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A Festive Treat – The Full Monty

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!

Rovers team photo from 1912-13
Sadly, I don’t have the photo legend for this Rovers team photo from 1912/13, so am unable to point out Jim Brogan, the man who scored four Boxing Day goals against Merthyr Tydfil.

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.

bodin - - Photo Credit Neil Brookman
Billy Bodin is all smiles as he collects the match ball following his Boxing Day 2016 hat trick against Coventry City  [Photo Credit Neil Brookman]
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.

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)