BY MARK GODFREY
The clanking, chinking sound of crockery being stacked on the kitchen draining board cuts through the strains of Top of the Pops. The front door slams closed with a dull, heavy thud, banishing the biting wind from its brief intrusion. Grandad briefly stirs from his overfed slumber to suck his false teeth back to his gums. His half-finished sherry rests uneasily on a nest of tables beside him. Small children creep upstairs with brand new Buckaroo, leaving ripped up paper of all colours discarded on the hearthside rug. Outside, Dad shuffles briskly to the end of the road and disappears behind parked cars and fences.
Christmas Day 1976, 2.10pm.
For many up and down the land, this was their post-lunch experience. Mountains of washing up for mum, kids happily playing with new toys that would likely be discarded before the leftover turkey had eventually been finished, and forty-winks for the elderly ahead of the Queen’s Speech and the Top of the Pops Christmas Special. The bearded duo of Dave Lee Travis and Noel Edmonds introduced the show, at the height of its popularity that year. Elton John, ABBA, Queen and even Laurel and Hardy featured in a star-studded festive edition of the famous music show. Johnny Mathis claimed the coveted Christmas number 1 spot with When A Child Is Born, in case you’re wondering.
Chances are that all those vanishing fathers were skulking off down the boozer, bailing out on the tedium of Christmas Day and far too much living room talk of Granny’s bunions. However, if you lived on the western outskirts of Glasgow, it’s possible they were headed for the last ever senior football match to take place in Britain on Baby Jesus’ birthday.
The game in question took place at Kilbowie Park, home of Clydebank FC. The visitors were St. Mirren from across the River Clyde in Paisley, and by way of the early kick-off between Alloa Athletic and Cowdenbeath at 11am the same morning, and despite disputed claims that Dundee and Montrose also played each other that day, the clash between the eventual champions and runners-up in Scottish Division One that season has the recognised singular honour of being the last league football match played on Christmas Day in this country.
Nowadays, we’re accustomed to a full Boxing Day fixture list north and south of the border. For fans and players alike this often seems like a bit of an effort; a half-hearted stroll to blow away the cobwebs of a throbbing hangover – not that the modern-day professional footballer is au fait with the aftereffects of a gallon of ale and too many over-boiled Brussels sprouts.
According to those who were at Kilbowie Park that day, plenty had skipped the Christmas pudding to get an early start in the pub beforehand. Compliments of the season were exchanged between the opposing set of fans: reportedly there was widespread fighting both inside and outside the ground in what was described as a “tasty atmosphere”.
Christmas Day league football was commonplace in England until 1959 when the lack of public transport killed enthusiasm, although the final Football League fixture played on December 25th didn’t come until 1965 when Blackpool and Blackburn Rovers (both local rivals of Preston North End who participated in the first Christmas Day league game in 1889 against Aston Villa) met at Bloomfield Road. Future World Cup winners Alan Ball and Jimmy Armfield starred in a 4-2 win for the hosts in front of 20,851 spectators. The tradition endured in Scotland up to 1971, and even though a full programme was scheduled for December 25th 1976, poor weather and lack of interest did for all but the aforementioned matches at Alloa and Clydebank.
At Kilbowie, the division’s top two teams served up their own Christmas cracker to a crowd that appeared to observers to be significantly more than the official number of 10,000. Clydebank – who fielded the mercurial winger and future Rangers great Davie Cooper – raced into a two-goal lead which prompted a brief, exuberant pitch invasion by the St. Mirren supporters. The Buddies – likely stirred into retaliation by the hot, admonishing breath of a young buck manager by the name of Alex Ferguson – battled back to take a share of the spoils on their way to the championship and promotion to the newly formed Premier League. As a preview of things to come in his career, Ferguson – who admitted in his book A Light in the North that he’d been under some degree of personal strain at the time – didn’t take too kindly to what he saw as an incorrect offside decision given against his team in the second half and promptly chased the linesman furiously down the touchline, only to be restrained by opposite number Bill Munro.
Ferguson, of course, went on to conquer not only the British Isles with Aberdeen and Manchester United, but also the continent, winning two Champions League trophies and repeating the feat in the Cup Winners’ Cup in the process. Yet, he did experience the bum’s rush for the one and only time during his tenure at Love Street; ever his own man playing by his own rules, it’s said that he was dismissed by St. Mirren chairman Willie Todd for all manner of misdemeanours, from giving unauthorised payments to players to intimidating behaviour towards his secretary – all charges he denied at an employment tribunal which he subsequently lost.
One of the many young Scottish talents unearthed by Fergie during his time with the Paisley club was goalscoring midfielder Billy Stark. The scorer of St. Mirren’s equaliser that Christmas Day in 1976 – and therefore the last Christmas Day league goal in Britain – eventually reunited with his former boss at Pittodrie where he helped Scotland’s team of the 1980s win another League title, two Scottish Cups, a League Cup and the European Super Cup before joining Celtic where he hoovered up more honours; a League title and two Scottish Cups.
For the 10,000 plus who crammed themselves into Clydebank’s ramshackle former ground – or at least the ones who returned home immediately after the game – they were treated to the annual airing of the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special that evening; event TV long before the phrase was coined. The 1976 edition was a particularly vintage year for the great comedy duo: Eric and Ern’ wowed the nation with their iconic Singin’ in the Rain and Breakfast sketches while newsreader Angela Rippon grabbed everyone’s attention in the dance routine most fondly remembered for her newsdesk splitting in two to reveal her long, slender legs.
While Kilbowie Park may be long gone, a tenuous connection to Christmas remains constant to this day; the stadium was demolished to make way for a retail park where thousands of Christmas shoppers relieve themselves of their had earned cash on all manner of gifts every year. Perhaps even Buckaroo.