As I was kindly reminded by my better half, Boxing Day 2020 will be the first one since we’ve been together that I’ve not been at the match. Of course, I had to put her right on that one, as, contrary to popular belief, there isn’t always a match on Boxing Day. Even so, and without giving too much away in terms of age (which will come later), that’s a lot of Boxing Days. As it was my mam’s birthday as well, there was always a hint of reproach about her “stay under the roof and don’t get wet” that accompanied her parting comment on that particular day, despite me never failing to offer to take her by way of a present. A present that was never accepted, strangely enough.

Which remains a shame, as there have been some classic encounters over the years, particularly as the fixture computer/panel of blokes in blazers always seemed to conjure up something at least as tasty as the curried sprouts you’d had for breakfast. Opponents were usually, for some reason, selected to make the game a bit more appealing – like Bradford two years ago. I know they’re hardly Real Madrid, but they’re not far away, and we’d gone on a charm offensive (the charm of which was most definitely dispelled during a certain person’s language on a certain documentary series) to attract a record-busting crowd of 46.039. Over the years since my first Boxing Day game, we’ve played on that date a further 41 times, winning 17, drawing 12, and losing 13. 27 of the 42 games have been at home, split almost evenly between Roker (13) and the SoL (14), and, on average, our Boxing Day attendance at those grounds was 30% above the season average at Roker and 18% at the SoL. Each ground saw only one Boxing Day attendance that was below the season average – Roker’s 1978 draw with Leicester, and the Sol’s draw with Bolton in 2005.

In terms of opponents, our most popular have been Everton, with six, Leeds with four, then a whole host of teams with three or less appearances. It’s one of those, Boro, that provide my Festive Fun. When we played them on Boxing Day 1973, it was our first game on December 26th since 1970 – when we’d played Boro. As it was my first real “derby”, that game at Roker sticks in my memory. I can reel off the attendance of 42,617 at any time – and that crowd, 26,853 up on the season’s average of 15,764, is why Roker’s Boxing Day average is so positive compared to the SoL.

At the time of this game, we were sitting 11th in the table after 23 games, having been relegated the previous spring (sound familiar?), leaving the League Cup at the hands of Lincoln City, and having just brought a point back from Watford thanks to Dave Watson’s debut goal earning us a 1-1 draw. With mam’s match-day warning having been given for the first time, I’d carried on with what had already become, in my first full season, the usual routine. OK bus from the Sun Inn, smell the beer on the breath of the big lads on the bus as they discussed the day’s proceedings – some even suggesting that we should have replaced our manager Alan Brown with the Boro’s, Stan Anderson –and where there was likely to be bother, drop off opposite the Wolsey, then wander up to the ground in plenty of time for the start. As it was a local derby, and it being our first game against Boro for six years, there was a bit of a buzz about the game – lots more people around than normal, and the usual chases up and down Given Street as the rival fans took the chance to have a pop at each other.


Malone Todd Pitt Harvey

Kerr Harris Chambers Porterfield

Hughes Watson

Aye, Watson was making his home debut and he was yet to be converted to centre half, in a side that played the regulation 4-4-2, one of only three formations allowed by law in those days. You can work out the other two. We watched in almost disbelief as Mr Watson sprayed passes about our forward line, won headers that he had no business to even reach, and generally look like he knew what he was about. Even at our tender age and with our lack of football knowledge, me and my mates could see he was something special. We’d taken up our usual spot just behind the big step halfway up the Fulwell, where there was the usual concentration of South West Durham’s finest, and watched the ground erupt when Bobby Kerr gave us the lead with only seven minutes gone. There had been goal celebrations at previous games that season, but with almost three times more people in the crowd than usual, it was the craziest I’d experienced in my fledgling career following the Lads. If Big Dave was a new centre forward to us, Boro’s John Hickton was already a legend on Teesside, and a player we mocked our Boro-supporting schoolmates (Billy Thompson and… just Billy, actually) about. He was a well-built sort – like Franny Lee but taller – and was four years into a twelve-year spell at Ayresome Park that would bring him nearly 200 goals. Two of them arrived that chilly afternoon, the first on the quarter hour and the second putting the Boro ahead on the stroke of half time. Mebbe that’s why we took against him at school – for spoiling our half-time peanuts. While we’re on the subject of Boro legends, they had Willie Whigham between the sticks – another we used to tease Billy Thompson about, as we reckoned that Willie’s legs looked like bits of string hanging out of his shorts.

Perhaps we’d have put more past Willie if we’d had Joe Baker at our disposal, as the “experienced” forward had scored ten goals in just fifteen appearances – but we’d effectively replaced him with Dave Watson, there could be only one substitute, and Joe would be off to Hibs for a massive £12,000 a few weeks later. As it was, it was a tasty game with tackles flying in and Big Dave having a proper tussle with Bill Gates, big brother of Eric, and at the other end Pitt, in only his 46th league game, and Colin Todd, playing his 164th, having to deal with Hickton and Hughie McIlmoyle. If Hickton was the burly goal-scorer, McIlMoyle was the gangly-even-if-not-really-that-tall, equally experienced target man, and both were a proper handful, thriving off the clever (on the field if not off it) Eric McMordie and winger Derrick Downing. While Dick Malone and Cec Irwin, who’d swapped to left back, grew in stature as the game progressed to snuff out the supply to the middle, it was in midfield where we eventually changed the game.

After a solid first half, Brian Chambers was replaced at the break by Bobby Park. If Ian Porterfield was the calm head making the ball do the work by picking out clever passes, 18-year-old Bobby was the twinkle-toed midfield type who’d create space from nothing by carrying the ball past opponents as if they were glued to the spot, before laying it off. After his antics had lifted our spirits and produced a fair spell of Sunderland pressure, he was instrumental in getting Billy Hughes into a scoring position – and Billy didn’t let us down. 2-2, and once again, Roker erupted, and we were bounced about like the 1970 version of the front row of a Sex Pistols concert. For all the attacking play, that was the game’s final goal, and it ended level – even more remarkably, for a game best described as “lively”, there wasn’t a single booking. Even that early in our days of watching regularly, we were a bit surprised by that, but it was the goals and the atmosphere that we were discussing on our way out when it became apparent that the bloke in front of us, as we passed the end of the Main Stand, whining on in a loud voice was a Boro fan. Egged on by my mates (you know who you are, and should be ashamed), I whacked him round the lug with my crake. Before he could turn and almost certainly knock my head off before disappearing under a heap of Fulwell Enders, I’d stuck the weapon inside my jacket and was looking the other way. As it was he rubbed his lug and shut up, we piled out of the ground waiting for him to start his moaning again now that he’d been “noticed”, but he remained sullenly tight-lipped. Smile man, you’ve not got beat.

While we’d obviously much rather have won, it had been our first experience of a Big Match with a big crowd, and it would be a couple of years before we were in the company of that many football supporters again. We were more than a bit surprised when we attended the return fixture in April that only 26,479 witnessed another 2-2 draw. Where were all the home fans?

It was a fairly jolly bus home, as, despite not having won, we’d not lost (there’s positivity, Sunderland style, for you) and there was a fair amount of singing and general merriment, as befitted a Christmas game. Especially on the top deck, where the driver couldn’t really see you, although he did stop the bus on one occasion to tell us to “get squared round”. We’d no idea what he meant, but as he was Pos’s uncle, and he was driving, we settled down for a bit. It might even have been the occasion when we tied young Paul to the seat with his scarf and left him aboard to be rescued from the garage several hours later by his parents.

The relatives were still assembled at our house for my mam’s birthday, so I go the chance (the first of many) to tell them all about the day’s events, and I was officially recognised by them as a proper football supporter. Since then, they’ve had to put up with the same sort of stuff on many Boxing Days, but that one against the Boro was their first experience of it, and my first experience of a festive football match.