This article is part of our weekly history series. You can read previous entries here.
Of all the traditions of English football, the staple of fixtures on Boxing Day is one of the most beloved. While festive football matches predate the First World War, the association with the 'Christmas Truce' of 1914 gives them a certain significance, even if modern historians have disputed whether anyone actually played football in no man's land that winter, because they have to ruin everything, the miserable, evidence-obsessed, revisionist fucks. Nonetheless, the British public have taken seasonal games to their hearts, and consider Boxing Day to be one of the most important dates in the domestic football calendar. It offers an opportunity for fans to escape their families, leave the house, avoid eating any more of our appalling national plethora of Christmas deserts, and round off the holidays with a few more pints, because that is one festive excess which even the best of us struggle to demur.
While Boxing Day football is a cause for celebration, then, we also expect some serious entertainment. There is a general perception, romantic and almost certainly misguided, that owing to players being overindulged following the rigamarole of Christmas Day there are bound to be defensive slip ups, goals galore and memorable games in each and every division. That notion proved at least partly true on Boxing Day 1963, however, when one of the craziest and most unpredictable days in the history of English football took place. Over ten matches in the top flight, there were no fewer than 66 goals scored, seven hat-tricks, four sendings off and tens of thousands of fans left marvelling at the madness on show. That was just the First Division, mind. In the top four tiers of the league pyramid, there were 160 goals all told.
This was an era before balanced diets, isotonic sports drinks and immaculate, otherworldly sporting professionalism, and it's possible that some of those who turned out that frosty afternoon were indeed feeling the effects of Christmas excess, at least to a greater extent than might the footballers of today. Though talk of screaming hangovers and bulging stomachs has often been dismissed by those who played that day, there was, for some teams more than others, a seeming unwillingness to be slogging it out in the churning mud and the bitter cold. There were certainly some sides who appeared to lack motivation come kick off, and that, combined with the converse enthusiasm of their opponents, led to some ridiculously lopsided scorelines. So Fulham beat Ipswich a whopping 10-1 at Craven Cottage, with legendary winger Graham Leggat scoring a hat-trick in three minutes against a team who had been champions only two seasons before. It was the fastest ever three-goal haul in the top flight, and set the tone for a match which ended in total humiliation for the visitors. Afterwards, Ipswich chairman John Cobbold reportedly said: "It could have gone either way – until the match started."
While Fulham were annihilating Ipswich in West London, Blackburn Rovers were thumping West Ham 8-2 on the other side of the city. Upton Park witnessed one of its most humiliating defeats, and this was against a vintage Hammers side which included sixties icons like Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst and Bobby Moore. Blackburn were league leaders at the time, and their opponents made them look the real deal in their pursuit of the title. Their Boxing Day dominance wouldn't last, unfortunately, and they ended the campaign in seventh place, 11 points behind eventual champions Liverpool.
Elsewhere, Burnley tonked Manchester United 6-1, Liverpool thrashed Stoke by the same scoreline, Blackpool succumbed to a 5-1 home defeat against Chelsea, while there were 4-4 and 3-3 draws at Molineux, the Hawthorns and Nottingham Forest's City Ground. By the end of the day a record number of goals had gone in, and the football-watching public were thoroughly sated, with some of them elated too and others left shattered by horrendous displays. Sadly, Match of the Day didn't begin until the following season, though it's possible that the programme makers wouldn't have been able to cope with the insanity of it all. Highlights from the second tier included an 8-1 victory for Manchester City over Scunthorpe, while there was only one goalless game in the top four divisions, with Crewe Alexandra and Peterborough United the parsimonious culprits.
There have been numerous theories for why that Boxing Day was so tumultuous, beyond the quips about festive headaches and footballers stuffed to the gullet with mince pies. Liverpool striker Ian St John, then still in his early days with the club, later linked the goalscoring glut to the suspension of Boxing Day fixtures the year before. "What happened on Boxing Day 1963 was bewildering... it was as if the clubs were making up for the total lack of games the previous season," he said, referring to the gargantuan snowstorm which had demolished the festive fixture list in the winter of 1962. Similar weather had been forecast for December 1963, but the predicted tempest failed to manifest itself. It is possible that some sides acclimatised to the idea of a renewed Boxing Day battle better than others, and a series of psychological mismatches between teams hoping for an extended Christmas break and teams ready for muddy conflict ensued.
On top of that, some have argued that the scores that day reflected the tactical realities of the time, even if it was unusual to have so many high-scoring games happen simultaneously. This was a time before continental defending had really begun to influence the English game, and the culture of the era was attack-minded in its outlook. Fans expected near-constant forward motion from their teams, and managers by and large obliged. Hence Manchester United had beaten Ipswich 7-2 earlier in the season, Blackburn had beaten an excellent Spurs side by the same scoreline, Spurs had gone on to beat Blackpool 6-1, and so on. The best teams tended to be the most open and expansive, but when things go wrong playing that way, they often go wrong in spectacular fashion. On Boxing Day, so the argument goes, it just so happened that things went wrong for several sides at once, and more spectacularly than ever before.
Whatever the precise reasons for what went on after kick off on Boxing Day 1963 – sporadic overindulgence, psychological dissonance between teams, contemporary tactics, or the whole lot – it is a date which has been etched into the annals English football folklore, and deservedly preserved for posterity. With the next set of Boxing Day fixtures soon upon us, the events of 1963 will be spoken about by those in the know – and perhaps even those who were there to witness them – up and down the land. When we come to judge the entertainment value of football this Boxing Day, we should measure it by the standard of a chill and wintry afternoon just over half a century ago. Likewise, we must all hope that the sides we support avoid 'doing an Ipswich', and seeing out the festive season by being royally twatted 10 goals to one.