By Keith Brookman
The Christmas festivities continue today, which gives me an opportunity (an excuse to be honest) to look back in time to analyse the Christmas and Boxing Day matches we have played since our formation in 1883.
Yesterday we looked at the remarkable games played over this period in 1956/57 and 1957/58, but today it’s an overall view of our festive fixtures.
Assuming this afternoon’s away game at Walsall isn’t called off, we are hopeful that we can register festive win number 61!
The Early Years
In the early years following the club’s formation, there are records of matches played on Boxing Day, the first of those that I can find being the 3-2 win against Bradford on Avon in 1890. However, Stephen Byrne tells me that we played Bristol St George in a Boxing Day match in 1885, but as the game was abandoned it was expunged from the records.
That was before Rovers entered a league competition and so their first competitive festive fixture appears to have been in the Bristol & District League on Boxing Day 1892 when we were beaten 3-1 by St George.
Rovers became members of the Western League in 1895 and in that inaugural season at that level they played a friendly match on Boxing Day. St George were again the opponents and they won again, this time by a 2-1 scoreline.
The first Christmas Day fixture I can find is the one played against Trowbridge Town in 1897, when we were 3-1 winners in what was known as the Western League Professional Section.
The first season of Southern League Football, in 1899/1900 saw Rovers take on Bristol City on the final Boxing Day of the nineteenth century and, sad to say, our red rivals were 1-0 winners on that occasion.
It seems as though the first ever Southern League Christmas Day fixture was a home game against Bradford Park Avenue in 1908 when Rovers were 2-1 winners at Eastville watched by a crowd of 10,000. To be honest, I’m not sure what they were doing in the Southern League and I’m pretty certain they won’t have enjoyed travelling down to Bristol in a Charabanc or whatever mode of transport was used in those far off pre motorway days!
Although they finished in 13th place that season, seven places and six points behind Rovers, Bradford PA, along with Tottenham Hotspur, were elected to the Football League for the 1908/09 campaign.
During the inter war years, Rovers played a friendly match against Bristol City on Christmas Day 1916 and won 2-0 in front of 2,000 fans. The sides met again 24 hours later as well and Rovers again won, this time 1-0 and again the attendance was logged as 2,000.
The sides met each other in Christmas Day friendly matches for the next two years and in their final Southern league season, 1919/20, Rovers played Christmas and Boxing Day games against Swansea Town, losing 2-1 in Wales on Christmas Day and drawing 3-3 at Eastville 24 hours later.
So, to summarise the festive fixtures played prior to our elevation to the Football League in 1920, totalled 12 matches on Christmas Day, winning seven, drawing one and losing four.
The biggest winning margin on 25th December was the 5-2 victory against Swindon Town in 1913 in a game watched by 12,000 at Eastville, although there was also a three goal winning margin in 1916 when Bristol City were beaten 3-0.
Heaviest Christmas Day defeat came in 1914 when we suffered a 3-1 home loss at the hands of Queens Park Rangers.
There was a total of 21 Boxing Day fixtures before 1920, of which ten were won, ten lost and there was one draw.
The 7-1 win against Merthyr Town in 1912 in which Jim Brogan score four of those goals, watched by 8,000 at Eastville, was the biggest winning Boxing Day margin while the 5-0 loss at Swindon Town the following year was the largest defeat.
Strange one, that, as we had beaten the Wiltshire Robins 5-2 just 24 hours earlier!
Into the Football League
And so it was into the Football league in 1920, and the first festive fixture of the new era took place on Christmas Day of that year when Swansea Town were 2-1 winners at Eastville, though the sides drew 2-2 at The Vetch Field 48 hours later, on 27th December.
Our first Boxing Day fixture as a league club took place in 1921 when Brighton & Hove Albion also visited Eastville and left with a 2-1 win under their belts. It was the middle one of three festive fixtures, all lost, that year as we were beaten 4-2 by Brentford on 24th December and lost the return fixture against Brighton 3-1 on 27th December.
The surprising fact, for me when researching this article, was the number of times Rovers played three games in four days over the Christmas period and I guess it was the same for almost every club in the country.
Down the years Rovers have been involved in some high scoring festive games. On Boxing Day 1925, for example, we were 7-2 winners in a home game against Bournemouth when Jonah Wilcox netted four and the following year we won a Christmas Day fixture 5-1 against Southend United.
There were also a couple of heavy defeats in the 1920’s as Boxing Day 1928 saw us lose 5-2 at Crystal Palace and on Christmas Day 1929 we lost 6-2 against Fulham at Craven Cottage. We did beat them 4-1 at Eastville the next day, though!
Our first Christmas Day fixture of the next decade brought a Christmas Day 3-3 draw against Brighton & Hove Albion at Eastville and on the same date in 1937 we were 5-2 home winners against Walsall.
The Next War Intervenes…
In 1939, with the league season suspended because of the outbreak of War, we played a Christmas Day Regional League South West Division fixture against Swindon Town at Eastville and drew 3-3.
When league football resumed with the introduction of the unofficial Third Division (South) in 1945/46, we lost a Boxing Day 1945 match 4-2 over in Wales against Cardiff City in front of a crowd of 18,000.
In terms of goals, the remainder of the 1940’s was pretty unremarkable and that really only changed in the mid 1950’s.
On Christmas Day 1956 Rovers lost 7-2 at Bury yet beat the same opponents 6-1 at Eastville just 24 hours later. It was a similar story a year later when Rovers played on Christmas Day for the last time. Having lost 6-4 at Swansea Town, they turned the tables the following day at Eastville and won 3-0.
Since the 1957/58 campaign, Rovers have only played Boxing Day fixtures, as have most other clubs. The last Football League fixture to be played on Christmas day was in 1965 when Blackpool beat Blackburn Rovers 4-2 at Bloomfield Road.
The first festive fixture of the 1960’s saw Rovers lose 4-2 at Southampton, though no other Boxing Day during that decade saw as many goals scored in a single game involving The Gas.
It was a similar story in the 1970’s, the highlights, on scores alone, being the 4-2 home win against Plymouth Argyle in 1973 and the 4-1 home victory against Swansea (by now City instead of Town) in 1979.
Worst Boxing Day result of the 1980’s was the 4-0 defeat at Wigan in 1985, which came after a 3-0 away win at Brentford in 1984. There was also a 3-1 win against Fulham in 1987, our first festive fixture at Twerton Park.
The Modern Era
In the 1990’s we lost a Boxing Day fixture 4-1 at Portsmouth in 1992, when Guy Whittingham scored all four of the home side’s goals. There were four single goal wins for us during that decade, the last of which was a 1-0 win against Millwall at The Mem in 1999 which attracted a crowd of 10,077.
In 2001, Nathan Ellington’s hat trick helped us beat Leyton Orient 5-3 at The Mem, one of only three Boxing Day wins in the ‘noughties’. The 2007 1-1 draw against Luton Town at The Mem probably deserves a mention, if only for the fact that the visitors had three men sent off and still hung on to claim a point, much to the dismay of the Rovers supporters in the 7,556 crowd.
In 2014 we were again, albeit for one season only, a non league club. However, our Boxing Day fixture was against Torquay United, the team we had accompanied from League Two to The Conference and we came out on top, winning 2-1 at Plainmoor.
There was a 4-1 win in 2016, and another hat trick, as Billy Bodin scored three to help us see off Coventry. Of the Rovers side in action that day, only four of the starting lineup, Lockyer, Leadbitter, Lines and Ollie Clarke are still with us. One more, substitute James Clarke is also still at The Mem.
Last year saw a goalless draw against Walsall at the Banks’s Stadium and we are there again this year. Hopefully a better result and a better home journey for the players as the team coach broke down just outside the stadium and the homeward journey was completed in minibuses and taxis!
Our overall record for Christmas Day is – Played 36, won 15, Drawn 7, Lost 14
While the Boxing Day record is – Played 104, Won 45, Drawn 20, Lost 39
This makes the overall festive fixture record – Played 140, Won 60, Drawn 27, Lost 53
Boxing Day’s match against Walsall will, therefore, be our 105th game on this date and our 141st festive fixture.
These figures include ALL games played on the respective dates, whether they be league matches of friendly fixtures and include all the matches I have been able to trace played on Christmas/Boxing Day.
Any errors are my own!
Thanks to Stephen Byrne and Mike Jay, whose work I have referred to when compiling this article.