Winter has suddenly and not entirely expectedly descended on England this week and, predictably, it is playing merry havoc with the football schedules on the last Saturday before Christmas. At the time of writing, thirteen matches in the Football League have already been postponed, and it is likely that more will follow. Some may view this as a welcome opportunity to get in some Christmas shopping, but others will undoubtedly grumble at having nothing to do this afternoon. Those that are unhappy at postponements and cancellations should, however, pause for thought and consider the 1962/63 season, when winter arrived with a bang at Christmas and didn’t budge for two months.
Forty-seven years ago was several lifetimes in terms of the evolution of the game and in some ways it could be argued that the 1962/63 season was the last season of “old” football. Within two years, regular television coverage would come in the form of “Match Of The Day”, and the 1962/63 season was the last season in which none of the current Champions League Four of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool finished in the top four in the First Division. A couple of Football League clubs still didn’t even have floodlights in the autumn of 1962. A couple of the names in the basement of the Football League (Division Four was in its fifth season) – Workington and Southport, for example – have a feintly archaic ring to them. Hartlepools United still described themselves in the plural, Swansea City were still Swansea Town and AFC Bournemouth were still Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic.
The season had started with one major change. At a time during which admission to the Football League was on a strictly need to know basis, Oxford United had been voted in to replace Accrington Stanley, who had expired in February 1962. All went on as per normal until just before Christmas, but the weather turned and football, which, at the time, had very little of the technology that keeps matches going through the winter. Goodison Park had become the first English ground to fit under-soil heating in 1958 (although Arsenal had experimented, unsuccessfully, with it beforehands), but the overwhelming majority of clubs were completely unprepared for the cold snap.
A cold snap, in fact, would probably be understating things somewhat. Most of Britain stayed under a thick blanket of snow, and average temperatures stayed at around -6 degrees centigrade. It was the coldest winter in Britain since 1740. The biggest single casualty was the Third Round of the FA Cup, which took sixty-six days to complete and involved a total of two hundred and sixty-one postponements. The FA Cup final between Manchester United and Leicester City was eventually played on the 25th of May, with the two-legged final of the League Cup between Birmingham City and Aston Villa being played either side of it.
Faced with the onerous job of having to keep their players fit with only occasional match practice (Barnsley were the worst hit club of all, playing just two matches between the 22nd December 1962 and the 12th March 1963), clubs had to think laterally. Many trained indoors, while Coventry City flew to Ireland (which had escaped the worst of the weather) for friendly matches at the behest of manager Jimmy Hill, including a match against Manchester United in Dublin that was played in front of a crowd of 20,000 and ended in a 2-2 draw. Several clubs managed to defrost their pitches only for them to freeze again straight away, leaving them in an even worse state than before. Norwich City used military flame-throwers on the Carrow Pitch and flooded it, while at Blackpool similar flooding led to then England internationals Jimmy Armfield and Tony Waiters being photographed ice skating on the pitch at Bloomfield Road. Halifax Town saw this through to its natural conclusion, turning the pitch at The Shay into a public ice rink and charging to use it.
The football pools companies, horrified at the losses that they were running up with the mass cancellations, took action and the pools panel came into being. The first panel was made of of the extravagently-moustached Consiverative MP Gerald Nabarro, former players George Young, Ted Drake andTommy Lawton and former referee Arthur Ellis, who would go on to find national fame on the television show “It’s A Knockout”. They first sat on the 26th of January 1963, giving their verdict on what they felt would happen in matches that had been called off, and they still sit today.
When things started to get back to normal, Everton were the team to react to all of the disruption and won by the Football League championship by six points (under three points for a win, they would have won it by eleven points), with Tottenham Hotspur finishing in second place, Burnley finishing third and Leicester City in fourth place. One club that didn’t react well to the distraction was Manchester United, who finished the season just three points and two places above the relegation positions. United did, however, finish the season on a high, beating Leicester City in the FA Cup final and their supporters may also have taken heart from the surprise relegation of local rivals Manchester City, who went down with Leyton Orient, who were playing the only season of top division football in their history. They were replaced by Stoke City (who featured a by then forty-eight year old Stanley Matthews) and Chelsea.
Almost half a century on, lessons have been learnt from that particularly long and harsh winter. Advances in technology and more sophisticated groundskeeping means that under-soil heating isn’t even always required to keep matches going in cold weather. Even now, for example, Premier League Fulham don’t have under-soil heating but their match against Manchester United still goes ahead. As you sit at home this afternoon watching the showjumping and possibly cursing under your breath, though, you may find it beneficial to pause and think about the 1962/63 season. Things could be much, much worse.