It is always surprising when it snows in England, and the fact that it takes everyone by surprise causes a few problems. The trains, which seem to have been designed to only run properly when the sky is fair and the temperature sits at between seventeen and twenty degrees, grind slowly to a halt. Pavements become temporary ice skating rinks, as councils take several days to come around to the idea that grit melts snow. For anyone that has ever spent any time in a genuinely cold climate, one in which snow is considered to be a part of life that one simply has to get on with, it is a most unedifying sight.
It is all the more surprising when it snows and it isn’t January or February. This is precisely what happened earlier this week, when an unseasonal (and, it would appear, completely unexpected) cold front brought snow to the South Midlands, the Chilterns and parts of East Anglia, leading to the abandonment of four matches in the Football League. It wasn’t ever thus. Look back at the black and white photographic archives of any football club, and you will find plenty of pictures of semi-frozen footballers running around on pitches covered in anything up to three or four inches of snow, seemingly oblivious to the conditions around them. These inclement conditions may go some way to explaining why they wore such baggy shorts.
As times changed, football clubs decided that it was very much in their interests to try and combat the weather. As footballs changed in colour from brown to white, all clubs kept a supply of luminous orange balls, for use in the event of sudden and unexpected flurries. Goalkeepers would take to wearing tracksuit trousers, often in the fetching style of having their shorts and socks over the top of them, making them look as if they’d forgotten how to dress themselves properly. When the snow came, newspapers would feature photographs of armies of volunteers, sometimes in their hundreds, whose addiction to the game was so great that they would turn up at the ground at nine o’clock in the morning with shovels to clear the pitch. In the days before the internet and mobile phones, quite how these people knew that their assistance was required was something of a mystery. Did club groundsmen have a whistle that only they could hear? Did people turn up at nine o’clock every other Saturday, even in August, just in case the heavens opened?
The technology used by clubs to fight frost and snow was often almost charmingly ill-advised. In the 1920s, Tottenham Hotspur covered the pitch at White Hart Lane in bales of hay in the hope of beating a cold snap. You can probably imagine what the effect on the pitch itself was. By the 1970s, undersoil heating was starting to come into vogue. Pipes of water were laid under pitches filled with water that would be heated to melt frozen pitches, but these were expensive. In one of the stranger sights of the entire decade, Leicester City experimented with a giant polythene balloon called a “polysphere”. Purchased in 1971 for £5,000, this giant tent was suspended with giant blowers and allowed the turf to be kept permanently temperate whilst also allowing the players to train on it underneath. The idea didn’t catch on. Other clubs took to covering their pitches with plastic sheeting, which was often ineffective (air would still penetrate it) and occasionally even caused damage to pitches, if left on for too long.
The situation reached its nadir during the 1981/82 season, when Britain was covered in inches of snow for many weeks during December and January. Scores of matches were called off, and only those few clubs that had invested in undersoil heating (which was not only expensive to install, but also expensive just to switch on) remained comparatively unaffected by it all. On one occasion in December 1981, an entire edition of “Match Of The Day” was taken up with extremely extended highlights of a fairly drab game between Manchester City and Stoke City, because Maine Road had undersoil heating, meaning that this was more or less the only match being played in the top two divisions of the league. When an an artificial pitch was laid at Loftus Road in the summer of 1981, part of the reason for its installation was to prevent the postponement of matches due to bad weather. However bad the Omniturf pitch may have been in practically every other way (and it was a terrible, terrible pitch), Rangers were certainly fortunate with their timing. The fact that QPR had no matches postponed because of the weather (coupled, one suspects, with the ground’s close proximity to the BBC Television Centre in Shepherd’s Bush) meant that they received considerably more attention from the television cameras than most Second Division teams during that season.
What was unusual about the abandonments earlier this week was that there had been no extended period of cold weather beforehand. It is unlikely that the pitches at Northampton, Wycombe, Walsall and Luton would have been frozen. Indeed, the match between Luton Town and AFC Bournemouth had been playing for ten minutes before the referee called a halt to proceedings. Wycombe Wanderers vs Macclesfield Town lasted for twenty-three minutes. The match at Walsall was called off just an hour before kick-off, causing considerable inconvenience to the hundreds of travelling supporters that had travelled up from Swindon on a cold Tuesday night, not to mention considerable expense to Swindon Town Football Club, whose players and officials had already arrived at the ground.
Referees are given a reasonably broad remit to call matches off for whatever reason they see fit and the catch-all reason given by the referees concerned has been that they were “concerned for the players’ safety”. However, if the pitches weren’t frozen (and it is unlikely that they were – as mentioned before, there had been no extended cold snap beforehand), a bit of snow is unlikely to do any of them any harm. Indeed, if the pitches were frozen, shouldn’t the matches have been called off much earlier in the day? This would, at least, have prevented hundreds of travelling supporters making unnecessary journeys on a Tuesday night during which weather conditions were apparently too treacherous for people to go outside and play football in. One cannot help but suspect that rather too many people took a look outside, saw the snow falling, and thought, “nah, I don’t much fancy that tonight”. Even if this was not the case, it feels likely that not every possible step was taken to ensure that these matches went ahead, or that the matches were simply called off too late. No-one is suggesting that players should go and perform in dangerous conditions, but this was a royal pain in the backside for the travelling supporters of Colchester United, Swindon Town, Macclesfield Town and AFC Bournemouth.