The 1956 Christmas Day crowd at Roker Park for the visit of Aston Villa was comparatively low – and that is even when accounting for a heavy loss Sunderland had suffered at Newcastle United earlier in the week.
The gate of 18,543 was around 10,000 less than the attendances recorded for the home games either side of the fixture, and a whopping 20,000 less than had been inside the ground two years earlier when the Lads welcomed Huddersfield Town on the same date.
Furthermore, it was the smallest attendance of the 1956-57 season and around half the average for the campaign – yet the turnstile operators of Sunderland were not the only ones twiddling their thumbs 66 years ago.
With large parts of the country under thick snow and suffering a torrid winter, football clubs throughout the land posted lower-than-expected numbers – the situation was not helped either by the petrol rationing that had recently been introduced in the wake of the Suez Crisis.
Eight fixtures were cancelled, and less than half a million people went to a game as part of their celebrations – a sharp decrease in the levels reached in the years before. It was a similar story on Boxing Day too, with only 368,000 fans turning out.
A total 15 matches were called off on the 26th of December, including Sunderland’s return match with Villa, whose pitch was reported in the local press as being covered by an 8-inch blanket of snow. It meant the would-be hosts would have to wait a while for their chance of revenge, having lost to a solitary goal in the closing stages on Wearside where the Rokerites responded well to losing at St. James’ Park three days before and were worthy winners.
With Ray Daniel in fine form at the back and both Billy Elliott and Alan Hope (who, in 1957 changed his surname by deed poll to his stepfather’s O’Neill) working tirelessly in the bleak conditions, Sunderland overpowered Villa, winning the game through Billy Bingham’s solitary goal in the final 20 minutes.
It proved to be the final appearance in Sunderland colours of centre-forward Ted Purdon, but it was also the end of another era – the Lads have not played on Christmas Day since.
Signing off with a victory was important; the result temporarily took the club out of the relegation zone and they only just stayed up by the skin of their teeth come the end of the campaign.
The win was an undoubted highlight of the season – coming against one-time rivals in the formative years of the game, and sending home in good cheer those that did attend.
Some teams would carry on the practice of playing on this date into the next decade but the times were certainly changing, with improvements in living conditions and changes in attitudes meaning that leaving the house became less appealing to many Christmas Day revellers.
A lack of public transport also had an impact, particularly at clubs that enjoyed support from the wider area. Sunderland certainly fell into that category, and while the townsfolk had always backed the Lads, so too did great swathes of County Durham and beyond.
That support has held firm ever since as well, and so Roker Report wishes a Merry Christmas to Sunderland fans near and far. Take care, and enjoy your day.
Tuesday 25 December 1956
Football League Division One
Sunderland 1 (Bingham 72)
Aston Villa 0
Sunderland: Bollands; Hedley, McDonald; Anderson, Daniel, Aitken; Bingham, Hope, Fleming, Elliott, Purdon.
Roker Park, attendance 18, 543
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