Christmas in South West Wales in my early ‘teens will always be remembered for certain things. The anticipation of the build up, the excitement of opening presents early on Christmas morning, the orgy of consumption in the afternoon, accompanied by the growing desire to escape the claustrophobia of family and call on friends. After the excitement of train sets, model racing cars and Meccano we would put on our newly acquired sweaters, and if the Football League computer had decreed, would head off to the Vetch on Boxing Day afternoon. The lucky ones amongst us might sport a brand new Black and White scarf, whilst the less fortunate would have to endure the embarrassment of appearing in “mother’s choice” for it’s sole outing. Clad in newly acquired woollen-ware, the crowd would be the largest of the season. The atmosphere would be fantastic. And the Swans would lose.
My first taste of a Vetch Field Christmas came in 1968. The previous Saturday had seen Billy Lucas’s team demolish Rochdale by 3-0, two Herbie Williams headers helping push the Swans into a promising sixth place in the old Fourth Division. Expectations were high, and a home game against Chester would surely be the springboard for a new year promotion drive. Nearly 12,000 fans turned out for a seasonal slaughter. They certainly saw one, but the boys in black and white resembled fattened geese more than elegant Swans, and Chester went back to Sealand Road with a five goal to nothing Christmas bonus. Not for the last time I was to experience the Swansea equation – high expectation + big crowd = even bigger disappointment.
Villa on the Coast
Thankfully, the fixture list avoided the possibility of a repeat of the trauma for the following two seasons, and Christmas reverted to a time of seasonal jolity, bolstered by successive Boxing Day away points. For Christmas 1971, however, the boys in blazers from Lytham St Annes threw us a corker. Aston Villa had fallen on hard times in the late sixties, and entered the seventies in the third division. Intent on regaining lost status they had spent big in comparative terms and were the glamour club of the division. Quaint as it seems today, in those days Sundays were sport free, and Monday 27th December 1971 was to be the official Boxing Day.
Years later this match remains in the memory as vividly as anything from the Toshack years. The fixture’s significance grew as the season progressed. The Swans under Roy Bentley had consolidated in the third division the previous season, but an aging team had began to break up with the retirement of Mel Nurse, Len Allchurch and Vic Gomersall. However, the local Jonahs’ worst predictions had been confounded as the team enjoyed an excellent first half of the season, going into Christmas third in the table on the back of four successive wins.
The incredibly adaptable Herbie Williams had taken over central defensive duties alongside Alan Williams. If Ivor Allchurch is generally considered to be the club’s best ever player, Herbie might make a claim as being the most versatile, filling in at centre half, centre forward or midfield as the need arose. A veteran of the FA Cup Semi Final team of 1964, Herbie was fixture in the team for over a decade, and stands out in that season’s team photograph as being just about the only player who doesn’t look as if he’s come straight from a Noddy Holder lookalike contest.
Sporting a fine pair of mutton chops in the Swansea goal was crowd favourite Tony Millington, who was instrumental in the Swans mean defensive record. “Milly” was a one-man entertainment, often worth the admission price for his performance alone. The Swansea goalie punctuated any lulls in the action by nipping behind his net to cadge sweets from children, whilst if the Swans ever won a penalty the superstitious keeper couldn’t bear to watch, preferring to kneel at his post with his back to the action. Goals would be celebrated with a series of handstands around the penalty area. In between all this action, “Milly” would also provide some fine goalkeeping, normally keeping to the maxim that if something couldn’t be done with spectacular style, it wasn’t worth doing at all. That season he had seemed unbeatable.
If the presence of Herbie Williams had bolstered the defence, he was sorely missed in attack where the absence of Len Allchurch’s skills on the wing meant that the previous seasons attacking potency was reduced. The chief victim was David Gwyther, who struggled to recapture the goalscoring form of the previous year, being without a goal until mid October. Luckily Glen Davies found the net regularly in the opening months, but the Swans rarely produced the attacking bonanzas of the early Bentley years. Still, the club seemed to be making progress, and looked to be in with a good chance of regaining the second division status lost five years before.
Heroes and Villains
Standing proudly top of the table at Christmas were the Villa, who after the previous season’s failure to win promotion, looked up for the challenge this time around. Players such as Willie Anderson and Andy Lochead were leading the charge, although they faced stiff competition from a Ted MacDougall inspired Bournemouth. At the half way mark of the season the Swans were holding their own in this company, although gates were disappointing considering the league position. Malcolm Struel’s frustration at the apparent indifference of the West Wales public led to him issuing a pre-Christmas rallying call for support. Even in his wildest dreams he probably didn’t envisage the crowd that came out on Boxing Day.
If an above average crowd was always on the cards for an attractive fixture, the 24,419 who attended represented the largest for a league match since the frustrated glory days of a decade or so earlier, and was not to be rivalled until a further crucial third division match was played against Chesterfield in 1979. Whilst Villa brought a large travelling support, local interest was undoubtedly aroused, and for older fans the sight of the packed ground must have evoked memories of days when such attendances were commonplace. Incredibly by today’s standards, the crowd was un-segregated, and whilst the bulk of the Brummies took up their places on the old hump-backed East Bank, claret and blue could be seen interspersed with white and black around the ground.
Unusually, the match lived up to its billing, and was a fast and tense affair with both sides creating chances. The Swans had the better of the first half and mid way through had prompted a tumultuous roar from the home fans when Herbie slotted a fine low shot past Villa keeper Jim Cumbes left hand. Cumbes was one of the last cricketing footballers and at that moment probably wished he was sending down a few overs of medium pace in the summer sunshine of St Helens, rather than floundering in the Vetch Field mud. Could the Swans could ram home their advantage and go on to win the game, leaving the top of the table wide open?
Sadly, in the second half, the Swans equation kicked in. Villa came out with new resolve and it seemed crucial that the Swans get through to the hour with their lead intact. Villa full back Charlie Aitkin had other ideas and soon dived to head the equaliser from a free kick. Could the Swans hit back? Both sides created half chances, and going into the final minutes it seemed that a draw would represent a fair outcome. However, the Swans had started conceding free kicks that resulted in late Villa pressure. With three minutes remaining Ray Graydon stole in to exploit some hesitancy in the home defence and flick the winner past Milly. A cruel way to end a great match, and a goal that caused despondency and a lack of Christmas cheer on the journey home. Christmas? Bah, humbug!
End of an Epoch
The Villa game effectively represented the peak of the Bentley era. Up until that defeat the club had appeared to be moving forward. Despite a spectacular 4-1 victory at Torquay in the next fixture, the Swans challenge gradually fell away in the New Year. The board showed ambition by paying a club record £26,000 for Ronnie Rees as a belated replacement for Len Allchurch but Rees’s form, the team’s results and crowd levels were disappointing. Just two weeks after the bumper Boxing Day crowd the visit of Tranmere drew only around 5000 to the Vetch. By the season’s end crowds were hitting record lows, whilst the team subsided to a 14th place finish. This was just the precursor to a bleak period in the club’s history, culminating in the indignity of a re-election application.
By contrast, Villa were back on track, finishing the season as champions, and recovering their first division place by 1975. The next time that Villa visited the Vetch was shortly before Christmas ten years later when it was the Swans who won 2-1 to go top of the first division. Interestingly, the crowd that great night was around 15,000, putting into context the size of the third division crowd almost exactly a decade earlier.
For Swans fans Boxing Days at the Vetch were to remain a torment for some years to come as the club declined. The following season saw Shrewsbury defeat Harry Gregg’s team 2-0, and two years later the same visitors romped to a 4-1 win. Not until 1975 when Watford generously scored two own goals did the Swans give their fans a genuinely Happy Christmas.
Some things stay with you for life, and even years later, when the new season’s fixtures are announced, I still breathe a sigh of relief if the identity of our opponents on Boxing Day is followed by an “A”. Christmas is said to be a time for family friends, and in my memories, is best left that way as far as Home fixtures are concerned.