On the eve of another festive season, here’s a personal selection box of Poppies Yuletide highlights. To keep it positive I have edited out years where Boxing Day was ruined or at the very least soiled by limp defeats in front of an embarrassingly large crowd or – even worse perhaps – postponements and being forced to stay indoors, eat more nuts and watch Zulu Dawn for the 200th time.
1. 1985 – Boston part 1. The first half of the 80s were not the easiest time to be a Poppies fan, especially someone like me who joined the party after the Wembley’79 lights had gone out. Every season was a struggle on and off the pitch, but under Dave Needham things picked up a little. Christmas meant Boston home and away, because we counted as their local team. At least that made some sense: later years saw us paired with ghastly places like Hednesford after Boston carelessly got themselves relegated. Anyway, we lost on Boxing Day at York St but took memorable revenge as Ian Crawley smashed a hat trick in front of about 2,000 at RR – our biggest league crowd for several years. After half a decade of thin pickings this seemed to promise better days ahead. Which in a sense they were. Later the same season we edged to within one win of a return to Wembley. Unfortunately in the way were Runcorn, who as usual made themselves about as popular as Ebola at a sandwich factory.
2. His name was Ernie… By Christmas 1990, all was well in the world. At the top of the Conference we sat – noisy, brash and convinced that this was our year. Boston were still the opposition, but their role now was just to provide an excellent stadium in which we could celebrate another victory. The previous year it was sealed by Robbie Cooke, now it was Ernie Moss in his comeback appearance at the age of 61, or thereabouts. By this stage in his long career he was almost completely immobile, but acted as a kind of free kick magnet. If Ernie toppled over, referees instinctively gave a foul out of (a) respect and (b) concern for his welfare. Late in the game in front of a packed away end, he bundled one in off his colostomy bag and everyone went mental. Not since VE Day had Ernie known such scenes.
3. 1998. Another title challenge, another near miss... but this was a bonus that no one expected having started the year in the bottom three. As Christmas approached, we were again top of the Conference albeit with the benefit of having played more games. So the mood was - enjoy it while it lasted. And we did, starting with a trip to Hereford United (RIP) where Hudson and Fisher saw us to an untroubled win. Then on Boxing Day it was home to Hednesford (yes, see above). With an unexpected title challenge in their nostrils, over 2,600 converged on Rockingham Road where a Paul Raynor strike in the second half was decisive. Rayner's was one of those brief spells that leave a lasting impression. He made a big impact on that team in a few short months. He might be a Poppies hero to this day, had he not reinvented himself as a Steve Evans Mini Me through numerous obnoxious touchline rants in Crawley colours.
4. 2007 – the 12 points of Christmas that took us from promotion hopefuls to probable champions. First in the firing line were Leigh followed by a narrow win at Solihull then another at Tamworth, where Westcarr ran half the pitch before finishing sweetly to seal the points. And still Pedro said he was useless. Back home again on New Year’s Day, the rampant Reds hit Solihull for six and suddenly we had opened up a big lead which never slipped. Soon we bid farewell to the tatty old Conference North, prepared to reclaim our rightful place among the non League elite – and beyond that who knows? Some thought we might even be playing at a completely different level within a few years. They were right.
So, a few memories there to savour over the sherry and mince pies. Happy Xmas all.