Football: Frozen to the spot: You think it's cold now. Thirty years ago Britain was in the grip of one of its worst ever winters, and sport all but ceased to be. Guy Hodgson reports

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The Independent Online
IT WAS the winter when dates became meaningless - marking when things should have happened, but couldn't. It was the winter of 1962-63.

Records fell like the temperature, but none related to events on sports fields. Instead there were negative phenomena: the worst snowstorm since 1881; the greatest number of football matches postponed; the longest continuous period without horse racing.

The programme for the FA Cup third-round tie between Bradford City and Newcastle United summed up the mood. 'January 1963', it read. No one dared be more specific. The match finally took place on 7 March, Newcastle winning 6-1. 'At one time,' the publication's 'Ubique' wrote in reference to the opposition's black-and-white kit, 'it seemed that the only thing we would see on the pitch with stripes would be the club cat.'

On the same day that Bradford and Newcastle should have met, Lincoln City were due to play host to Coventry City in the same competition. Naturally it was called off. And off. And off. Fifteen times the tie was postponed, another mark in football's list of mosts.

The worst day, the worst in history, was Saturday 9 February, when 57 matches in England and Scotland were called off. In England alone more than 400 League and Cup matches were postponed that winter, forcing the FA to extend the season three weeks to clear the backlog. The Pools Panel was created and met for the first time on 26 January. National Hunt racing lost 110 days, and not a horse was ridden competitively between 5 January and 8 March, the longest fallow period ever. Rugby union became virtually a game of the Five Nations' Championship only, club rugby becoming a thing peculiar to the extreme south-west.

The frost claimed its first sporting victims on 22 December, and the ice- cold grip was not relaxed until 10 weeks later. It was a winter so severe that men's lives were shaped by the inactivity enforced on them. Careers were changed.

Fred Eyre, the author of five football books, had dreamed of being a Manchester City footballer from his early years in Blackley, but the winter of 1962-63 killed the dream. At the start of the freeze he was on the books at Maine Road - six months later he was given a free transfer.

'I knew I was borderline,' Eyre, a wing-half, says. 'I had to do something to make the manager think, 'That lad's come on a bit.' Suddenly we had no football. Weeks and weeks on the sidelines and then as soon as we started playing again, bang, I got a knee-ligament injury.' In a normal season Eyre would have missed four or five matches. In the abnormal times of 30 years ago, when clubs had to make up fixtures, he was out for more than a dozen. When he was fit again it was too late, and that summer he was given a free transfer to Lincoln City.

'The other lads will tell you I was different,' Eyre said. 'I loved City, it was my club. I grew up in Manchester and all I'd ever wanted to do was play for them. I remember 1962-63, I remember it more clearly than any other season. It broke my heart.'

Across the city at Old Trafford, more celebrated footballers than Eyre also suffered. Matt Busby paid Celtic pounds 56,000, then a record fee for a wing- half, for Pat Crerand to boost the club's championship challenge, but for two months he was confined to indoor training and practice matches.

'It was hopeless,' Crerand recalls. 'I wanted to make a big impression. I was at a new club, I was anxious to do well, and I just sat around waiting. There was no chance to get used to team-mates, no opportunity to learn to play with them. Training is no substitute, in that sense, for a real match.'

When the thaw arrived, United's parts had not meshed in cold storage, and a team that had been second before the snow fell, barely won a League match for the rest of the season. They finished 19th in the First Division, two positions above the relegation places, and only in the FA Cup did they show glimpses of what would be Busby's third great side. Crerand supplied the pass for Denis Law to score United's first goal when United beat Leicester City 3-1 in the final.

Coventry, who beat Lincoln 5-1 when their much-delayed tie finally took place on 7 March, were numbered among United's Cup opponents that season, losing 3-1 at home in the quarter-finals. They, too, were unwitting victims of the freeze.

Jimmy Hill, the television commentator, was manager at Highfield Road, and true to his innovative image worked hard to find alternative venues to keep his players as match-fit as a 10- week lay-off will allow. A friendly with Manchester United was arranged in Dublin, which had escaped the worst of the weather.

'It was played at Shamrock Rovers, and was a marvellous occasion, 20,000 fans, plenty of atmosphere,' Hill says. 'What United hadn't expected, however, was an eager Coventry team that was full of running and at half-time we were 2-0 up.

'The walls were paper-thin between the two dressing-rooms and I remember listening to Matt Busby roasting his players. He has this wonderful benign image has Sir Matt, all kind and gentle, but that day we heard the harder side of him. It obviously had an effect, too, because the match ended 2-2.'

The flip side to what had been a learning experience for a young Coventry team came in the quarter-final. If the Dublin match had not taken place, United might have been caught off- guard by Hill's team, who had a thrillingly successful run once the ice had slackened its grip. As it was, a forewarned United won 3-1.

It was a season of some disappointment for Coventry, who missed out on promotion by five points. 'The players became exhausted mentally and physically,' Hill said. 'What with the backlog and our Cup run there were just too many matches and the team suddenly went. I can remember being 1-0 up at Wrexham and it happened. We ended up losing 5-1.'

While football froze to a standstill, England's rugby union team played on. The final trial was switched from Twickenham to Torquay, and when the team arrived in Wales to begin the Five Nations' Championship they found the only place fit to train was Porthcawl Beach. Cardiff, snow-bound and bitterly cold, was not a place to hold an international but hundreds of volunteers worked at the Arms Park covering the pitch with straw. Later, dozens of braziers were lit to force warmth into the ground. The scene resembled one huge picket-line.

'The match shouldn't have been played,' Peter Jackson, the England wing, says, 'but a bright day was forecast and they assumed a couple of hours of sunshine would make all the difference. The biggest problem was the change in surface. One second you would be running on a part of the pitch which had been near or under a brazier and the next you'd be on the rock-hard stuff. Players were slipping and sliding all over the place.

'Club matches were impossible, so I kept fit by running in a field near my home in Castle Bromwich. The snow had drifted so that it was a lot deeper at one end. I remember it was fine running through the shallow stuff, but dreadful when you got to where the snow was piled high. You can't imagine what agony it was trying to get through that stuff.'

Richard Sharp, the England captain, said: 'The weather in Cardiff was so bitter we were offered extra underwear, which was fairly unusual for those times. I remember one journalist wrote that even a penguin might have considered it too cold. Another described it as the coldest, craziest international ever played. That summed things up pretty neatly, but at least we had a win to keep us warm.' A 13-6 victory that would become famous for its rarity. England did not win in Cardiff again for 28 years.

One man who expected to benefit from racing's hibernation was Stan Mellor. He had a substantial lead in the jockeys' championship when winter struck, and the longer the lay-off the more likely it seemed he would win it. An injury from a fall when racing resumed, however, allowed Josh Gifford to overtake him with 70 winners.

'We tried to keep the horses going by taking a four-wheel drive round a field to make a track of sorts,' Mellor says, 'but once the weather set in it was hopeless. I was due to get married that year, and had recently bought a house, so I spent the time either decorating or travelling to see my fiancee.'

David Nicholson, a rival jockey then and a fellow trainer now, used his Land-Rover to collect food for his village in the Cotswolds. 'We were cut off for six weeks,' he says, 'and mine was the only vehicle that could get through.' At the weather's trough even the four-wheel drive was rendered unusable, and Nicholson's wife, Dinah, travelled on horseback to provide provisions.

Nicholson was later employed by the local council clearing roads, but his shovel-work ended in early March when the country slipped free of winter's stranglehold. The night of 5 March was the first to be frost-free in 1963, and racing began three days later. Football went on a helter-skelter of matches until the Cup final on 25 May, Coventry, for one, completing no fewer than 25 fixtures during that period.

Britain emerged from a new Ice Age into an era of undersoil heating and all- weather race tracks. Sport will never again suffer like it did 30 years ago.

(Photograph omitted)