x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Fans think outside box on Premier League games as Boxing Day tradition

While the world is in holiday mood, players sweat it out and results can go awry, but the cheery spirit is in the air.

Wigan fans in fancy dress cheer on their side in the stands on Boxing Day.
Wigan fans in fancy dress cheer on their side in the stands on Boxing Day.

The 30 men dressed as bananas were confused. "Where can we get a drink?" one banana asked a Manchester United fan on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal yesterday afternoon.

"I don't know, I'm not from England," came the reply.

Salvation would come from 20 other men dressed as bananas. "It's this way," hollered one, before they all chanted: "We are from Wigan; we live in mud huts."

An outsider - or one of the many tourists visiting Old Trafford - would have been perplexed, but Wiganers have a tradition of wearing fancy dress for Boxing Day, when up to 20,000 superheroes, historical figures or Hollywood idols invade the town centre.

When the fixture list gave Roberto Martinez's struggling Wigan Athletic side Manchester United on Boxing Day, a couple of hundred Wigan fans among their 1,500 travelling supporters decided it would be bonkers not to go dressed as bananas.

Most European football leagues take a winter break, typically two weeks over the festive and New Year period. Players take advantage with a break in the sun; managers appreciate the respite for injured players.

Despite calls for a similar break in England, football remains a staunch tradition at the end of the year, as teams of all levels squeeze four or five league games into a hectic period of 10-12 days.

Players are forced to skip the festivities as they train on Christmas Day and spend the night away in hotels.

They complain in private, but it was even more intense a half century ago, with back-to-back games on Christmas Day and then Boxing Day against the same opponents.

That practice continued until 1957 and would often produce freak results, where one team would triumph comfortably and then lose the next day.

United beat Charlton Athletic 5-1 at Old Trafford on Boxing Day 1955, only to lose 3-0 at The Valley the following day.

Despite the changes, Boxing Day matches have remained a mainstay, celebrated in song by fans who twist Christmas carols to celebrate past triumphs.

Sheffield Wednesday fans sing: "Hawk now hear, the Wednesday sing, United ran away, And we will fight, for evermore, because of Boxing Day."

Far from being a day of ancient fights, there is no clear reason why Boxing Day is called as such.The most bizarre was in 1963, when Fulham beat Ipswich Town 10-1, a score that remains both Fulham's record league win and Ipswich's heaviest defeat.

Ipswich had been champions only 18 months earlier and their chairman John Cobbold said: "It could have gone either way, until the match began."

His Fulham counterpart Bedford Jezzard attributed the victory to "those lovely turkeys we gave 'em at Christmas. From now on, they get one every week".

On the same day, Blackburn Rovers beat West Ham United 8-2, Chelsea defeated Blackpool 5-1 away, West Bromwich Albion came from 4-2 down to gain a 4-4 draw against Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool beat Stoke City 6-1 and Burnley beat Manchester United by the same score.

In the other games, there were two 3-3 draws.

Wigan were more than a decade from being a Football League club when those results were recorded and two decades away when games were last played on Christmas Day, but their older fans would have hoped for a slice of Boxing Day freakishness.

Wigan had lost all 12 games to United since they were promoted to the Premier League, with 37 goals conceded and just four scored. They would have been encouraged by a much-changed United line-up which saw Wayne Rooney on the bench, and Darron Gibson handed his first league start of the season.

Dimitar Berbatov was awarded just a second league start, with the former Wigan winger Antonio Valencia as an unlikely right-back.

Such misguided hope lasted just seven minutes, when the captain Patrice Evra skipped past two Wigan defenders before pulling the ball back for Park Ji-sung to shoot past Ali Al Habsi.

Wigan showed character, but their resistance crumbled further when Conor Sammon was harshly sent off after 39 minutes when his elbow made contact with the face of Michael Carrick.

Berbatov made it two after 41 minutes and got a superb second (and United's third) in the 58th minute, again after turning.

Valencia drilled a low shot to make it four on 75th minutes and a Berbatov penalty gave him a hat-trick - United's fifth - two minutes later, by which time the men in bananas had switched their attention to relegation rivals Bolton Wanderers losing at home to Newcastle United.

There was a bigger cheer - Old Trafford's loudest of the afternoon no less - when "West Brom 0 Man City 0" flashed across the scoreboard. That was a Boxing Day bonus United fans were not expecting.

At the halfway point, the two Manchester clubs are now joint top on 45 points and United also halved City's superior goal difference from 10 to five.

Sir Alex Ferguson maintained that he wanted to be in touch with City by Christmas. He got his wish granted on Boxing Day.

 

sports@thenational.ae

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