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Losing my religion: what happened to the top-flight Easter double-header?

Autor: Sean Ingle

You can easily lose a morning in the Guardian’s archives, trawling through all the times the church wanted English football banned on Easter’s holy days. My favourite story? The thunder and fury at the Liverpool Diocesan Conference in 1929, when a resolution asking why the Football Association “would not allow any man under its control to take part in any game on a Sunday, yet still sanctions matches on Good Friday”, was fiercely debated.

“Is it fitting,” the Rev JJR Armitage declaimed, “that at the very hour when we believe our Lord to have been enduring the agony of the cross, which led to the cry: ‘It is finished’, tens of thousands of men should be gathered in this Christian land, in the modern replicas of the ancient amphitheatre, to watch a few men kicking a leather football?”

The Rev JMP Potter even had an ingenious idea to smooth the waters: why not give football clubs money from the churches’ collections as a “good pro quo” in exchange for swerving Good Friday games?

It was all to no avail. The motion was defeated, by 143 votes to 132, which came as a relief to an erudite “man on the street”, vox popped by the Manchester Guardian. Alluding to the Pickwick Papers’ pompous, drunken and scrounging evangelist, he told this paper’s reporter: “There go the Stigginses and busy-bodies, who want to interfere with other people’s pleasures.”

Indeed. Yet there were plenty of other times when the clergy got their vestments in a twist over Easter football. In 1913, the Vicar of Cardiff was “pained and shocked at the incidents connected with the visit of Luton fans, when thousands of visitors came from the English town arrayed in all sorts of gaudy garments,” for a match on Easter Friday. Although, as this paper reported: “He was glad to say that those responsible for the control of Rugby football had none of these faults.” Some attitudes, clearly, never change.

Then there was the exceedingly measured reaction of a vicar in Chaddesden in 1931, when a Good Friday friendly match in fancy dress was proposed. “It is my duty to protest against such an insult to the love and sacrifice of God, against such a shameless disregard of the religious feelings of the parishioners of Chaddesden, and against such a ribald and vulgar exhibition on this solemn day!” he blasted.

None of this outrage and damnation succeeded. The people’s game carried on over Good Fridays, Easter Saturdays and Easter Mondays for decades. Only rarely – such as in 1944, when the FA was informed by the Ministry of Labour and National Service that the Good Friday holiday was cancelled and “outdoor attractions such as football should not take place” – were matches not played.

Yet fast forward several decades and, bizarrely, we have somehow arrived at a place where the Premier League’s fixture compilers have succeeded where experienced occupiers of the bully pulpit repeatedly failed. There will be no Easter Monday top-flight game on Monday, for the third year in a row. And not since 2012, when Newcastle beat Swansea 2-0, has a Premier League match been played on Good Friday.

How can this be? How can the classic top-flight Easter double-header many of us grew up with, where titles could be won and lost over three days, and nerves were frequently frayed, knotted and shredded, just disappear?

It is a particularly curious paradox, given that England is less religious than ever before. And it is also an outlier, given Ligue 1 and La Liga staged games on Good Friday, and Serie A will have five games on Easter Monday, and La Liga another one.

Of course, the Football League still has a packed programme on the traditional Good Friday and Easter Monday slots, and gets plenty of exposure as a result. But surely the Premier League could stage a couple of games on both days too, creating a daily passion play across Easter week, during a time when many people are off work.

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Remember, a similar feast has already been served up this season. Over Christmas, there were top‑flight matches on 21, 22, 23, 24, 26, 27, 28, 29 and 31 December, as well as the first two days in January. The bank holiday games could even be local derbies so that fans wouldn’t have to travel far.

Admittedly I have a particularly soft spot for Easter football, given the first match I ever attended was Luton’s 2-0 victory at home against Norwich on Easter Monday in 1982. There was a crowd of 15,061 that day, swelled by nearly 3,000 from Norwich, but it felt about 10 times that. I don’t remember much else but through the magic of YouTube I can relive Brian Stein’s sharp volley to open the scoring, and Billy Jennings rocketing home the second.

“They were lucky to be given the chance to stamp their class on a match they could have lost in the first five minutes,” Brian Swain wrote in the Luton News, before predicting David Pleat’s side now had a “stranglehold” on the Second Division championship. As usual, he was proved right.

Meanwhile there is one final cutting from the Guardian, this time from 1928, in front of me. “The Easter rush is also a much more exciting business than that at Christmas, for it is the crisis in which championships, promotions and relegations are often finally decided,” it says. Ninety-six years later, those words still ring true.

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