VERSUS SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY
BOXING DAY DECEMBER 26th 2007

     They’re special aren’t they, games at Christmas? There’s something about them that brings out in me great waves of nostalgia and the memories of football years ago. My thoughts always turn to people I used to know at Turf Moor, my father, my friend John Fielden who died a year ago, I miss him still. I know that others too think at this time about the ones they have lost. I read Camberwellclarets post on the messageboard and a lump came to my throat. I read Christmas greetings from places as far away as Boston, China, Seoul, Canada, Dubai and Norway. The two that touched me most were the ones from the Falklands and Afghanistan. It’s a poignant time.


     At the Turf I remember the places I stood as a kid at Christmas; the sense of anticipation, the old packed, heaving Longside, the smell of brandy and rum in hip flasks drifting across, the feeling of bonhomie and all’s well with the world, the smell of cigars and the wafts of smoke from Players and Woodbine cigarettes. They always seemed to be full houses and the atmosphere was special. If it was a Boxing Day game we’d stuff ourselves the day before on Turkey and all the trimmings, listen to the Queen’s Speech (compulsory in our house), and then watch the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special.


     I was just too late starting as a supporter for the games that used to take place on Christmas Day but I had two uncles who never missed a Christmas Day game. When we spent Christmas in the fifties over in Newton le Willows where all our relations and one set of grandparents lived, Arthur and George always vanished if it was a home Everton game. Those were the days when games took place on consecutive days. The women cooked. The men went to the match. Imagine that now. Today the modern manager and player would have a heart attack at the mere mention of two games in two days but that’s what they did in the good old days. Old brown boots, leather balls that weighed a ton, pitches either six inches deep in mud or frozen solid. It made no difference; the game went on, although an occasional player would be excused duty if he had strong religious beliefs. These were the pre-Beeching days of hundreds of clanking steam trains and Christmas football specials that took you to the away games. Today there are none.


     You usually played home and away games against the same team. Local derby games were the norm. Charles Sutcliffe’s fixture system made sure of that. And then computers took over. Today, computer says no. In the early sixties I remember Burnley 1 Everton 3 and two days later Everton 0 Burnley 3 with a crowd of 78,000 until they stopped counting. In the middle sixties there was a memorable Burnley 6 Man Utd 1 and then two days later Man Utd 5 Burnley 1 and a skinny newcomer kid called Best ran riot until John Angus went dizzy and begged for mercy (according to Bobby Charlton).


     Christmas games of the late fifties take me back to my childhood, winters when there really was snow, Hornby Dublo train sets, The Eagle and Dan Dare, real Christmas trees not plastic, little candles on the branches we used to light and risk the house on fire, the turkey on the cold stone slab in the pantry, and a Christmas pud made by my grandmother in a white bowl with a hanky tied over the top and there were always a couple of sixpences inside. Try finding one today in a Tesco’s Christmas pud. Mary’s Boy Child by Harry Belafonte was number one, Jerry Lee Lewis and Great Balls of Fire got you rocking. Mother had sherry from the Coop not Cava from M&S. The few people who had a black and white TV watched Babes in the Wood with Tony Hancock and Eamonn Andrews. We washed up in the old stone sink.


     ’62 was Sixth Form at school, ‘A’ levels, first girlfriends, and first jazz records. And then in the middle sixties it was on through college years and Irvine, O Neil, Lochhead, Morgan and Coates.


     ’77 and Mull of Kintyre by Wings was festive number one. I couldn’t stand it then and still can’t. It was skateboards for presents, Chopper Bikes for the well off, and Star Wars toys, Saturday Night Fever LPs. Plastic trees were in the shops. Electric tree lights were in, candles were out. I remember a game in a box called Operation. My father was thinking about getting a new Morris Marina. I was driving around in a VW Beetle. We drank Skol lager and Blue Nun wine or Mateus Rose. The turkey was stored in the fridge. We washed up in the stainless steel sink.


     But, nostalgia seemed to stop in the mid seventies when Adamson’s great passing team and our hopes faded away in the Cup game at Blackpool in ’76. Harry Potts of all people was the Blackpool manager when Burnley lost. On the Monday after the game, Adamson was sacked. It was the full stop at the end of the chapter of our dreams of lasting greatness. Adamson’s team of the seventies was no more. But there was one Boxing Day game when fond memories came flooding back for those who were there as Burnley beat Newcastle United not many years later 3 – 2. How did that song go?


     “Hark now hear the Burnley sing,
      The Geordies ran away,
      And we will fight forever more,
      Because of Boxing Day.”


Maybe you have to be of a certain age to feel this way. But there’s something else for me as well. Boxing Day is my birthday. We sit in the James Hargreaves Upper and look directly across to the Bob Lord Stand and the 1970s. There’s nostalgia too looking at that draughty old place, with the posts that obstruct the views, old wooden seats, rugs and thermos flasks and memories of old Bob.


     For one Boxing Day game I did sit in the Bob Lord Stand. It was sometime in the nineties and was against Port Vale. The image is one of relentless pouring rain, a waterlogged pitch, and puddles growing deeper by the minute. We had people staying for Christmas including some Greek friends. They came with us. The Greek friend had never had pie and mushy peas before and probably never has since. He never said what he thought of them but I watched as he scoffed the lot. That was the only highlight of this sodden, miserable day. The game was abandoned with Vale 2 – 1 up. We won the replayed game. Football’s a bugger sometimes isn’t it? And sometimes it makes you smile.


     On the Hargreaves Longside of the ground we sit in the modern corporate age, the diners and chardonnay drinkers are below us in their glass cocoons walking on deep carpets. To the right the decaying Cricket Field is crumbling away. It won’t be there much longer unless redevelopment plans come unstuck. Things seem strangely quiet on that front at the moment but Fletch is back to sort things out. The warm air heating was soon switched off in there when Bob Lord discovered just how expensive it was to run it. To our left is the newly furbished Jimmy Mac Corporate and business area with Arsenal FA Cup tickets and meal at £120 a pop. My father would gasp if he could hear of this. “You could buy a bloody car for that in my day,” he’d no doubt say. Is this a record price for a ‘do’ at Turf Moor? 

     
     But this is now, today, and at 3 o clock modern football takes over. Nostalgia and wistfulness be damned. Three points are more important. Today it’s organic veg from Sainsbury’s, a bottle of Moet, Ferrero Rocher, town centre Christmas trees that have to be fenced off to beat the vandals, political correctness playing havoc  with old traditions, petrol at £1 a litre but Stella Artois at  eight quid for 20 cans, reality TV, celebrity specials, the Queen’s Speech, how many watch that these days? No Mike Yarwood, what happened to him? And credit card mania, people in debt, encouraged by the greed of Banks, and buy now pay later. But it’s Christmas and we go mad. Luxury crackers from M&S cost more today than the whole of our dinner did in ’57, or maybe even ’67 for that matter. The washing up goes in the dishwasher.


     What did I read; the average family spends near £1000 at Christmas?   What did the Man Utd players spend on their sordid, obscene Christmas Party; too many blokes with limited IQs but unlimited money. It’s a sad combination.


     But it’s Boxing Day and back to the football fixtures. From the old days of two fixed fullbacks, two wing halves (one defensive one attacking), a centre half and five forwards, we moved to 4 – 2 – 4, then 4 – 4 – 2, to 4 – 3 – 3, then 3 – 5 - 2 or the dreaded life-sapping 4 – 5 – 1. Wing backs, diamond formations, total football, the second ball, the jargon ebbs and flows. We even had the Christmas tree formation.


     But Owen Coyle seems to have simplified things with his talk of pass and move, style and panache, and wingers that get crosses over. He seems to echo Shankly’s view that football is a simple game and the best teams are the ones who do the simple things well. Tommy Docherty had the same view. “I don’t give any instructions to my team if my milkman can’t understand them,” he once said. “It’s a team’s duty to entertain,” Coyle said in an early set of programme notes. It’s what Danny Blanchflower talked of long ago when he wrote of The Glory Game. And then years later Stuart Hall christened it The Beautiful Game.


THE GAME


     Alas today we only saw the Glory Game in fits and starts, the Beautiful Game in bits and pieces. Sheffield Wednesday are a very average side and there’s not much beauty from them; an away 0 – 0 for them is probably the perfect day, and nobody could say that Steve Jones’ hair style is a turn-on. On top of that we’ve done so badly at home so far this season, the last two home games depressingly lost to the teams at the bottom. Denied a clear 2nd minute penalty in the game against PNE, Coyle said even Stevie Wonder would have seen it. Such is football. We gritted out a 0 - 0 draw at Ipswich with a backs to the wall rearguard action after a third Burnley player in two games received a red card. With injuries and suspensions the squad was down to the absolute bare bones today. On top of all that Andy Gray is going through a lean spell and Blake seems to play in fits and starts. There were jokes about Owen Coyle putting his boots back on. The prospect of a win seemed distant.


     We began with Unsworth at left back, Harley in midfield. Akinbiyi was back: Gray out with a stitched leg wound. On the big screen Jones was featured doing some of his magician’s tricks. We need him to do some on the field.


     To cut a long story short this was a 1 – 1 draw. It started slowly, had a very controversial first half incident and penalty for Wednesday, an immediate equaliser from three inches by Akinbiyi; then huffed and puffed along and finally came alive in the final 20 minutes or so as Burnley put the pressure on, played really well, but couldn’t find the elusive deciding goal.


     Wednesday went ahead. Caldwell adjudged to have wrestled his man down in the box/ pulled his shirt/ blown him over/shouted boo loudly/blew him a kiss… from my vantage point it looked six of one and half a dozen of the other, handbags stuff. From that point on controversy grew as the referee allowed the penalty to be taken before Kiraly had decided he was ready and was sauntering back to his position trying to look blasé and disinterested. There are two ways to look at this. Firstly that Kiraly was practising gamesmanship and got what he deserved, or secondly that the referee did not apply the law of the game that says (I think, I’m no expert) he must check that the goalkeeper is ready. Add to this the great mystery – did the ref blow the whistle for the kick to be taken? If he did it must have been more peep than blast. Wednesday thus went 1 – 0 up as Burton suddenly turned, nipped in and slotted home. Crowd dumbfounded then incensed. Burnley players surrounded the hapless official haranguing him furiously. Mind you had Gray done this, the boot on the other foot, as it were; we would have chortled all the way home. As it is, all we can do is shake our heads and say “only at Turf Moor” another goal to add to the comedy of errors that we have seen over the years.


     If this had been the only goal of the match we would no doubt have been beside ourselves, written to the Prime Minister, kicked the cat, sulked all night. But it didn’t really matter. Up we went with unbridled rage, righteous indignation and fury and equalised in 30 seconds. A long cross and Elliot headed it back from the far post across the goal. The ball found its way to Akinbiyi and plopped invitingly at his feet at the other post. Thank goodness he was so close to the goal. He smashed it so hard and high that had he been a foot further back that ball I swear would have been orbiting the moon by now. As it was it nearly burst the roof of the net. Justice done, we sat back ready to see further punishment inflicted on the dullards from Sheffield and hoping that this fool of a ref would run into a goalpost and knock himself out. Alas it didn’t happen.


     I can’t think of a single worthwhile chance Wednesday made, or a real save Kiraly had to make other than diving onto a couple of tame long range shots or watching them sail high over the bar, or nearly hit the corner flag. The Wednesday fans found all this tremendously exciting the poor dears.


     Without getting into full stride until the final 20 minutes, a few chances are worthy of mention. Caldwell headed powerfully over twice, one from a corner and one from a terrific Elliot cross. The latter should have been buried.  Akinbiyi headed a good cross with the side of his face, didn’t his granny ever teach him that the forehead is better. Another chance wasted. Harley had a great shot that whistled just wide. Ditto Lafferty. And then Akinbiyi was wrestled to the ground in their box and to my simple mind it seemed as fair a shout for a penalty as theirs. The free kick was predictably given against him.


     At last the game warmed up in the final period. We piled forward and played some furious and exciting stuff. Jones came on for Akinbiyi. Ade’s huff replaced by the Jones puff I suppose. Lafferty went into the middle. When he motors he really moves. He can look so exciting in full flight. Right, I thought, when he moved more central, the stage is set for a dramatic Lafferty winner. But no, it was Caldwell who met the perfect cross with the just less than perfect header, after he had started the move himself, and sent it over the bar. 

  
     Blake shimmied and twinkled in patches, Elliot was superb, O Connor covered and tackled and harried, Caldwell and Carlisle a wall, except for Caldwell’s momentary aberration. Harley did a praiseworthy job and most of the time did not look out of place; Kiraly competent other than his habit of doing one eccentric thing every game. Akinbiyi scored the goal, ran manfully, looked mean and menacing (the Jack Palance of the football world), and put himself about as the saying goes. Unsworth did another great job but could so easily have had a second yellow card when he sneezed and a Sheffield player fell over.


     So how come if I’ve given them all a bit of praise we didn’t win and settled for the result I hate most of all – the dreaded 1 – 1 draw. Nobody played badly, there was no boredom, there were spells of end to end stuff, but it just wouldn’t go in for that deserved winner. To be honest their goalkeeper too didn’t have any save of note to make. Regular clear-cut chances were at a premium thanks to Wednesday’s resolute defending. A crack shot from Blake in the dieing minutes from the edge of the box slammed into Harley’s back.


      This was not the worst game I’ve seen and the massed hordes from o’er the Pennines were in good voice filling the away end. For a scratch team we did well and played some good stuff.


     Believe it or not we are still just three points from the top six and surely must win a home game soon. But look, who’s this, creeping up towards the top end. It’s Crystal Palace under the dreaded Warnock now above us having been below for so long. My long shot for promotion they are. You just watch.


     And hey, did you see my photo up on the big screen. Happy Birthday Granddad it said from little Joe. And there was me and little Joe in our claret best. It was worth going just for that.

 

Dave Thomas Dec 2007