Throwback weekend reflects badly on modern day practices

Phil Shaw recalls the winter of 1963, when football went into hibernation
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The Independent Online
At the risk of coming on like one of those baby-boomers who insist everything was better in the 1960s (which, of course, it was), it must be said that all the either/ors of last night's draw for the fifth round of the FA Cup were clarity itself compared with its equivalent of 33 years ago.

Ah, 1963. Now that was a winter, when snow cleared to the side of the road at the turn of the year was still there in blackening piles in mid- March. To some it evokes memories of four lovable moptops banishing the Brylcreem Boys, or images of an American president who would not see another January. For football fans, it was it was a time to go into hibernation.

Snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures made it England's white, unpleasant land. There were mutterings about the weather having come from Siberia - some things do not change - which in those days of the Cold War carried sinister conotations. It was as if the Russians had sent over this cold front, like some sort of germ warfare, to undermine the British way of life.

For the millions intent on watching the national winter game, it did exactly that. More than 400 League and Cup games were postponed or abandoned in England alone. On two Saturdays during that spell, only four Football League matches survived.

On 9 February, 57 first-class fixtures fell on either side of the border, leaving seven on, a wipe-out that had not been rivalled until Saturday. (Though it was not the worst ever. On 3 February 1940, 55 of the 56 Wartime League games were called off, even if Plymouth's 10-3 victory over Bristol City in the one that went ahead did compensate somewhat.)

But back to 1962/63. The wealthier clubs took their players abroad for a few days, provided they could find an airport that wasn't cut off. Jimmy Hill took Coventry, then of the old Third Division, to play friendlies in the Republic of Ireland.

Newspapers exhausted the potential for shots of managers and referees posing forlornly on snow-covered pitches, or of players building snowmen. The White City, to which QPR had decamped, was a popular location because of its name. By night, the self-respecting groundsman would cover his pitch with straw (aimed at drawing the frost), taking care not to knock over the braziers which burned around him.

Then, as now, the FA Cup was in a mess. One third-round tie, between Coventry and Lincoln, was postponed 15 times before being played two months late, on 7 March. (Again, however, it is not a record, a Scottish Cup tie between Inverness Thistle and Falkirk having been called off 29 times in 1979 before eventually being staged on a Thursday afternoon.)

The same March evening, Bradford City and Newcastle also got it together at last, the match programme showing the date as simply "January 1963". Bradford remain the only club to lose 6-1 at home in the third round yet still figure in the fifth-round draw.

For Lancaster Gate had continued to pluck the numbered balls from a heaving velvet bag as if nothing was amiss. This led to some mind-boggling combinations involving as many as six clubs in one tie.

No change in the FA's sense of PR, then, but am I alone in thinking that the other similarities between last weekend and the Big Freeze of '63 reflect poorly on the British game? It seems incredible, in an age when football is fighting to defend its place in an ever-expanding leisure market, and when a family of four might spend upwards of pounds 60 to watch a game, that undersoil heating is still the preserve of a handful of clubs.

Reading managed to stage their big game using more primitive methods. Leyton Orient were also ready to roll until Scarborough rang pleading something not dissimilar to British Rail's wrong-leaves-on-the-line excuse.

Icy roads in Nottingham and, to a lesser extent, frozen loos at Southampton were beyond the control of the clubs. But surely, in the late 20th century, football owes its long-suffering public a better performance than the '60s throwback it managed on Saturday.

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