Boxing Day: One of English soccer’s greatest traditions

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“Boxing Day… what the heck is that all about?”

Going back to my college days in Pennsylvania, that question was often thrown my way. So, as a proud Englishman, here it goes, this is what it’s all about.

First and foremost, it’s about a full slate of 10 Premier League games all taking place on the same day. That doesn’t happen often, New Years Day and the final day of the season are the only other times, so that special feeling of non-stop soccer really gets the juices flowing. The eyes of the world are on the Premier League on Boxing Day, it is the one day of the year when only games in the UK dominate global soccer coverage and bumper crowds draw in millions in revenue for the clubs on a special day for everyone involved.

For many soccer fans in England, including myself, this day is perhaps the most sacred on the sporting calendar for a number of reasons. For instance, you have to understand that Boxing Day is pretty much treated the same as Christmas Day in England… Just 24 hours later, but without the presents.

Families get together on Boxing Day to celebrate yet another Yuletide feast consisting mostly of leftovers, as they nurse hangovers communally and most importantly: watch soccer. This year, like every year, is no different as every PL team will be in action on this joyous occasion. I love it.

WATCH EVERY BOXING DAY GAME LIVE ONLINE, VIA NBC SPORTS LIVE EXTRA

The atmosphere buzzes with excitement, as the season of perpetual hope springs fountains of unrealistic optimism within fans. Families gather around the TV to watch the games throughout the day, much like family feasts on Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. are centered around ‘What time are the football games on?’

To many people, Boxing Day in England is their favorite holiday. For many, it provides an escape of the rigors of Christmas.

Travel distances for Boxing Day

193 miles, Stoke to Newcastle
188 miles, Swansea to Chelsea
172 miles, Sunderland to Everton
139 miles, Southampton to Cardiff
133 miles, Crystal Palace to Aston Villa
125 miles, Fulham to Norwich
123 miles, West Brom to Tottenham
103 miles, Manchester United to Hull
35. 6 miles, Liverpool to Man City
9.4 miles, Arsenal to West Ham

The endless meals of stodgy stuffing and dry meat, mixing with relatives and in-laws, watching boring black and white movies and pretending to get excited about the pair of socks Aunt Barbara bought you… Boxing Day is a haven away from all that. The matches are usually set up so away fans don’t have to travel far away from their families to see their team play, but this season for whatever reason that really hasn’t happened. Look at the table on the left which shows how far each set of away fans will have to travel on this sacred day. Respect to those traveling fans on Boxing Day.

As a player and a fan, the crackling atmosphere on December 26th can perhaps only be rivaled by the opening and final days of the season, in terms of the excitement levels inside the stadiums. With thousands of new sweaters adorning the terraces across England, there’s no secret that this is often the most attended weekend of PL action in the entire season.

Tickets for Boxing Day matches are snapped up like gold dust as families unite to attend the matches and cheer on their team as one. The spirit, even between opposing sets of fans, is usually quite cordial around this special holiday fixture. And let me tell you, that’s something that doesn’t happen often. Friendly and non-offensive banter is a rare thing in and around PL stadiums.

There’s just something about being huddle together on a cold winter’s day cheering on your side with the memory of Christmas Day fresh in your mind. There’s definitely been games I’ve played in that should’ve never have gone ahead as the pitches were waterlogged or frozen, but rarely are they cancelled. Players are excepted to perform, despite seeing their festive season completely overlooked but when they signed a deal, they knew what they were getting into.

source: Getty Images
Festive spirits switches from the dining rooms to the football stadiums on Boxing Day, creating a special atmosphere.

It’s Boxing Day, there has to be soccer. Just like on Thanksgiving, when there has to be football.

Boxing Day matches go back to as far as I can remember, and sporting tradition runs deep on Dec. 26. The famous horse race, the King George VI Chase is run on Boxing Day, as well as rugby matches and the Scottish, Welsh and Irish soccer leagues in the U.K.

Officially the UK, Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Malta celebrate the day, with many other commonwealth countries also observing it. But why is it called Boxing Day? Well, traditionally this is when tradesmen would go to the houses of the people they worked for to receive gifts in boxes, as congratulations for a year of hard graft.

Today the Boxing Day sales get in the way of PL crowds slightly, as retailers slash their prices to attract the punters in their droves. Oxford Street in London on Boxing Day makes Black Friday at the Mall of America seem like a cake walk. Soccer is an escape from all that nonsense too.

For foreigners looking at the madness of 40 PL games being wedged into 12 days in and around the Christmas and New Year period, it must look like absolute madness. Every other major European league takes a winter break at this time of year. In the much more moderate climates of Italy, Spain and France, players are given two weeks off to spend with their families and recharge the batteries for a grueling second half of the season. That’s particularly helpful when national teams compete in massive tournaments in summer months.

source: Getty Images
The big game on Boxing Day sees Man City welcome Liverpool to the Etihad Stadium.

In England, the attitude is “get stuck in son, slog it out on that wet, muddy pitch.” The quality of play doesn’t matter, as long as it’s on offer. I recently spoke with Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino about his first-ever time managing in England during Boxing Day and the busy festive period.

“Me and my staff are really looking forward to this [the Christmas period]. It’s going to be crazy with many games in a short period of time but I think it’s a very good time for [people] to get together, come to the stadium and come together as a family. It’s something that the people and many families enjoy doing in this country, we as well. We want to enjoy. We’re really looking forward to it.”

Another foreigner who enjoys Boxing Day is Jose Mourinho. Following Chelsea’s 0-0 draw with Arsenal on Monday, he had this to say about no winter break in England, and the aura around Boxing Day.

“I love it,” Mourinho said. “I don’t play of course, so for the players it is more difficult than for me but it is a fantastic occasion. I feel proud of working on Boxing Day and giving the people what they want.”

No matter how much resistance there is for change over the festive season and to give PL players a winter break, (there are some out there, scrooges we call them, who think it should be stopped) it will simply never happen.

This revered day in English soccer is a joy for all the reasons I’ve listed and more. Long may it continue.

Sit back, relax and enjoy the festive feast set to unravel before your eyes the morning after Christmas in America. You won’t regret it.

Watch Live: Southampton vs. Tottenham Hotspur

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Hugo Lloris and Christian Eriksen miss out as sickness-hit Tottenham Hotspur visits struggling Southampton at St. Mary’s on Sunday (Watch live at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

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That opens up spots in the lineup for Michel Vorm and Moussa Sissoko, as Spurs aim to go level on points with fourth-place Liverpool.

Saints dipped into the drop zone when Stoke City won on Saturday, but will sit 14th if they can spring a home win over Spurs.

Mauricio Pellegrino is giving Mario Lemina and Manolo Gabbiadini, as well as in-form James Ward-Prowse, the starters’ chance to stop the rot. Southampton is winless in 10 league matches, but has drawn three of the last five.

LINEUPS

Southampton: McCarthy, Cedric, Stephens, Hoedt, Bertrand, Lemina, Romeu, Ward-Prowse, Tadic, Hojbjerg, Gabbiadini. Subs: Forster, Pied, Bednarek, Davis, Boufal, Redmond, Obafemi.

Tottenham Hotspur: Vorm, Aurier, Sanchez, Vertonghen, Davies, Dier, Dembele, Sissoko, Dele, Son, Kane. Subs: Gazzaniga, Foyth, Trippier, Walker-Peters, Wanyama, Lamela, Llorente.

Making sense of the Silva firing: Should’ve let him walk?

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Watford fired manager Marco Silva on Sunday, blaming Everton’s recruitment of the Portuguese boss for his failure, and it seems his replacement has already been identified as Javi Gracia.

I mean, holy smoke: So much for “easy like Sunday morning.”

The Hornets have been poor for some time, and their drop from chasing an unlikely European position to a spot on the fringes of the relegation race does stretch back to time Everton was repeatedly asking to hire Silva.

Funny thing: Perhaps letting him walk would’ve been the right decision.

What Silva did in the first quarter of this season and his lauded attempt to save Hull City last season may recall his overachievement at Estoril in Portugal, but the 40-year-old worked wonders at league powers Sporting CP and Olympiacos.

In the case of the latter, Silva led Thrylos to an absurd record of 38W-3D-7L before quitting after one season.

There’s another piece of the puzzle to consider, too: Watford under owner Gino Pozzo has been quick to change manager, which is a sign the club values — to quote longtime Buffalo basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon — “Jims and Joes more than x’s and o’s.”

As Sam Allardyce, the man who was hired by Everton, has joined Ronald Koeman as bosses unable to get the Toffees’ talented roster humming, it’s worth asking whether both Watford and Everton would’ve been better off had the Silva “transfer” went down at Goodison Park.

Watford has eight losses in 11 matches, handing three points to a variety of teams who’ve struggled to find wins this season: Swansea City, Brighton and Hove Albion, and Huddersfield Town. The Hornets have also drawn Southampton.

Everton under both Koeman and Allardyce has done the opposite: the Toffees have too much talent to religiously fail against the lower clubs. This season, which also saw a short run for caretaker boss David Unsworth, their wins are over Stoke City, Bournemouth, Watford, West Ham, Huddersfield Town, Newcastle and Swansea.

The Toffees big slump has seen a pair of draws with woeful West Bromwich Albion and a loss at Bournemouth.

Which brings us back to Watford under Silva. Despite its long slump, the club is performing in a way more suited for Everton’s talent than the Hornets’ bunch (which certainly isn’t poor). Consider:

Consider that Watford has 49.5 percent possession on the season, behind only Man City, Arsenal, Spurs, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Southampton (Everton has 46.4 and that number has regressed under Allardyce).

Also, Watford is ahead of Everton in pass completion percentage, shots per game, goals, shots allowed per game, and dribbles per game.

All this with the Toffees getting some of the finest goalkeeper performances in the league from Jordan Pickford. His 81 saves are second to Lukasz Fabianski and his seven in the six-yard box are joint-top with Mat Ryan.

So, yeah, Everton probably had the right idea in trying to get Silva, who was obviously interested in the job. The Toffees’ buys of Cenk Tosun and Theo Walcott are only going to up the ante at Goodison Park, and Allardyce does not have the record of getting talent to reach its potential (at least not in a decade).

Everton’s top performers this year according to advanced stats sites WhoScored and Squawka are ranked 82nd in the Premier League (Mason Holgate) and 103rd in the league (Ashley Williams), respectively.

All this goes to not just say that Silva has done a decent job at Watford, but beg why they’ve decided to fire the boss midway through a transfer window. And considering the Hornets would’ve received compensation of some sort for the move, it’s even more of a head scratcher

Multiple reports: Watford set to hire Gracia as manager

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Watford looks set to appoint Javi Gracia to its managerial position, hours after firing Marco Silva and blaming Everton for the manager.

[ MORE: Watford fires Silva, blames Everton ]

Gracia led Malaga to eighth and ninth place finishes in La Liga between 2014-16 before spending last season at Rubin Kazan.

Gracia, 47, has led promotion campaigns in Spain and has plenty of experience with perceived smaller clubs battling the drop zone.

Watford will hope the Hornets don’t reach that point, still five points clear of the drop after flirting with the Top Seven for the first quarter of the Premier League season.

Latest: Sunday medicals for Mkhitaryan, Sanchez

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Henrikh Mkhitaryan has agreed to join Arsenal from Manchester United, clearing the path for Alexis Sanchez to join the Old Trafford set.

[ MORE: 2 Robbies on the deal ]

The BBC is reporting that both players will undergo medicals at their proposed new clubs on Sunday ahead of a straight swap deal.

Sanchez, 29, has scored 80 goals for Arsenal since arriving before the 2014-15 campaign, including 30 last season.

Mkhitaryan turns 30 this summer, and has struggled at Manchester United since posting five assists in his first three matches of the season.

[ MORE: Watford sacks Silva ]

He was, however, a combination of Sanchez and Mesut Ozil in his final season at Borussia Dortmund, scoring 23 goals with 32 assists.

This could be win-win, as Mkhitaryan at his best is a like-for-like replacement for Mesut Ozil should the German leave in the summer and Sanchez is a more proven PL commodity (though his attitude should be a major question for the United room).