Authorities feel heat over festive call-offs

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The Independent Football

Did Sam Allardyce really turn off the electricity at the Reebok Stadium to save his Bolton players from facing Middlesbrough just a few days before their important appointment with Manchester United? Did Newcastle City Council really fail to grit the roads ahead of Newcastle's meeting with Charlton because fans were seen wandering around bare-chested as usual, and hence officials decided it "cannae be proper cold"? Did Mark Hughes, in a spirit of festive generosity towards the beleaguered Mick McCarthy, really remove a fuse from Blackburn's undersoil heating system so Sunderland's fans need not watch a fifth away defeat on the bounce?

No. The simpler truth is that when the weather in Britain becomes slightly colder than expected, chaos ensues. The pitch-warming systems at Bolton and Blackburn failed, and investigations are under way to ascertain why. Newcastle's pitch was playable, but their game was called off at 7.20pm because the roads surrounding the ground were icy and dangerous.

A council spokesman said last night that an unexpected heavy snowfall after 4.30pm led to slow traffic in the city, which in turn meant that "the salt was not worked into the road, resulting in icy driving conditions". It was those conditions, in the vicinity of St James' Park, that led to the game being called off. Newcastle said that the postponement cost them £100,000 and the decision, which was made after consultation between the club's safety officer and police, "was not taken lightly and it was done with the best intentions for all concerned".

After Bolton's game was called off, Sir Alex Ferguson jokingly suggested that the postponement was a ruse to keep Allardyce's players fresh ahead of their trip to Old Trafford tomorrow. Allardyce responded to the tongue-in-cheek remark by saying: "At our best we are capable of beating Middlesbrough here at the Reebok Stadium but our best is still not good enough to beat Manchester United. So it's much more important to have played Middlesbrough and gone for those three points - especially with the injuries Boro have - than it was to get rested for Manchester United."

Allardyce added that Bolton would do everything they could to get their heating fixed ahead of Liverpool's visit on 2 January. "We cannot afford to have any more games postponed," he said, alluding to the fact that he will lose a handful of players to the Africa Cup of Nations in the new year and does not want rescheduled games jammed into a demanding programme.

Outside the Premiership, the postponement that caused the most controversy was Plymouth's decision to cancel their game with Preston two hours before kick-off. Preston's manager, Billy Davies, said that Plymouth's handling of the situation was "shambolic". He said: "We never had an official communication from anybody at Plymouth to tell us that it was under threat."

Referee Iain Williamson called off the match after a 5.30pm inspection. The Preston chairman Derek Shaw said yesterday that he would try to claim about £10,000 from Plymouth for the cost of chartering a plane for his squad to the game. "In circumstances like this we can ask the home team to pay something towards our travel costs and hotel," Shaw said.

Amid all the recriminations, the sports minister, Richard Caborn, said that he would ask the Football Association and Premier League to review the rules surrounding match postponements. "They need to take into consideration how far people are travelling, and the likely weather conditions, to stop this unacceptable situation happening again," he said.

The football authorities sought to justify the wider issue of a packed Christmas fixture list saying it was an inevitable consequence of giving Sven Goran Eriksson a four-week build-up ahead of next year's World Cup finals in Germany.