Since the start of the new season, there has hardly been week go by that hasn’t seen a full roster of midweek matches take place. This, however, hasn’t ever been thus and until surprisingly recently football under floodlights was all but barred by the Football Association. Much as many of us feel that three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon is the “natural” home for matches, there remains something special about matches played in the evening. Floodlights have the effect of lending an air of theatre to a football match. They enhance the senses in a very literal sense. Colours are brighter and stand out more. The blackness of the sky acts as a roof, bringing the crowd closer to the match. Nothing can quite match the intensity of a Tuesday evening match being played at full pelt in front of a baying crowd.
The development of floodlighting has run in tandem with the development of the game in general. The first floodlit football match played in England was an exhibition match at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane, which was played in front of an estimated crowd of 20,000 people in November 1878. The lights were powered by primitive electric dynamoes and were mounted on wooden towers. This match was considered to be a great success, with the only criticism being that the towers were too close to the pitch (meaning that players were dazzled), but further experiments in Manchester and Birmingham were less successful and the FA refused to sanction their use for any matches other than charity and friendly matches.
As interest in floodlights grew (Herbert Chapman, who won six league championships with Arsenal and Huddersfield Town, was one high profile advocate of them), the Football Association reacted in a typically luddite fashion and, in August 1930, banned their use even in charity or friendly matches. Any clubs playing matches would now be banned altogether from football. Chapman was intensely interested in making the game more visible, in a literal sense. He introduced white sleeves to Arsenal’s kit to make his players more visible to each other, and he wasn’t going to let the idea of floodlights go easily, installing them in the roofs of the stands at Highbury for training purposes. The FA, however, would only sanction one further floodlit exhibition match at the behest of Tottenham Hotspur, which was played in 1933 at the White City greyhound stadium. This match , however, (which also saw the introduction of white balls for the first time) was not a success and the idea was put on a back burner until after the Second World War.
At the end of the war, football enjoyed its boom period, a heyday which it will never again experience. The pressure on the Football Association to allow floodlit football was now coming from sources other than football clubs themselves. The ravages of war meant that companies, which had previously been content to allow workers to take time off to go to afternoon matches during the week, needed all hands on deck and the FA eventually dropped their ban in 1950, although they maintained their reservations against their use.
The way forward, perhaps surprisingly, was shown in the first place by non-league clubs. The now defunct South Liverpool had already played a Nigerian XI team in front of a crowd of 13,000 in 1949 and Headington United (now Oxford United) played a series of matches towards the end of 1950. In January 1951, the FA amended their previous rules to say that competitive matches could be played under floodlights if permission had been granted by the relevant county FA and the organisers of the competition. The first competitive match under floodlights, a reserve match in the Football Combination between Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur, was played in front of a crowd of over 13,000 in October of the same year.
The floodlight floodgates had opened. Wolverhampton Wanderers played their famous series of floodlit matches against European sides throughout the early 1950s, which led to the creation of the European Cup. There were still pockets of resistance to the inevitable from within the FA – Headington were refused permission to play an FA Cup replay against Millwall in 1953, a decision which drew national coverage to the issue – but such decisions were swimming against the tide. The first FA Cup match to be played under floodlights was played between Kidderminster Harriers and Brierly Hill Alliance in September 1955. Wembley got its floodlights in the same year (and were used for the last fifteen minutes of a friendly international between England and Spain in November of the same years), and the first Football League match under floodlights, played between Portsmouth and Newcastle United, followed in February 1956.
From here on, resistance started to fall away. In 1958, the Football League’s rule that permission had to be granted before matches were played under floodlights was abolished and the League Cup was conceived as “The Football League Floodlight Cup” when it started in 1960. As the costs of installantion and maintenance began to fall, floodlights became a necessity rather than a luxury, although it took Chesterfield until 1967 to become the last Football League club to have them installed. The FA’s objections to change had been shown up for being what they were – based upon objecting because of little more than fear of change – although matches continued to be played occasionally on midweek afternoons until into the 1970s, not least because of power cuts brought about by industrial action.
Floodlights have become so much a part of the landscape of football that it is difficult to imagine the game without them, to the extent that our mental image of the floodlight pylon became part of the aesthetic of the game. If we buy the argument that football stadia replaced churches during the twentieth century (which is, in some respects, a flawed one), then floodlight pylons became the steeples – the most visible point of reference for the location of a stadium and arguably a visual metaphor for the hold of a football club over its town or city. In many towns, it was possible to stand on a high spot on the outskirts and pick out the floodlight pylons even by day.
Those days, however, are largely behind us. The towering pylons of the past were put in place for cost reasons and because of the technological restraints of the day rather than for aesthetic reasons and as time has gone on they have come to be replaced by smaller units which are easier to maintain. The traditional pylon remains at just a handful of clubs, and it likely that within a couple of decades the four giant pylons, looking down benevolently on proceedings like the guardian angels of the club, will be nothing but a memory. For example, Saltergate, the last Football League ground to get floodlights, will close at the end of this season.
Floodlights have gone from being completely banned, through being a luxury and a necessity to being an essential requirement to enter into competitions in the space of sixty years. It would no more be likely now that a senior club would build a new stadium without them than they would build it without goals at each end of the pitch. Their success has been for reasons that are stylistic and logistical. We are no longer at the mercy of the changing of the seasons and we are treated to a sharper, clearer view of proceedings when the lights come on. Floodlit football is football in high definition. Herbert Chapman would definitely approve.