Flashback - FA Cup: When the ‘Great Freeze’ caused chaos

Frozen: Leeds United get out the heavy machinery in an effort to break the ice!
Frozen: Leeds United get out the heavy machinery in an effort to break the ice!
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TO those FA Cup traditionalists who view 3pm kick-offs on a Saturday as sacrosanct, this year’s third round being stretched across four days is a cause for regret.

As ever, the demands of TV, with seven ties set to be broadcast live from tomorrow through to Monday night, are behind the elongated schedule but that does not lessen the sense that one of the highlights in the football calendar deserves better.

Spare a thought, therefore, for those Cup devotees who lived through the most chaotic third round in the history of the world’s oldest knockout competition.

Fifty-five years ago this week, Britain was enduring the ‘Great Freeze’. Snow began falling shortly before Christmas and the weather barely let up again until the start of March.

The Cup, then as now played on the first weekend of the new year, became a high-profile victim of the coldest winter to visit these shores since 1740.

Frost, snow, ice, rain, flooding and even power cuts conspired to drag proceedings out to a colossal 66 days with Middlesbrough the last club to book their place in the fourth round.

Snow clearing at Bramall Lane, February 1963.

Snow clearing at Bramall Lane, February 1963.

Along the way, there were 261 postponements, a host of wasted trips and umpteen seemingly ingenious schemes to get games on as clubs faced up to the financial cost of the turnstiles remaining closed.

Tar-burners, hot-air pumps and even tarmac laying equipment were utilised in an attempt to beat Mother Nature.

Others such as Halifax Town simply gave up the fight, The Shay being turned into a public ice rink by the commercially savvy directors and locals charged admission.

Half of the 32 third round ties were called off 10 or more times, including many of those involving Yorkshire’s 10 representatives.

Fifty-five years ago this week, Britain was enduring the ‘Great Freeze’. Snow began falling shortly before Christmas and the weather barely let up again until the start of March.

Richard Sutcliffe

Sheffield United suffered the most inconvenience with their home tie against Bolton Wanderers having to be postponed no less than 13 times before finally going ahead on March 6.

But the Blades were far from alone in being thwarted time and time again by the weather, with Sheffield Wednesday, Bradford City, Huddersfield Town and Leeds United all suffering a double digit number of postponements.

Only Barnsley, in fact, got off relatively lightly with their home tie against Everton taking place just 10 days after the original scheduled date of January 5.

Not that the Reds benefited in any way other than financially, via their share of the 30,011 crowd, as the Division One leaders from Merseyside cruised to a 3-0 triumph on a snow-covered Oakwell pitch.

Cyril Williamson.

Cyril Williamson.

To underline the disruption the weather had caused to the Cup, Everton were just the fifth team to reach the fourth round.

It would be more than a month before any of the other nine ties involving Yorkshire clubs were settled, though not for the want of trying.

Leeds, for instance, attempted all manner of ways to get their tie with Stoke City on. Initially, a tractor complete with slow-speed rotary brushes was brought in but this made little difference.

Nor did the ice picks that the club hoped would break up the rock-hard surface, while the search for X73 pellets – which had helped crack the ice covering the pitches at White Hart Lane and Upton Park – also proved fruitless.

“I have been in touch with the manufacturers,” general manager Cyril Williamson told the Yorkshire Post. “But the trouble seems to be a shortage of supplies.”

It was a similar story of frustration elsewhere, Bradford City opting to sweep the snow off the top of the pitch and then bring out the heavy roller.

The reasoning, which even then must have seemed flawed, being that a fully compacted surface might be able to take a stud.

Bradford eventually hosted Newcastle United on March 7, and only then after removing tons of silt and mud that had washed into the Valley Parade enclosure during a long overdue thaw. City’s performance was similarly messy, as Newcastle progressed 6-1.

By then, most of Yorkshire’s third round representatives had learned their fate.

Twenty-four hours earlier, Leeds had beaten a Stoke side minus Stanley Matthews, left out because of the ankle deep mud on the now thawed Elland Road pitch, 3-1.

Sheffield United also went through by an identical scoreline against Bolton Wanderers on the same evening, while the preceding couple of days had seen Huddersfield crash out 5-0 at eventual Cup winners Manchester United along with Hull City, after a replay, at home to Leyton Orient.

The fate of York City and Rotherham United had been sealed by defeats on the road to Southampton and Watford, respectively, the Millers in particular being upset by what was described as being more akin to “a skating rink” than a pitch at Vicarage Road.

Middlesbrough, having drawn at Blackburn Rovers in their own much-delayed tie, had the honour of bringing down the curtain nationally on the longest-running third round of all time on March 11 with a 3-1 victory at Ayresome Park.

Finally, the Cup was ready to move on to the next stage.

Yorkshire involvement, however, did not last much longer with Leeds and the Blades bowing out at the fifth round stage long before the daffodils had started to bloom.