(Special) Guest Blog: Jo Lake's Christmas MemoriesBy Jo Lake | 26 December 2019
(Photo by Andrew Yates/AFP)
Every summer, when the Premier League releases the official fixture list, my eyes immediately dart to December. Boxing Day at home, please, I’ll say to myself, fingers crossed, hoping that my favourite day of the football calendar has been assigned to the Etihad. No such luck this year, sadly. Instead, I’ll be downing my pre-match mulled wine and donning my comedy Santa hat the following Sunday when we entertain Sheffield United.
My fondness for the traditional Boxing Day fixture is long-standing, having watched my first ever City game on Monday 26th December, 1977. Two days previously Santa Claus had kindly slipped a match ticket into my festive stocking along with a sky blue bobble hat, an MCFC snow globe and a supersized ‘Man City Are Magic’ metal badge. According to my dad, Father Christmas had taken time out from his busy schedule to land his sleigh on the Maine Road forecourt and pay a visit to Janice in the souvenir shop.
Santa’s a City fan, Jo,’ said Dad with a wink. ‘Don’t be fooled by the red and white outfit.’
As a chilly wind whistled around the North Stand that Boxing Day, Dad and I witnessed Manchester City giving Newcastle United a proper pummelling. There was no hint of seasonal goodwill from Tony Book’s boys as four goals rattled in (including a hat-trick from Dennis Tueart), with the Magpies unable to counter. In spite of the ice-cold concrete numbing my feet, and the fog of tobacco smoke bothering my asthma, I was enthralled with the whole match-day experience. The roar of the crowd. The glare of the floodlights. The craic, the camaraderie. I belonged. I was Blue. Just like Dad and Santa.
At some point in the second half I remember the home fans erupting with joy at the sight of a slim blond player jogging onto the pitch from the subs’ bench. I’d never heard noise like it. Everybody stood and applauded, even the Newcastle supporters. I looked up at Dad – what’s going on? – and noticed that his eyes were glassy with tears.
‘Colin the King,’ he said, before giving me a potted history of his all-time favourite player, explaining why his long-awaited, post-injury comeback had stirred up so much raw emotion.
Following the final whistle, Dad and I stopped off at The Sherwood on Wilmslow Road, where he and his City pals prolonged the celebrations with a pint or three (in those days, alas, a festive drink ‘n’ drive wasn’t uncommon). Kids weren’t allowed in the pub so I sat in the car outside, listening to Piccadilly Radio and flicking through the match day programme, with Dad occasionally popping out to hand me a can of Lilt and a bag of Ringos.
By August 1978 I’d jacked in my Saturday afternoon ballet classes in favour of becoming a Maine Road regular (it was for the best; I had all the grace and poise of a buffalo). As well as receiving a season ticket for my birthday that year, I’d also been enrolled into the legendary Junior Blues club for young supporters. Membership perks included a ‘silk’ scarf (polyester, more like; typical Swales) that doubled up as a handy duster for my LP collection; a fabric JB’s patch that Mum stitched onto my tracksuit top, and a glossy quarterly magazine that, thrillingly, gave its subscribers a birthday shout-out.
Most impressive of all, perhaps, was the free entry into the Junior Blues Christmas pantomime. Taking place in the MCFC Social Club, and featuring a cast of senior players, youth team trainees, City-supporting celebs and jazz-handing JB’s, it became an annual ritual for me and Dad. During one mid-1980s performance (Sleeping Bluety, maybe?) I recall my teenage self being quite taken with a pair of YTS boys shuffling shyly from curtain to stage, one dark, one fair.
‘Paul Lake and Ian Brightwell,’ whispered my father. ‘Cracking players, both of ‘em.’
While he had a great talent for predicting the City stars of the future – he attended most Central League reserve games – Dad had no inkling, of course, that the lad on the left would one day become his son-in-law.
Fast-forward a few years, to Boxing Day 1988, and both Lakey and Brighty found themselves featuring in one of City’s most notorious away days. I was grounded with a bout of winter flu, unfortunately, but that morning I remember watching Mum daubing olive green face paint onto Dad’s cheeks and affixing a couple of plastic bolts to his neck, prior to the fancy dress-themed trip to Stoke City’s Victoria Ground. Frankenstein’s Monster and friends partied hard that afternoon (in spite of their team’s dire 3-1 defeat) with Dad’s hangover lifting in good time for the New Year’s Eve excursion to Swindon Town.
Since then, over thirty Christmases have passed – god, I feel ancient – with City’s festive games programme throwing up some memorable fixtures, particularly over the past decade. Newcastle away in 2010, for instance, when an early goal from Gareth Barry and a brace from Carlos Tevez guided Bobby Manc’s side to a 3-1 win. Or, two years later at Norwich, when – despite being a man down for an entire half, after Samir Nasri’s red card – the Blues claimed a gripping 4-3 victory.
Off the pitch, the Etihad years have seen our football club continuing with the Crimbo-related merriment, whether it’s been organising the CITC Santa Stroll fundraiser (established a decade ago by my other half, incidentally), filming Aleks Kolarov’s deadpan rendition of Jingle Bells, or staging the Team Elf-versus-Team Santa festive jumper face-off between Vincent Kompany and Kevin De Bruyne. The City Wonderland project – which has involved the club arranging extra-special gifts and experiences for deserving supporters – has proved to be a heart-warming initiative; Phil Foden and David Silva’s surprise visit to the Clark family home last Christmas, when they festooned the house with City goodies and converted the garden into a mini-pitch, would have brought a tear to the Grinch’s eye.
I still live in hope, though, that City’s powers-that-be will one day revive the late-lamented, star-studded Christmas Panto. I’d be first in the queue to watch Pep in Boots.