suffering separation anxiety from their new X-Boxes. It is the only day of the season where you will see middle-aged women handing round a pocketful of Celebrations swiped from the bowl in the living room before leaving.
For season ticket regulars, we host the party. When I’ve taken friends to a game on Boxing Day, I become the font of all knowledge. Can I get tickets? What time to leave? Where might we park? Do we have time for a drink before the game? In return, I display Jedi-like knowledge of every movement and twitch around the ground – “There’s Martin Brodetsky” I’ll say with a flamboyant wave in his general direction. My guests respond with a deferential nod as though I have accurately identified a rare sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.
I wouldn’t swap it for anything, but football without context is just a really erratic sub-genre of the entertainment industry. The families who come as much for the fresh air as anything expect a win. But football doesn’t work like that; it’s like watching an over of a test match and expecting it to decide the result of all five-days’ play.
Last year I came with a friend who purred at what he was watching; Baldock, Roofe, Lundstram, Sercombe and an Exeter team in abject form being thrashed around like a whale killing a seal. This year’s game against Northampton was never going to be like that, no team in League 1 is going to be turned over like that, at least not by us, not at the moment.
As the minutes ticked on and the game petered out, people began to drift away. Even at half-time there seemed to be a glut of vacant blue seats that weren’t there in the first 45 minutes. It was clear the ‘show’ wasn’t delivering what was expected. But, this isn’t pantomime, you can’t guarantee that the Aladdin with marry a princess. When they scuffed in their last minute winner, it signalled a cue for a great exit and within seconds the stadium looked like it did at a mundane fixture during the barren League 2 years. Only the regulars remained.
Inevitably, some conflated the rumblings about stewarding and flags and Darryl Eales’ ‘hard-hitting’ programme notes with an evident downturn in form. In truth, they were pretty average but got a lucky break. None of this was helped by the fact it was Northampton; the target of Michael Appleton’s hilariously indefensible statements on us being ‘statistically’ the best team in the division last year. He’s wrong, of course, not that I would trade anything we achieved last year for what they achieved. It just made it a more galling defeat, but it was no more signal of our imminent collapse as the previous eight games undefeated was a signal we were going up.
Boxing Day football blows away the cobwebs of a Christmas party hangover. It feels like 2016 has been one long party at the club. Everyone has got a bit tired and emotional and the hangovers are kicking in; perhaps we just need 2017 to come to start afresh.