Butler: Boxing Day abiding memories; upholding tradition

Noel Butler
12/28/2013 11:31:26 AM
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"Jingle Bells! Jingle Bells! Jingle all the way; Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away. Hey!"

The lower tier of the School End of Queens Park Rangers' Loftus Road was packed solid with a very festive-sounding Chelsea choral section in this particular part of South Africa Road London, W12.

It was Boxing Day 1981. Kick-off was still 90 minutes away, scheduled for the rather peculiar time of 11:30am.

Even the frigid temperature was not going to dampen spirits, especially of those who were clearly still feeling the effects of their Christmas Day excesses. Not me or one of my elder brothers though as we stood and swayed on that School End in amongst the overflowing Chelsea support, part of the wide-eyed and amazed, feeling blessed to be part of the festive football fun. Fun which began for us the moment we closed the front garden gate behind us to set out on the short hop across west London on the underground.

Chelsea's hideously coloured yellow away shirt, which came resplendent with a Santa red pinstripe, added to the sense of occasion, as did the weather. In the lead-up to Christmas 1981, London had been blanketed by a foot of snow. However no fear this game would be postponed. This was the era of the 'Plastic Pitch.'

An Omniturf surface had been installed at Loftus Road the previous summer. Pioneering stuff. QPR became the first English professional club to play on a non-natural surface.

Some clever wag or wags with little malice intended had broken into Loftus Road ahead of the game and discovered their inner Banksy. Whitewashing in foot-high block capitals on the pitch by the halfway line over towards the touchline, a few words that in later years I would go on to recognize as a famous Chelsea terrace away-day refrain.

A rare occasion in those days that the TV cameras were in attendance for a second division game was likely their motivation. Yes folks, this wasn't your globally enshrined English Premier League.  This was the hard as nails English Second Division and Chelsea's natural habitat through the late 1970's and 1980's.

Off the pitch during this era, Chelsea was a club in shambolic disarray. Chairman Brian Mears, the grandson of Chelsea co-founder Jo Mears, led an overly outrageous attempt to redevelop and regenerate Stamford Bridge. As contrived by the property developers Mears was in bed with, their plans included Chelsea relocating to Loftus Road, with Fulham and QPR merging. Spiralling interest rates alongside economic gloom up and down the country was the backdrop. Not the cleverest of types was Brain Mears. Chelsea was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Thank heavens for the intervention of the then Lord of the Stamford Bridge manor, Viscount Chelsea and a chap who would win two Oscars for his adaptation of Ghandi, Lord Attenborough. A club director at the time since 1993, Attenborough has been Chelsea's Life Long Honorary Vice President.

Chelsea had gone into the 1981 Boxing Day action at Loftus Road on the back of a five-game unbeaten streak. In a game dominated by the home team, very much against the run of play, Chelsea went ahead midway through the second half. When Clive Walker's shot from the edge of the box found the far corner of the net, this was the cue for the toilet paper and Christmas streamers from the upper tier and for the overflowing crowd in the lower tier, which was already hugging the touchline, to surge ever close to the edge of the pitch. I was so close to the action, I was half expecting the PA announcer to award me an assist on the Walker opener.

Chelsea added a second shortly after and left Loftus Road with the three points. The crowd was announced as a little over 22,000. I'm sure 21,998 of them arrived slightly inebriated with every one of the 5,000-plus Chelsea supporters in attendance leaving Loftus Road punch drunk. 

The 2012 European Champions finished that 1981/82 season though in a lowly 12th place. Worse was to befall the club the following season when but for a win in their penultimate game of the season, they staved off relegation to the English football backwaters of Division 3. Clive Walker scored the winner that day, too.

Very much an old-fashioned winger with jet heels that left defenders frozen to the spot, Abramovich would likely invest £50M in today, Walker arrived at Chelsea the old-fashioned way. He earned it as a highly regarded reserve team player. Walker spent time in the NASL when Chelsea sent him out on loan to Fort Lauderdale for one off-season. There you go then. Neither Beckham nor his people invented bi-lateral soccer loan agreements between the old allies. It's been going on for roughly four decades.

Speaking to much more innocent times, the earliest recorded Boxing Day game in England occurred all the way back in 1881 when Hotspur played Reading Minster in an FA Cup third round replay. It would be another decade before Boxing Day fixtures became a staple in the English Football League. Remarkably, many teams also played 24 hours earlier on Christmas Day.

Imagine that, Arsene?

Not that I count, but I am rigidly opposed to any form of a winter break. What's the point? So England's richest clubs can fare better against their footballing superior European counterparts? Last time I checked, English clubs seemed to be holding their own and have done since first permitted to participate on the European stage.

For the inaugural 1955-56 European Cup, the predecessor of the UEFA Champions League, the English Champions were persuaded by the Football League not to participate. That so-termed club with no history, Chelsea as the champions would have had the honour of being English football's lone representative in a brand new mid-week tournament, which today is the global standard-bearer for club football.

Not to be. At least with no over-packed fixture list nor daunting travel by boat to the continent for midweek matches, Chelsea could purely focus on retaining the title. Everyone at Stamford Bridge apparently forgot to read the script. The following season, Chelsea only managed to win 14 of 42 matches and finished just above the relegation places.

Please stop it now. Liverpool's quite superb and highly unexpected renaissance this season is purely down to the fact they are not playing in the Champions or Europa League. Codswallop. Instead, doff your cap to Brendan Rodgers, Suarez, Henderson, et al. Do remind me again please how many times did Little Luis hotfooted it from Merseyside to Montevideo this fall for his nation's Brazil 2014 cause?

Then there's the ludicrous argument, the English national team would fare better than the 50 years and counting zeitgeist of invariably tripping over in the first or second knockout stage of international tournaments. Well, before we dismantle one of the last remaining century-plus traditions that is the festive fixture list, how about a government inquiry into bog standard soccer and antiquated attitudes which prevail throughout?

We seem to forget back on October 26, 1863 when a number of influential gentlemen gathered at the Connaught Rooms in Central London and devised the rules of modern day football, they did so on behalf of everyone, not just a chosen few. This very select sub-set of overpaid, over-pampered and over-hyped footballers are in desperate need of instilling the more traditional football faiths and attitudes; ones which take us back to a more innocence and respect for all time.

This was most famously captured when Portuguese legend Eusebio had an opportunity very late on in the 1968 European Cup Final to win it in normal time for Benfica, his close-range effort cannoning off the Manchester United goalkeeper Alex Stepney, who, on realizing he had the ball, gratefully kicked it way up-field and away from danger. This was Eusebio's cue to walk over towards Stepney with an outreached hand and in that moment with a smile on his face, congratulate Stepney for the game-winning save. Somehow I can't imagine Eusebio's compatriot Ronaldo doing that exact same thing in next spring's Champions League Final.

In recent years, more and more of English football's traditional characteristics and codes have fallen by the wayside - victim of the modern day over-commercialization culture which sadly reigns oh so supreme. 

Boxing Day still stands above. Just ask the family of Gary Parkinson, who was in attendance at Middlesbrough Thursday as they played another of his ex-clubs, Burnley. The ex-professional, who started his career at Everton, attended his first professional game Thursday since been diagnosed with locked-in syndrome following a 2010 stroke. According to the BBC, Parkinson requires 24-hour care, unable to speak, move or swallow and spent two years in hospital before returning home ahead of Christmas 2012.

This the best example and true testament to the deep-rooted Boxing Day soccer culture that envelops the nation which invented the modern game exactly 150 years ago. Thursday, the very full complement of 158 professional and semi-professional football clubs were in action up and down jolly old England, where, for many of the lower league clubs especially, they will have recorded their largest attendance of the season plus experienced their best action of the season at the box office and club shop.

Remember all you newly recruited Chelsea supporters, your club used to be part of that lower league football fraternity not that many years ago. Then ask those, who so add to the unique English soccer culture and setting, the local traders which litter the immediate surrounding areas of the England's sacred soccer grounds how they fared Thursday.

I for one will certainly raise a glass that my children and their children will always have opportunity to experience Santa and soccer in one sleep or less. It was Boxing Day 1976 when the Sex Pistols, fronted by legendry Arsenal supporter John Lydon, went into a London recording studio located not very far from the Highbury shrine and recorded the anthemic, 'God Save the Queen', a song dedicated to the working class, that outstanding cloth-capped brigade on whose very shoulders the pillars of English football rest upon.

Bless you Mr. Rotten.

You can reach and follow Noel Butler at:
@TheSoccerNoel on Twitter

Noel Butler

Noel Butler

Noel Butler is an analyst for TSN's soccer coverage and his blog can be read on You can follow him on Twitter at and listen to his radio program oranges@halftime on TSN Radio 690 Montreal.


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