The Big Freeze of 1963: The last time when football was stopped for so long

All action grinded to a sudden halt across the footballing world in 2020 due to the coronavirus crisis. Football everywhere, except Belarus who bizarrely continued their presumably vodka laden league, stopped as it waited for a time when it was deemed safe to return to action. The Bundesliga was the first top European League to return followed by La Liga and the Premier League. However, other than the obvious break for the World Wars, when was the last time that football was stopped in Britain for such an extended period of time?

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In 1963, the United Kingdom experienced one of the coldest winters on record. During the months of December, January and February, temperatures plummeted across the nation which made it the coldest winter since 1740.

This particular winter was certainly more than just bad weather, it was one of the five most spectacularly bad winters in the 100 years that preceded 1963. Britain was hit with a series of nasty cold isolated chunks.

The ‘Big Freeze’ began on the 22nd of December 1962; forecasts then predicted that it would be a white Christmas for many. Boxing Day was greeted with snow nationwide, which made for a picturesque and enjoyable festive period. Everything still ran as normal and everyone expected this to be a cold snap that would soon pass.

Children flooded to the parks to toboggan down hills and partake in snowball fights, enjoying what appeared to be the perfect Christmas. The fun was available for everyone, but little did the people who built their snowmen on Boxing Day realise that their frozen friends would still be standing in February.

As the Christmas snow still lay thick on the ground, another greater blizzard hit the nation. It was the worst blizzard of fifteen years. In Southern England it was the worst avalanche of snow in living memory. Gusts up to 90mph hit the South of England and it was so bitterly cold that the sea froze on the Essex coast. Temperatures dropped to -8°C and five people were killed due to the weather.

Snow drifts lay as high as 20 feet leading to nationwide announcements telling people not to leave their houses, not even for essential travel. The measures in place were more stringent than the COVID-19 measures of March and April 2020 in Britain. Many small towns and villages were completely closed off with no access to roads. At the end of the storm, 200 roads were cut off and 95,000 miles of tarmac was snow bound. The end of 1962 saw abandoned cars and thick snowfall as the norm for New Years Eve, but now 11 people had died as a result of the weather.

As the festive period ended and people had to return to work, a whole new set of issues arose. Snowploughs had to clear major roads for access to essential supplies, docks, factories, shops, bus routes etc. so that normal life could attempt to resume. However, residential roads were not attended to, and people had to quickly learn how to live with the snow. The bins weren’t collected for three weeks causing huge backlogs nationwide and the milkmen couldn’t deliver in the conditions.

Many in Britain saw this as a return to wartime spirit and camaraderie. Britain was no longer one island surrounded by water; it was hundreds of islands surrounded by snow. It was chaos for the roads, train and air travel, farms, small villages, food, medical supplies and the whole of the UK was affected in some way. Therefore, sport was of course no different and the impact that this had on English football was enormous.

Only five fixtures were completed in the First Division on Boxing Day and from that day on, little of the fixture list was completed that winter. The Football League fixture list and the FA Cup were left in a chaotic mess. Over 500 games in all were cancelled and the season was extended to the 21st of May, twenty days later than the end of the previous First Division season.

Football was arguably the worst hit sport in Britain. The clubs, managers, players and pools promoters were hit financially as the fixtures increasingly came and went un-played. The draw for the FA Cup was almost farcical. The fixtures were drawn for each round despite many games being left incomplete as the wait for pitches to thaw out dragged on.

Many supporters aided the shovelling of pitches nationwide, even when it became more of a gesture than anything else. For most clubs, it was useless to even try and clear the snow as the pitches were frozen solid underneath, with no chance of a game being played anytime soon. Scotland managed to utilise their electric underground heaters at Murrayfield to get a fixture played but most grounds did not have these modern facilities.

The clubs were left frustrated with a lack of football and sought ways to play again. Second Division outfit Chelsea managed to get themselves a game and they arranged a friendly by flying to Malta, this whilst a tar-burner was used on their Stamford Bridge pitch to thaw out the ice. Coventry City, managed by Jimmy Hill, went to play friendly matches in Ireland, including one against Manchester United in Dublin, a 2-2 draw secured by Bobby Charlton in front of a 20,000 strong crowd. Coventry also faced Wolves, first in Cork and then Belfast. Hill and Stan Cullis, the Wolves manager at the time, were so happy with the fixtures that they couldn’t wait to go back.

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Halifax turned their pitch at The Shay into a public ice rink and charged admission. All manner of ideas and devices were tried to beat the freeze. Flame-throwers at Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road, a hot-air tent at Leicester’s Filbert Street, a Danish snow-shifting tractor at Birmingham City’s St Andrews, and 80 tons of sand at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground — but the clubs were fighting a losing battle. Brighton used tarmac laying equipment to attempt to relieve the conditions on their Goldstone Ground pitch, this left their playing surface all but destroyed and they were ultimately relegated that year.

Due to the sheer number of cancelled games, supporters often had to content themselves with a decision by a panel of experts when it came to the Pools. Under Lord Brabazon, they decided who would have won the matches if they had been played. This Pools Panel was formed to aid the Football Pools during the ‘Big Freeze’.

Before the Lottery, the Pools was the only way you could become a millionaire overnight. At its peak, over 14 million people hinged every week on Saturday tea-time football results. Supporters would pick 10, 11 or 12 games from the offered fixtures that they thought would finish as a score draw (where each team has scored at least one goal and the match ended in a draw). The player with the most correct predictions won the top prize. Entries were traditionally submitted through the post or via collector agents.

During the particularly harsh winter of 1963, the Pools Panel was born. Postponed or cancelled matches were adjudicated on by a panel of experts so that the customers could still be in with a chance to win. There were five members: ex-footballers Ted Drake, Tom Finney, Tommy Lawton and George Young and ex-referee Arthur Edward Ellis. They predicted 7 draws, 8 away victories and 23 home victories on the 23rd of January and their predictions were broadcasted on television. Lord Brabazon was unhappy with the small number of draws they awarded, stating that “forecasting is a farce”. Despite this, forecasting is a method that is still used by the Pools today in cases of postponed games.

Saturday afternoons without football became a time to attempt to thaw out cars, clear driveways and continue to cope with the monstrous conditions. The ‘Big Freeze’ of 1962—63 provided football with record days for numbers of postponements. On both the 12th of January and the 2nd of February, only four Football League matches were played in England. On the 9th of February, only seven matches took place in England, but every game in Scotland was postponed.

One of the worst hit days of football fixtures was the Third Round of the FA Cup on the 5th of January. It was the worst day in the 92-year history of the FA Cup as only 3 of the 32 scheduled games went ahead. Although only three games were played, there were plenty of incidents.

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At Deepdale, Sunderland played despite a protest lodged by their chairman over the conditions of Preston’s pitch. The setting was far from ideal as the thaw of the ice had begun and so there was quite a lot of surface water on the pitch. Despite going one goal down, Sunderland had the last laugh as they won the game 4-1. During half time, the referee inspected several deep puddles but allowed the match to continue for another 45 minutes. The Sunderland chairman announced after the game that it shouldn’t have gone ahead, he was however well satisfied with the result.

Plymouth Argyle hosted West Brom at Home Park and the ground staff were afforded a lot of praise for removing the surface snow in time for the game. West Brom went on to win 5-1. Fourth Division side Tranmere almost blended into the Prenton Park pitch as their all white strip matched the ground in their game against Chelsea. The lowly Fourth Division Merseyside team had a larger than normal crowd as Liverpool and Everton fans also attended due to their own games being cancelled, as well as being in hope of a cup upset. Despite twice going ahead, Chelsea managed to claw back a 2-2 draw and won the replay at Stamford Bridge, a staggering three months later. The need for a replay meant that Tranmere and Chelsea remained in the hat for the fourth-round draw, along with 60 other sides. This was just two less teams than the draw for the third round. People joked at the time that if the foul weather didn’t come to an end soon, then that season’s competition would still be in progress the following year.

In fact, the third round of 1962-63 is the longest-lasting round in the history of the FA Cup. It began on the 5th of January, was subjected to a huge 261 postponements, and was not completed until March. Some FA Cup games had to be moved to neutral grounds in the hope of easing the monumental fixture congestion. Fourteen ties were postponed ten or more times: Lincoln City vs. Coventry City was postponed a record 15 times, and when Birmingham City and Bury eventually managed to play a full 90 minutes they drew 3-3, which necessitated a replay! After 17 attempts, Bury eventually triumphed 2-0. The replayed Blackburn vs. Middlesbrough tie was the final third-round game to be completed but was not done so until the 11th of March.

Some of the officials at the early period of the ‘Big Freeze’ were less strict on suspending games. As the postponements rolled in, it became much easier for them to call them off. One example of this earlier tolerant strategy being dangerous came in the Second Division on Boxing Day. Bury travelled to face Sunderland at Roker Park, and playing for the Black Cats that day was prolific striker Brian Clough. Clough had already scored 24 league goals by December as Sunderland were pushing for promotion. However, on that Boxing Day, the pitch was frozen solid, and the rain was falling with vigour. Clough was through on goal and collided with Chris Harker, the Bury goalkeeper. The collision resulted in Clough tearing his medial and cruciate ligaments. He only played three more games in his career, despite being just 27 at the time of the injury. Had the referee called the game off, as it was abundantly clear he should (or certainly could) have that day, who knows what impact that could have had on Clough’s playing and managerial career.

At last, on the 16th of March, it was possible to play a complete programme of League football again. Today’s managers are often heard calling for a winter break. Indeed this season (2019-20) saw the first winter break introduced in February in the Premier League. The coronavirus crisis caused a further break in the league for all players, however in 1963 there was up to a three-month break for clubs and supporters to endure. The ‘Big Freeze’ had started affecting league football on the 22nd of December and played havoc with League and Cup competitions throughout the country. This was by far the worst winter in football history as postponements had rolled on nationwide for such a long period of time.

Bolton Wanderers went the longest period without a match in League history. Following their 1-0 victory over Spurs at Burnden Park on the 8th of December, the Trotters did not play again until their 5-2 defeat at Arsenal on the 16th of February.

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The three months without football inevitably lead to fixture backlogs. Teams were faced with footballing calendars similar to Liverpool’s in December 2019, nevertheless without the prospect of having to play in two continents in two days. Coventry City were one of the worst hit in this period. Jimmy Hill had helped pioneer the ‘Big Freeze’ Irish friendlies to keep his team fit. However, they would need a whole new level of fitness to deal with their fixture congestion. Their fixture list for March 1963 alone had 3 third division games and 6 FA cup fixtures.

In all, 9 games in 28 days and with only 1 loss which was to a First Division side and eventual FA Cup winners. An impressive return on a mind-boggling number of fixtures. However, April was no better as they again played 9 games in 28 days but with 2 losses on this occasion. Coventry ended that season in 4th place in the Third Division. This is just one team, in this craziest of campaigns. Teams in every division in Britain were affected and players had to endure physical and mental demands that have arguably not been repeated since.

The break wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as it provided some struggling clubs with an opportunity to pause, re-evaluate and then go again when the football returned. Fulham were the biggest benefactors. When the ‘Big Freeze’ began on the 22nd of December, they were three points from safety. Yet, thanks to a turnaround in fortunes and 13 incredible weeks without defeat, they were able to finish the campaign five places above the drop in 16th. One of the members of the Fulham squad was George Cohen, the right-back who went on to win the World Cup with England in 1966, stated that, “When the freeze struck, we were in danger of relegation. Luckily, we were able to go and train at the ground of Leatherhead FC, near to where I lived at Chessington. When the thaw arrived, we went 13 weeks without defeat and moved to safety”.

Football supporters too were delighted to see a return of their beloved sport. The packed fixture list meant that for the entirety of March, April and May 1963 there were only three days before the end of the season (other than Sundays, as football was not played on that day) where football wasn’t played in any of England’s top four divisions or cup competitions. Supporters were then treated to three further England friendlies at the end of the season! One could only imagine the dollar signs in the eyes of TV companies and bookies today with that fixture backlog prospect.

When the football did return, the Telegraph reported, “Take one frying pan (or football pitch), melt a quantity of ice, stir in enough earth, sand and peat to form a liquid paste. Add 22 players, flavour with a referee, simmer for 90 minutes until players are uniformly brown and unrecognisable. Serve chilled to half‑frozen spectators who, after weeks of neglect, have such an appetite for the game that they are unlikely to summon the Maître d’ (manager)”. The standard of football may not have been as great as it previously was, but it is hard to imagine that the football-starved supporters were too upset about that. They were just happy to get their game back.

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Due to the sheer number of postponements, the First Division campaign was finally finished on the 21st of May as Ipswich and Villa drew at Portman Road to put a long-drawn season to a final close. The current Premier League season will obviously run far past this date. League champions Everton were actually the first team to finish their league campaign with a 4-1 win over Fulham at Goodison Park on the 11th of May. That day, 60,000 supporters were able to witness Everton clinch their first title in 24 years after a pulsating title race between themselves and Tottenham. The win meant that Spurs could no longer catch them. The Toffees could then sit back and watch everyone else finish their campaigns, safe in the knowledge that the League Title was coming to them at the end of one of the most interesting, barren and congested seasons in British history.

There are certainly strange parallels with their Merseyside neighbours Liverpool who will be looking to repeat this feat of winning a league long after the ordinary finishing date and both the 2019-20 campaign and the 1962-63 season will be remembered for many years to come.

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