Happy Christmas [& an Xmas Day history lesson]

By Keith Brookman

Happy Christmas to Gasheads everywhere and especially to all members of the Bristol Rovers Former Players Association.

While the Christmas and New Year period is still a hectic one for all those involved in the sport, at least there are no Christmas Day fixtures these days.  In fact, Rovers haven’t played on 25th December since 1957 and in our Boxing Day article I’ll be analysing all festive fixtures involving The Gas since our formation in 1883.

The last two years we were involved in Christmas Day fixtures saw some high scoring games.

In 1956, for example, we travelled up to Bury for a game on 25th December, were trounced 7-2 and then took them on again at Eastville 24 hours later and beat them 6-1!

There was a crowd of 8,926 at Gigg Lane and 19,672 turned up for the Boxing Day clash at Eastville – remarkable times, especially when you consider the fact that Rovers had beaten Doncaster Rovers 6-1 at Eastville just three days before the first of those games against Bury and then lost 2-1 at Stoke (with a 31,000 crowd in attendance) three days after the second Bury match!

Peter Hooper scored a hat trick for Rovers in the Boxing Day match when Rovers made just one change to the side beaten so heavily the day before, with Norman Sykes coming in for Dai Ward.

Peter Hooper - Boxing Day hat trick in 1956 - no credit
Peter Hooper

I’m not sure who compiled the fixtures back in the 1950’s; obviously no computer to carry out the work back then, but there were a few Second Division clubs closer than Bury which would have made life a lot easier for the players of both sides!

For example, we could have played a local derby against Bristol City, or travelled to London to take on either Leyton Orient, West Ham or Fulham. Even a jaunt to Nottingham to play Forest or County, or to Leicester, would have cut down on travelling time.

For the record, Rovers’ goalscorers on Christmas Day were Alfie Biggs and George Petherbridge. On Boxing Day, in addition to Hooper’s hat trick, Barrie Meyer (2) and Biggs made it the joy of six for The Gas!

George Petherbridge - two Boxing Day goals - photo courtesy of  George_s daughter Kay Strain
George Petherbridge – two Boxing Day goals – photo courtesy of  George’s daughter Kay Strain

Twelve months later Rovers played their final Christmas Day fixture, away at Swansea Town. The Welsh side came to Eastville for the return 24 hours later.

Whilst it’s only about 80 miles to Swansea from Bristol and, these days, takes no more than an hour and a half to travel between the two cities, it would have taken a fair bit longer 61 years ago as there was no motorway linking England with the Principality and no Severn Bridge crossing, either, the first bridge being completed in 1966.

Those facts, along with the small matter of it being Christmas Day and a public holiday, means that it’s unlikely that few Rovers supporters were at the Vetch and that there were very few Swans supporters at Eastville the next day.

The game at the Vetch Field took place four days after Bert Tann’s side had played out a 1-1 draw against Barnsley at Eastville and the manager named the following Christmas Day lineup; Nicholls, Bamford, Watling, Sykes, Hale, Sampson, Petherbridge, Biggs, Meyer, Ward, Hooper.

Swansea lined up as follows; King, Griffiths, Beech, Brown, Peake, Kennedy, Allchurch (L), Lewis, Charles (M), Allchurch (I), Jones (C).

Under the heading ‘ROVERS LET IN SIX’ the match report began; ‘This Christmas Day game was one Swansea fans will remember for a long time.

‘Luckless Swansea, struggling at the foot of the table, played brilliant copybook football which at times had Rovers in so much trouble that even centre forward Meyer was seen in the Rovers penalty area lending a much needed hand.

‘Although Swansea were in such devastating form, the Rovers were by no means outplayed and deserved full credit for the way in which they fought back to level the score at 4-4 after being 3-1 down.

 ‘Nevertheless, for manager Bert Tann, it could not have been a very Happy Christmas Day.’

 Bottom of the table going into this game, Swansea opened the scoring on 19 minutes through Mel Charles (brother of John) while Cliff Jones, the future Spurs star, added a second, from the penalty spot on the half hour mark before Peter Sampson scored his first goal in more than two years to reduce the deficit on 36 minutes.

Two minutes later Ivor Allchurch restored the Swans’ two goal lead though Ward, on 42 minutes, and Biggs two minutes into the second half, made it 3-3. Jones scored again for the home side on 62 minutes, but it was 4-4 eight minutes later as Meyer equalised for The Gas.

However, Swansea finished with a flourish as Charles scored his second goal of the game on 72 minutes and Jones completed his hat trick after 78 minutes.

The Christmas Day crowd of 11,340 certainly got their moneys worth as they saw a CRACKER of a game!

The Allchurch brothers would win a total of 79 full international caps for their country. Ivor, who died in 1997 aged 67 won 68 of them, while younger brother Len who was 83 when he died in November 2016, picked up 11 caps.

Mel Charles, the younger brother of John, died in September 2016 at the age of 81 and he won 31 caps for Wales.

83 year old Cliff Jones is still going strong, though, and he would go on to win 59 caps for his country.

Of the Rovers side, international honours were scarce! Ward did go on to win two caps for Wales, Hooper had one Kenyan international cap to his name, awarded when he was on National Service in that country in 1951, while Harry Bamford had toured Australia with an England ‘B’ side in 1951.

Petherbridge had made 11 appearances on a Football Association tour to South Africa in 1956 and Norman Sykes had been an England Schoolboy and Youth international!

Of interest to the Former Players Association, though, is the fact that John ‘Josser’ Watling played in this game. The oldest surviving Rovers player was making one of his 323 league appearances for the club, though he was to miss out on the return fixture on Boxing Day.

‘Josser’ suffered a recurrence of a groin injury in the defeat at The Vetch and his place in the side was taken by central defender David Pyle in the only change to the Rovers lineup.

Josser Watling et al- Photo courtesy of Ray Warren_s daughter Anita
Josser Watling, who played in the Christmas Day 1957 fixture against Swansea Town, flanked by Peter Sampson and Ray Warren. Not sure about the cigarettes!   Photo courtesy of Ray Warren’s daughter Anita

Swansea made two changes to their side, Mel Nurse and Dudley Price replacing Kennedy and Lewis respectively.

The Boxing Day headline was; SWANSEA TOWN OUTPLAYED AT EASTVILLE and the match report began as follows; ‘Bristol Rovers supporters who have waited patiently for a home success since 16th November, were more than amply rewarded at Eastville yesterday when they saw their team playing good class football throughout, backed up with splendid determination. They completely outplayed Swansea who had been the winners on Christmas Day.’

Festive greeting from the club, taken from the programme for the game against Swansea in 1957
Festive greeting from the club, taken from the programme for the game against Swansea in 1957

Rovers, for whom Meyer and Biggs had both gone close with early headers, took the lead after only eight minutes. Petherbridge played in Ward and his pass found Hooper who crossed into the box where Meyer headed past King.

Two minutes later another Meyer effort was cleared off the line and as they continued to take the game to their opponents, a second goal seemed inevitable and it duly arrived on 29 minutes.

Ward played in Petherbridge, who found Meyer out on the right and then took a return pass from his team mate and raced through the Swansea defence before placing a shot wide of goalkeeper King and into the net.

Petherbridge scored his second, and Rovers third, in the second half after Hooper played in Biggs and he, in turn, found Petherbridge who took the ball in his stride and ran on to beat King with a well placed effort.

There was no way back for Swansea after that, though they did go close to pulling a goal back through Ivor Allchurch before the ninety minutes were up.

Pyle, playing only his third game of the season (he would end the season with 18 appearances to his name), was named as Rovers Man of the Match.

David Pyle - Man of the Match performance against Swansea Town on Boxing Day 1957 - no photo credit
David Pyle – Man of the Match performance against Swansea Town on Boxing Day 1957

Incredibly, there were 22,640 fans at Eastville for this game in a season when home gates of 20,00 were the norm rather than the exception.

Two days later Rovers travelled to Upton Park, where they were beaten 6-1 by West Ham United in front of 28,000 spectators, fielding the same side that had won the match against Swansea.

West Ham ended the season as Second Division Champions with 57 points, Rovers finished in tenth place on 42 points, while Swansea were 11 points worse off in 19th place.

FOOTNOTE: Just to add that Hooper’s hat trick against Bury in 1956 was a first half hat trick, the eighth of 15 scored in the League by Rovers players (most recent, January 2017 Ellis Harrison v Northampton).

The win against Doncaster had seen Dai Ward score a hat trick in four second half minutes.

 Five Rovers players were born on Christmas Day:

  • Tom Darke (1879-1938) – 1902-04 (3,0)
  • George Chance (1896-1952) – 1920-24 (80,11)
  • Harry Cranfield (1917-90) – 1947-48 (24,2)
  • Rik Lopez (b1979) – 2001-02 (5+2,0)
  • Chris Weller (1939-2018) – 1965-66 (2+1,0)

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