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The nine-week shutdown - how a big freeze derailed English football

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A blizzard caused English football to be shut down for nine weeks in 1963. Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

A blizzard caused English football to be shut down for nine weeks in 1963. Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

PA

A blizzard caused English football to be shut down for nine weeks in 1963. Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

It has happened before, you know.

Yes, in the first nine weeks of 1963, British football ground to a halt with not a match played from the first week of January to the second week of March.

Back then it wasn’t a virus that meant no football, it was the white stuff – snow, lots of it.

A cold front settled over Britain about 10 days before Christmas 1962. Some games were postponed then because of frost, yet many others went ahead.

But in those opening days of January a blizzard that lasted 32 hours fell upon Britain – and you thought the ‘Beast from the East’ was bad!

When it finally stopped snowing the entire island of England, Scotland and Wales was covered in at least five feet of snow, with drifts of 20ft in places.

And the 'Big Freeze of 1963' continued, Britain was frozen solid for two whole months until a thaw arrived 10 days into March.

January 1963 remains the coldest month in British weather history – and they’ve been keeping the temperature since 1740.

A Scottish Cup tie between Stranraer and Airdrie set the record for futility, being postponed 33 times.

Back then it was almost a religious thing that the English First Division would end in late April, with the FA Cup final played on the first Saturday in May.

That went by the board with the League season not ending until mid-May and the Wembley showpiece took place on May 25 that year.

Rather as you suspect it will be this season, the long stoppage back then had no great effect on life at the top of what was then the First Division table.

Spurs, Everton and Leicester City had been jousting for the lead when the action stopped just after Christmas and that was how it continued to the end.

Everton’s 1-0 home win over Spurs, thanks to an Alex Young goal, was a key result at the end of April as the Toffees claimed their first domestic title in 24 years.

A draw in their next game gave Spurs and Leicester a lifeline in the title race, but Everton surged to the crown by winning their last four games.

The relegation battle, however, that was totally different.

George Cohen, who would win a World Cup winners’ medal with England three years later, recalled those early months of 1963 as Fulham’s right-back.

"We were in trouble before the snow came," he remembered. "We weren’t playing well and things weren’t going well and we were heading for relegation. But then the matches all stopped.

"I recall that a group of fans helped to clear a pitch in Chessington, near where quite a few of the team lived, me included, and in February a lot of the team used to try to play and train a bit there.

"That definitely helped us, when we came back, we were fitter than the other teams and our touch was better."

In fact, Fulham went unbeaten in 13 First Division matches after coming back, and ended up cosily in mid-table.

Manchester City were the club who paid the price for Fulham’s initiative.

Indeed, both Manchester clubs were in trouble that season, United finishing fourth from bottom, even though they won the FA Cup with Johnny Giles in their team.

Only two teams went down in those years and Leyton Orient, who were awful, before and after the snow, were relegated with six games still left to play.

It all came down to the last day, with Manchester City a point ahead of Birmingham City. But Birmingham shocked Leicester 3-2, and City were hammered at Upton Park 6-1 and so went down.

The snowstorm of 1963 brought a beginning and an end to something special in English football. Yet what ended also led to the beginning of something very special. With no games being played, the Pools companies, which were so popular at the time, introduced ‘the Pools Panel’ to predict the result of what should have been the Saturday matches.

Initially, it had five members: ex-footballers Ted Drake, Tom Finney, Tommy Lawton and George Young and ex-referee Arthur Edward Ellis.

After at first getting plenty of stick for picking too few draws, the Pools Panel survived and exists to this day.

Though improvements in turf maintenance and under-soil heating mean there is rarely a weekend where enough matches are postponed for it to be called into action.

In one of the Christmas matches that survived the initial blast of cold air, Sunderland’s then 27-year-old English international centre-forward suffered what would now be called a cruciate ligament injury, when he collided with the Bury goalkeeper.

But, in the early 1960s, medical science was not what it is now. It took him a full two years to fight back to fitness. However after three games passed him by, the striker realised the game was up.

He was not able to play any more and so he retired – to become manager of Hartlepool. Thus the legend of Brian Clough began.

Another innovation of those months was that Chelsea headed off to Malta – for what was surely the first warm-weather midwinter break.

There was a nice side benefit too for Irish football. Jimmy Hill was then the boss at Coventry City in what was known as the Third Division.

He hit on the idea of bringing his club to Ireland for a few matches to get going.

This country had got the cold air that Britain got, but not all of the snow and pitches were playable.

But how to pay the costs of it all? Simple, Hill got Manchester United to come over, and Coventry played them in a 2-2 draw at Milltown, in front of 20,000 supporters.

Remember this was just five years after the Munich Air Disaster and the Red Devils got a huge welcome from Dubliners, for whom the loss of Liam Whelan was still raw in their minds.

Covid-19 means there will be no tours like that this time around. But is there a Fulham, somewhere near the bottom of the current Premier League able, who will end up comfortably mid-table by the end of July?

Online Editors