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Of boxing days made bearable by soccer
by Paul Gardner, December 29th, 2008 7AM
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I watched bits and pieces of three or four English Premier League games played on Boxing Day (I don't know why I'm giving it capital letters, it's a pretty meaningless designation -- no one seems totally certain about what it means -- but, for sure, nothing to do with boxing). Right -- so I watched these Dec. 26 EPL games, and found them rather dull.

Which left me wondering. Could they have been as flat, as uninteresting as I found them? Or was it simply a wave of temps perdu from my boyhood that stirred suddenly to remind me of those bloody boring boxing days past?

I never liked boxing day. We'd just had christmas eve, a day full of rush and bustle and that most wonderful of all emotions -- anticipation. Then came the orgasmic christmas day, excitement and fun and presents and way too much food.

After that . . . the awful slump into the post-coital depression of boxing day. A hung-over day that had nothing to say, on which there was nothing to do. Well, next to nothing. There might be some soccer. This was Stafford, in the English midlands in the immediate post-war years. We didn't have a soccer club during the war, it had been disbanded. But with peace came the rebirth of Stafford Rangers. Not one of the great occasions in soccer history, but a meaningful local event. Inconveniently for me, they played way up at the north end of the town, and I lived way down south. I had a spiffy new bicycle, so new that I was frightened to leave it anywhere where I couldn't see it. So occasionally I walked the two miles up to the Rangers' Marston Road ground.

That's what I'm recalling now. A dull, chilly boxing day afternoon. My uncle Tommy calling for me, and off we set on that long walk. It took us through the main street of the town, so lively just two days ago, now silent, closed and dreary. We always talked about soccer, me and my uncle, usually Newcastle United, his hometown team. Which was fine with me as he knew everything about them, and they were a top team in those days.

Maybe I made a contribution or two, but I can't imagine what it might have been. I remember mostly the change in my mood as we walked along, my initial boredom, reinforced by the dead town center, made worse as we entered Gaol Square, and marched on northwards up Gaol Street - where, you guessed it, we walked past the gaol (you can spell that "jail" if you like) on our right -- several hundred yards of massive, bleak brick walls, broken only by an ugly gate. A famous prison, actually, where the notorious poisoner Dr. William Palmer had been hanged in 1856. They said a crowd of 30,000 had turned up to watch his very public execution. We all knew about that, a dramatic moment for a town that had so few.

Once past the gaol, I felt better. We were getting there. Another half mile or so to go, and a tingle of anticipatory excitement began. A very mild tingle, of course -- there were no vast masses of noisy people streaming to the game, crowds were only a few hundred, I imagine, and they were a subdued bunch. We were now in the north-end of the town, where soccer belonged, where it was at home among the working class houses.

So we payed our money -- and how much could it have been? A shilling or two at most, I imagine, There were no luxury boxes, or even slum boxes, there were no boxes, period. We stood on the banks of grass or whatever it was, possibly under the huge ramshackle shed on one side of the field.

And we watched pretty awful soccer. Of course, we'd known all along that it would be awful. My uncle's constant chat about Newcastle didn't help to make it any better. But we enjoyed it in the same way that the other spectators did, by doing a lot of laughing. It was a sluggish, hung-over afternoon, everyone knew that, we felt sure that the players felt the same way, that they'd rather be somewhere else. And that -- as I recall -- was how they played.

Of the game or games that I saw on boxing days I recall nothing. They're a total blank. The players, the opponents, the scorelines, the goals, nothing remains. The details are lost, but what I do recall has a living vividness to it: The atmosphere at the Marston Road ground, the damp, earthy smell of it, the desultory cheers and laughter, the stamping of feet and clapping of hands to fight the cold, and the slow darkening of the field as the winter evening crept up on us. Back then there were no floodlights to repel the night.

No floodlights -- and a lot of other things were missing, too, things that were to become part of the soccer scene years later. Some good -- like stands with seats -- some bad, like the blight of hooliganism.

When the game finished, we turned our backs on Stafford Rangers for maybe another year and headed south. The walk home always seemed much shorter, things were looking up, the tedium was almost over, tomorrow normal life would resume (new year's day was not, at that time, a holiday in England). An insufferable afternoon had been made bearable ... by soccer.

So, three days ago, on this latest boxing day, I watched those huge crowds in their huge stadiums and, yes, in their luxury boxes, and I felt only the bitter-sweet joys of boyhood. I've no idea what Stafford Rangers did on Friday. I don't care, as it happens. Then again, maybe I do care, because I checked, and saw the boxing day scoreline from Marston Road: Stafford Rangers 1 AFC Telford 3. Poor Rangers. The melancholy game report spoke of the "troubled Rangers" fighting to stave off bankruptcy, and noted that they had fired their coach just two weeks earlier.

The soccer that Stafford Rangers played 60 years ago was anything but memorable, and it has evidently gotten no better ... I felt the sadness of nostalgia, maybe that's why I couldn't escape the sense that much of the boxing day fare I watched on Friday still had a hung-over feel to it.

  1. anonymous
    commented on: December 29, 2008 at 8:48 a.m.
    Good story. Boxing day is when the well-to-do boxed their old stuff (replaced at Xmas) and gave it to their minions. Still, it competes with the contemporary annual exchange of consumer technology products.
  1. Robin Buss
    commented on: December 29, 2008 at 12:06 p.m.
    Just think Paul, if you had Setanta you could have watched 7 (seven!) games live on Boxing Day morning. I always knew you folks from Stafford were a bunch of wimps - us lads in Derby used to regularly walk 3 miles plus (each way) to watch our team play.

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