Brian Viner: Happy birthday to the lanterns that have lit up football

Tomorrow marks the 125th anniversary of the first time the nation's national sport was illuminated. There is nothing quite as exciting as watching football under floodlights
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The Independent Football

Saturday's winning draw for the England football team does not alter the fact that these are uncomfortable times for the English game. So this seems like an opportune moment to visit the football equivalent of pre-history. Tomorrow, as you are doubtless already aware, is the 125th anniversary of the first football match to take place under floodlights. It was a friendly - or, as my St Andrews University team-mate Araz used to say in his Iranian-accented English, "a lovely".

Araz always asked us to correct his English but nobody could quite bring themselves to put him straight on that one. In fact, friendlies became "lovelies" for all of us, which was conspicuously inappropriate in pre-season matches against some of the harder teams of the East Fife League; among them Auchtermuchty, a name like an expulsion of phlegm, and the more decorously-titled Milton Violet; nicknamed Mental Violence for their loud boasts before a game about the damage they were going to do to the "****ing students".

I digress. The venue for that first floodlit game 125 years ago was Bramall Lane, Sheffield. Generators were installed at both ends, and lights hung from four wooden towers overlooking each corner of the pitch. According to my friend Hunter Davies, nearly 20,000 people turned up to watch history being made, and hopefully a bit of football too.

Hunter has been going to football matches for a long time but I don't think he was one of them. He has, however, written a fine and beautifully illustrated history of football called Boots, Balls and Haircuts (Cassell £20), which records that the experiment was repeated, three weeks later, at a game between Wanderers and Clapham Rovers.

The man from the Illustrated Sport and Country was underwhelmed. "Who wants to play football by artificial light ... day light is quite good enough and long enough." Others soon tried variations on the same theme. In Lancashire in the 1890s, according to Hunter's book, an evening game was played with a spotlight following the ball around, a kind of rudimentary version of Sky's PlayerCam. The ball was painted white but still spectators complained that they couldn't see what was going on. PlayerCam has never lit my fire either, for much the same reason.

Experimentation continued. In 1892 Celtic strung lights 50 feet above the pitch but the ball kept hitting the wires. And one night in December 1920, Dick, Kerr Ladies - the foremost women's team of the day, representing a factory in Preston established by a Mr Dick and a Mr Kerr - played at Deepdale in front of more than 10,000 people, under the glare of two anti-aircraft searchlights for which special permission had to be sought from the Secretary of War, Winston Churchill.

All went well that night in Preston until one of the searchlights was turned directly into the faces of some of the women, temporarily blinding them. So next time it is said of a particular player that he has reacted in front of goal like a rabbit caught in headlights, think of Dick, Kerr Ladies, who at least had a valid excuse.

The boring old Football Association, in the meantime, remained unenthusiastic about floodlighting, and in 1930 banned all clubs from taking part in floodlit games. Floodlighting did not get the blessing of the FA for another 20 years but, of course, was an institution by the mid-Seventies, when I started going regularly to watch football matches.

By the mid-Seventies, indeed, floodlights - in the form of little plastic pylons with a tiny battery-powered bulb - were a must-have Subbuteo accessory. As my old schoolfriend Johnny Cook recalls, however, you couldn't have the floodlights in place and actually play Subbuteo very successfully.

"Every time you wanted to take a corner, you had to move an entire floodlight. In that respect they were almost as useless as the specialist corner-kickers themselves, who were about eight times the size of all the other players and used to kick the ball at the equivalent of 470mph."

The real thing, however, was magical. There was nothing then, and there is nothing now, quite as exciting as turning up to watch a football match under floodlights. Of all the matches I attended at Goodison Park in the Seventies, the floodlit ones are the ones I remember most keenly - hammering Finn Harps and losing to Dukla Prague in the Uefa Cup, hammering Wimbledon and losing to Nottingham Forest in the League Cup; occasions memorable for the chill of the night air, the queue at the County Road chippie afterwards, the anxiety about the time of the last bus home but, most of all, for the thrilling, dazzling, luminescent greenness of the pitch.

There was usually school the following day, so a midweek win was always more valuable than a Saturday win, with all those smug Liverpool fans to face the next morning. Even against humble Wimbledon, who were yet to begin their ascent through the divisions, 8-0 was a scoreline to remove the pain from double maths.

Bob Latchford and Martin Dobson both scored hat-tricks under the floodlights that night, I recall. Not that I'm rooted in the past. I just like illuminating it.