Christmas in England means three things – family, feasting and football. It’s the one part of the year when most people on this small island can make it home to be with their nearest and dearest. To give you an idea of scale, you can fit the UK into Georgia three and a half times, it’s 720 miles from nose to tail and you are never more than 54 miles from the sea at any point so community is generally established and maintained not through any warm family bonds but because you literally cannot get away from them.
Food and feasting is a given here and one time of year when we truly try our best to emulate our American cousins in quantity and, well, just quantity really. People have been commenting on my svelte frame since I arrived in the US and true, although I have shed over 18 pounds, it was all in preparation for this Christmas trip back when you are guaranteed to put on half of what you lose in the space of a week. Turkey by the barrel load, loads of chocolate and other sweet puddings covered in lashings of custard and cream cheeses galore, boxes and boxes of seemingly inexhaustible chocolates and a lagoon of coke and booze stored in excess fridges in house and garage. The idea of English food is a bad joke the world over but one thing we do do well and refuse to bow the knee to anybody is our mastery of cakes and confections.
The present giving takes up most of Christmas morning, providing you haven’t subscribed to the other English Christmas eve tradition, and gone down the pub to get absolutely blasted. Usually about 3.30pm on the day, after lunch has been consumed and you’ve had to listen to the richest woman in the world seemingly without irony, telling you what a hard year she’s had – your thoughts turn to the third leg of the triumvirate – football. You can never truly get away from it in England – whether its kids walking around in miniature replica kits, adults with branded socks or accessories (a fine MFC keying torch for me) or the compilation of goals from the previous year on the sports channels.
The English football calendar represents the dinner table at this time of year – quantity over quality. Whereas warm, temperate countries such as Spain and Italy have a winter break to allow recuperation and relaxation for the players, their British equivalents are chomping at the bit for their football fix. This year, there are four games in a two week period, One just before Christmas, one on Boxing Day, another two or three days later, and then the 3rd round of the FA Cup – another great English tradition. Nearly all the games are well attended over this period and the first fixture I looked for this year was the Boxing Day game – fortunately it came out at home – I will be at the Middlesbrough v Scunthorpe United, Championship game on Boxing Day, then two days later travelling 90 minutes down the road to see my team at Barnsley before flying back to the ATL on New Years Eve thus missing the visit of Neauvux Riche FC – Manchester City, coming to town in the cup.
I worked out that it had been exactly one year to the day since I last saw my team in the flesh – the previous Boxing Day, we lost 1-0 at home to an anemic Everton and I walked out of the ground knowing in my soul that we were in the middle of a three year death spiral that would likely end in relegation and the championship. Gareth Southgate, England international and rookie manager had taken the 2004 League Cup Winners and 2006 UEFA Cup Finalists literally from Eindhoven to Scunthorpe. A mere 365 days later, Southgate had gone, as had a bright start to the season and a lot of hope. The past three matches had ended in two home defeats and a damaging derby defeat to league leaders Newcastle United the week before. Seen as our main rivals both regionally and in the league itself we were now an uncomfortable and unthinkable 20 points behind them at the halfway stage of the league.