FA Cup: The Big Freeze of 1963

Words By Stephen Tudor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 18, 2018
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If you ever get to talking about the cold weather with an old timer and he mentions the ‘Big Freeze’ of 1963 in a you-think-this-is-bad sort of way before complaining that footballers these days are far too soft what with their thermals and gloves here’s your chance to be a real smart alec. Because the old timer will inevitably claim that those remarkably frigid few months of his youth – when blizzards swept snow twenty feet high in places and a car drove all the way across the frozen Thames for a stunt – was the coldest on record.

In actual fact December, January, and February of 1683-84 was marginally chillier.

It began – the post-war meteorological mayhem, not the smart-alecy Elizabethan one – with an anticyclone over Scandinavia that drew cold air from central Russia and deposited it down to unsuspecting Blighty. This in itself would have prompted little more than scarf sales to sharply rise were it not accompanied by an unusual – almost unique in fact – combination of sustained wind flows from the east then north that prevented the wet and mild Atlantic air getting a look in. This brought snow, lots and lots and lots of snow that began to fall heavily on Christmas Day and not the type that turns to slush within a few hours; the type that freezes solid leaving our sacred little isle resembling the planet of Hoth. There are numerous examples to offer up to illustrate just how bad things got in the time when Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister, Dr Who first appeared on grainy screens, and the Beatles were all set to release their debut album but perhaps nothing better explains the wintery extremities than this – the sea, all around us, from John O’Groats to Land’s End, was glacial ice for a mile out.

This naturally had a profound effect on our sporting activities despite the stoic attempts of many. At Stamford Bridge a tar burner was employed in order that Chelsea could fulfil their fixture obligations over the festive period, while a local builder on the board at Brighton allowed his tarmac-laying machinery to be utilised at the Goldstone Ground. If both methods were ultimately unsuccessful the latter proved to be disastrous as it destroyed the pitch, an eventuality that was later blamed for the Seagulls getting relegated that May. Elsewhere, there are images aplenty online of tractors furrowing snow across centre-circles and players clouded by mad flurries – with not a glove to be seen – and spectators standing atop steep moulds of compacted black ice. All make you feel vicariously proud and patriotic so long as you ignore the unnerving thought that Nigel Farage might have one as a screensaver.

Football too ground to a standstill, with clubs that could afford to sending their teams to Ireland or further afield to participate in friendlies while the hard-up clubs sought other ways to deal with the plummeting climes such as Halifax’s opening up of the Shay as a public ice rink.

Yet it just kept on coming – the snow and ice and arctic wind that cut right through and throbbed the joints – until by the time Big Ben b-b-bonged in 1963 nature’s wanton showing off had defeated the best efforts of man. Rugby cards were cancelled while horse racing effectively ceased to exist for three months as a total of 94 race meetings were called off. Football too ground to a standstill, with clubs that could afford to sending their teams to Ireland or further afield to participate in friendlies while the hard-up clubs sought other ways to deal with the plummeting climes such as Halifax’s opening up of the Shay as a public ice rink.

By early January the big freeze had numbed Britain to a state of national emergency with temperatures plunging to minus 20 and entire towns and villages cut off for weeks at a time. It took lives and caused untold misery and, on a much more frivolous level, it deprived the country of two institutions that we hold most dear as housewives were reduced to drinking their cup of tea black (it would have taken a foolhardy milkman to brave such elements) while the FA Cup third round was thrown into complete chaos.
The postponements are legendary but bear repeating here. Lincoln City v Coventry City was postponed fifteen times before eventually getting underway on March 6th.

Birmingham v Bury was postponed on fourteen occasions with a fifteenth attempt abandoned early on. When the fixture finally took place to a conclusion it ended in a draw necessitating a replay. In Scotland a cup game involving Stranraer v Airdrie was put back 33 times.

Week after week this persisted with 261 postponements all told and a cup final that eventually took place three weeks after the domestic league season had finished. But if the Big Freeze of ’63 decimated a much cherished date on the football calendar it also, by default, introduced a ritual that would later come to be loved in itself because when the pools companies began to panic at their loss of revenue some bright spark came up with the pools panel.

In February 1963 four ex professionals whose names are enshrined in legend even today (Sir Tom Finney, Tommy Lawton, George Young, and Ted Drake) along with a former referee called Arthur Ellis all convened at the Connaught Rooms in Covent Garden to debate the imagined score-lines of fixtures that could not be fulfilled. Presiding over proceedings – bizarrely but also brilliantly – to ensure fairness and solemnity was prevalent throughout was the Battle of Britain hero Sir Douglas Bader.

By March a thaw set in. It still required two feet of ice to be drilled from the Sincil Bank pitch for Coventry to prevail to the fourth round, but at least now the surfaces were bone-hard and dangerous rather than simply unplayable. Only now of course came the small matter of dealing with the enormous backlog of games that had built up and Coventry’s 25 games in 79 days was no more or less taxing than the onerous demands placed on others as a football-starved public packed out grounds nationwide.

On the 25th of May 1963 at Wembley Stadium a late David Herd goal ensured that Manchester United lifted their third FA Cup. Really though, all things considered and taking nothing away from that achievement, every player involved in the tournament that year, along with every fan, deserved a medal to call their own.

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