KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- Only two Premier League matches are being played on the New Year’s Day public holiday in England: Everton v West and Manchester United v Aston Villa.
The fact that January 1 is a Friday is irritating for television executives who try to capitalise on every public holiday to slot in a full programme of Premier League matches. Hence the Friday duo will be followed by the ‘usual’ four matches on Saturday then three on Sunday.
To this extent, all the complaints – or excuses – by foreign managers in particular about the busy holiday programme are over-stated. In England Boxing Day football is a specific tradition but New Year’s Day football is mostly a mere accident of the calendar. Unlike north of the border in Scotland.
The reasons are historic, cultural, religious and political. Traditionally New Year celebrations have always been more important in Scotland, with its ancient Hogmanay festivities, than in England. ‘Up north’ the roots are to be found in the division between Protestants and Roman Catholicism. In England, New Year was merely a good excuse for a party.
Only as comparatively recently as 1974 was New Year’s Day declared a public holiday in England and little or no attempt was made in subsequent decades to interrupt the enjoyment – or hangovers – with a full football programme.
The first two modern occasions on which a specific focus was directed at promoting a full midweek programme on New Year’s Day were 2014 and 2015. The latter staging proved doubly unfortunate for Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. The Pole was at fault for both Southampton goals in the Gunners’ 2-0 defeat at St Mary’s Then, after the match he was caught smoking a cigarette in the showers and was fined £20,000 by manager Arsene Wenger.
No happy new year for him.
The next midweek ‘doubles’ were celebrated in the past two years – 2019 and 2020. Last January this departing year saw eight matches on Wednesday, January 1, and one more the next day. That Thursday lit up Jurgen Klopp’s famous smile: Liverpool beat Sheffield United 2:0. Goals from Mo Salah and Sadio Mane secured a 13-point lead at the top of the table and meant the Reds completed an unbeaten calendar year in the top flight.
Until the Premier League came to monopolise the media space the weekend of matches after Christmas was little more than preparation for the early-January staging of the third round of the FA Cup when the giants join the minnows. But the significance and importance of the FA Cup has long since been relegated into a distant second place behind the main, Premier act.
So Boxing Day will always remain a magical date for the English game, on whichever day of the week it may fall. But New Year’s Day football will always remain subservient to Pope Gregory XIII and his readjustment of the calendar in 1582.