The cold spell which has reduced parts of England to a virtual standstill in the past month has hit a number of sporting fixtures, with the almost inevitable moans from football managers about fixture congestion as postponed matches are crammed into an already tight schedule. However, compared to events in the winter of 1962-63, the last few weeks have been a stroll in the park.
While the media have described the latest cold snap in almost apocalyptic terms, in the early weeks of 1963 things were considerably worse. After a mild start to a winter that would become the coldest in more than 200 years, temperatures started falling in early December. The first cancelled football match was on December 22.
The major snowfall started on Boxing Day and continued daily until December 29. By New Year's Day almost the whole country was under at least six inches of snow, with nightly temperatures well below zero. The cold in January was unrelenting, with bitter winds adding to the misery. Food prices rocketed and power cuts became a regular hazard as fuel ran out. For ten weeks the UK remained in the grip of freezing conditions, with the occasional brief respite not enough to make any significant difference.
With pitches unprotected and most grounds featuring banks of open terraces, the football programme was all but wiped out. The FA Cup third-round tie between Lincoln City and Coventry City was postponed 15 times before Coventry finally won 5-1 on March 7, by which time some fifth-round games were being played. Cup runs and league backlogs meant that in 79 post-thaw days, Coventry played 25 matches. Barnsley only managed two games between December 21 and March 12, 1963.
On two Saturdays only four Football League matches survived. The worst was on February 9 when 57 fixtures fell either side of the border and only seven were played.
In all, over 400 matches were postponed in England and Scotland. This led to the establishment of the Pools Panel to ensure there was something for people to wage a few shillings on even if there was little real action. It first sat on January 26 and some newspapers used the predictions to write imaginary match reports to fill their pages. One (presumably apocryphal) tale was that of a player who asked his manager for a win bonus on the strength of the panel's verdict, only to be told he had been dropped for the match.
The wealthier clubs made different arrangements. Chelsea flew to Malta to play a friendly and ended up staying for a week. Manchester United headed to Dublin where they played Coventry in front of 20,000.
The less well-off improvised, with mixed results. Norwich City tried to melt the snow with flame throwers; it worked, but they ended up flooding Carrow Road. At Halifax Town, The Shay, also flooded after a thaw only for it to freeze again days later, was opened up as an ice rink and admission charged. Most clubs soon realised clearing the snow merely allowed the frost to penetrate deeper into the ground.
Horse racing was also badly hit. In all, 110 days were lost and no races took place between January 5 and March 8, the schedule only resuming six days before the Cheltenham Gold Cup. "We tried to keep the horses going by taking a four-wheel drive round a field to make a track of sorts," jockey Stan Mellor said. "But once the weather set in it was hopeless." Many of the more remote stables were completely cut off for weeks.
The jockeys, who relied on rides for income, were left broke, but that was not their only difficulty. "The problem was that I put on a lot of weight," recalled Terry Biddlecombe. "I went from 10 stone to 12 stone over the weeks."
Rugby League also ground to a halt. Leeds did not play between December 1 and April 3, but in the two months which followed they had 18 matches.
Rugby Union, which was entirely amateur, stopped apart from a few areas in the south west, although the Five Nations struggled through in dreadful conditions. England travelled to Cardiff to play Wales and were forced to train on Porthcawl Beach, the only snow-free place available to them. The match itself survived only thanks to hundreds of volunteers who covered the pitch with straw, while later dozens of braziers were lit to try to warm the frozen pitch. Minutes before the start Irish referee Kevin Kelleher wanted to call the game off, but faced with 55,000 spectators baying for action, he was persuaded otherwise.
"The match shouldn't have been played," Peter Jackson, the England wing, told the Independent a few years later. "A bright day was forecast and they assumed a couple of hours of sunshine would make all the difference. The biggest problem was the change in surface. One second you would be running on a part of the pitch which had been near or under a brazier and the next you'd be on the rock-hard stuff. Players were slipping and sliding all over the place." Clive Rowland, Wales captain, remembered: "it was so hard the players sounded like a herd of cattle coming towards you... it was awful underfoot, someone could have been seriously injured."
To make matters worse for the locals, England won 13-6, their last win in Wales for 28 years. Both teams returned to their dressing rooms to find the pipes had burst and they had to decamp to the local swimming baths to shower.
It was not until March 5 that the country had a night without frost, although by then the south was well into a thaw. Gradually life returned to normal although the football season was extended to the end of May, almost unknown at the time and three weeks later than the previous year, with the two legs of the League Cup final being played either side of the FA Cup final.