Football: Switched on to the future

The Anniversary: Floodlit football arrived 43 years ago

PORTSMOUTH'S MATCH against Newcastle was 20 minutes old when the floodlights failed but, unlike the suspicious darkness that has fallen upon recent games there was no suggestion of shady deeds by betting syndicates, only a blown fuse. This was 22 February 1956, the night the first Football League match was played under lights.

Floodlighting itself was far from new. Its slow acceptance in Britain was less to do with the quality of illumination than the dim minds of the game's administrators. As early as 1878 more than 20,000 had watched a floodlit match at Bramall Lane between representative Sheffield teams, and in the same year there were evening games at The Oval and at Aston Lower Grounds, now called Villa Park. The lights, usually on four poles, were the equivalent of 8,000 candles and powered by dynamos.

In 1930 the always cautious Football Association banned floodlighting and would not change their minds until 1950. Probably the day (or night) that did most to persuade the authorities that floodlit games would greatly increase income was 1 October 1951 when Southampton's reserves played Tottenham's at The Dell. The crowd of 13,000 was three times greater than would have been expected in daylight.

The Spurs manager of the time, Arthur Rowe, later said it reminded him of playing under street lights in his childhood. Others, including Matt Busby, were sceptical. Indeed Old Trafford was without lights until 1957, and Manchester United played their early European Cup ties at Maine Road.

Although Wolves were among the pioneers, memorably playing Honved in a floodlit friendly in 1954 that opened British eyes to the potential drama of regular European matches, it was not until September 1955 that a competitive night match was sanctioned, and then only an FA Cup preliminary round replay between Kidderminster Harriers and Brierley Hill Alliance.

More than 20 years earlier Arsenal's innovative manager Herbert Chapman had tried to encourage the authorities to allow floodlighting but he was blocked and Highbury was not fully equipped with match quality ones until 1951. The first game beneath 84 lamps of 1,500 watts each, was the annual one between boxers and jockeys and attracted 40,000. However the Arsenal manager, Tom Whittaker, had been to South America, where floodlighting was commonplace, and was captivated by the added theatrical drama of night games which could be stage managed. For the next match he arranged for the lights to be on only half-power until Arsenal and Hapoel, of Tel Aviv, came out before an enthralled crowd of 44,000.

Wembley installed lights in 1955 and used them in the second half of an England match against Spain, but it was the game at Fratton Park (won 2-0 by Newcastle) that marked the start of a new era and a rapid expansion of the midweek game on a European scale.

That evening in Portsmouth was raw. Much of the pitch was frozen. The fixture had been planned for a Saturday but the whole country was under snow. In spite of the conditions for players, shivering cold for the crowd and a 30-minute delay when the lights failed during the first half, the evening proved a huge success.

The Times correspondent was even more than usually lyrical: "There arose a vision of the future. In 20, even 10 years' time will all football be played under the stars and moon? There is much to recommend it. There is a dramatic, theatrical quality about it. The pace of the game seems accentuated, flowering patterns of approach play take on sharper, more colourful outlines. In the background of the night the dark, surrounding crowd, half shadow yet flesh and blood, can produce the effect of a thousand fire-flies as cigarette lights spurt forth."

As an aside, he mentioned that it was a rousing match. The players were less sentimental, asking for a pay rise for working unsocial hours. A strike threat brought about an extra pounds 3 for night work.

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