From big freezes to pandemics to global wars, as an enforced break in the current campaign comes to a close, club historian Rick Glanvill tells the tales from the past when the pause button was pressed on Chelsea’s football…
All around us are signs of Premier League clubs emerging from their hibernation and on the prowl for points in the remaining two-thirds of the 2022/23 campaign. The World Cup is just one of many events to have imposed a pause on elite English football over the decades, but the only one actually planned for.
Most came about spontaneously thanks to circumstances beyond the game’s control, demanding ingenuity and fortitude from clubs, players and supporters. As we shall see, necessity frequently became the mother of invention – and not all of it good.
Even as we ready ourselves to ease back into the old routine there are reminders of another sudden interruption. Of Chelsea’s two fixtures postponed as a result of the Queen’s passing and funeral in September this year, one of them – Fulham away – has a new date while Liverpool at home is yet to be squeezed into the condensed schedule.
To place the recent six-week World Cup break in context, however, it is worth stepping back six decades to England’s worst winter for 200 years, and the longest peacetime pause in a season ever endured by Chelsea Football Club.
The Big Freeze
Over Christmas 1962/63 extreme weather conditions imposed a spontaneous winter break on league football that varied in length according to region and stadium conditions. ‘The winter to end all winters’ – the coldest since official records began in 1841 – blanketed the capital in thick snow from Boxing Day to early March. The national game was snowed to a standstill by the Big Freeze, very nearly icing in-form Division Two leaders Chelsea’s hopes of promotion.
With one newspaper declaring, ‘Now it’s Siberia!’ snowball fights, tobogganing, and snowmen soon lost their charm. Transport was paralysed, villages and towns were cut off for days, dustbins were not collected for three weeks, and food became scarce. Energy supplies became fitful and the neons of Piccadilly Circus dimmed for the first time since the war.
Five hundred matches were postponed and the season extended to fit them all in. In late January a BBC camera panned around the snow-dressed Christmas card scenery at Stamford Bridge. Groundstaff were measuring the snow depth, one stick plunging a foot or more. Also present with their smart Chelsea FC duffel bags were Tommy Docherty and his squad. Like Graham Potter’s men earlier this month, they were about to fly out for warm weather training and friendly matches in balmy Malta.
On 16 February as the freeze continued, a letter was published in the Daily Mirror. ‘From my window at work,’ it read, ‘I can see Fulham and Chelsea football grounds. In between there is a park. It is free from snow or ice and boys are playing football on it. Perhaps Fulham or Chelsea could play here if they can’t get their own pitches fit.’ If only things were that simple.
It was not as if the Blues board were twiddling their thumbs. In January the club had enlisted the help of Coldstream and Grenadier Guards to clear the pitch of snow, then engaged a council road-tar burner to thaw the top soil. The ice melted but in its place was an inch of water which promptly froze again. ‘Now, instead of lumps of rough ice we have sheets of smooth ice,’ observed club secretary John Battersby, before joking: ‘What we want is a fire engine to follow on behind and pump the water off as soon as the ice melts!’
Ted and Tommy pick the winners
Meanwhile, the world of football commerce took more practical steps. Whole livelihoods in the Football Pools industry, which took weekly subs from 14 million gamblers in 1963, were threatened by the lack of matches. For decades, ‘doing the pools’ meant predicting on a paper form whether a fixture would result in a home or away win, score or no-score draw, with points accrued for each result and a variety of prizes for the smart or lucky few.
To maintain this weekly fix, pools companies assembled a group of experts to determine what would have happened on the pitch, with their decisions final and binding. The composition of this innovative ‘Pools Panel’ was not without question. Chelsea were strongly represented in 1955 title-winning manager Ted Drake and brilliant former striker Tommy Lawton, and they were joined by famous international referee Arthur Ellis and the great England forward Tom Finney. No one would be inspecting that quartet’s credentials.
Where the panel appeared more curiously assembled was in the inclusion of World War Two pilot Douglas Bader, Conservative MP Gerald Nabarro, and the 78-year-old First Baron Brabazon of Tara (more of a racing man). Indeed, after the panel’s first conclave at the Connaught Rooms in central London on 26 January 1963, his lordship declared the process ‘a farce’. Yet, remarkably, it has met regularly ever since.
It might have been better had the panel of experts’ predictions replaced real-life results once football resumed on 9 February. Tommy Docherty’s promotion favourites, having won 12 of the 14 league games before the chill, proceeded to lose five in a row by the close of March. Wins alternated with losses but the Blues managed to clamber back to Division One at the first attempt with a famous win at Sunderland and a thumping of Portsmouth at home in the closing games.
Sometimes a spark of imagination can backfire, however. Wintry conditions in January 1985 brought a plethora of postponements. This time, chairman Ken Bates attempted to make an ice-bound surface playable for a lucrative League Cup quarter-final against Sheffield Wednesday at the Bridge, live on TV. The club had brought in balloon tents, horticultural matting, bales of straw from Bates’ farm and even seven industrial air heaters. To no avail: a referee’s inspection gave the pitch the thumbs-down.
Yet after two weeks without a game Chelsea were determined to beat the sub-zero freeze and stage the weekend’s only top-flight fixture in London a few days later. So at a cost of £10,000 the same strategy was repeated for the visit of Arsenal. ‘It’s better than sitting on your backside waiting for the thaw to set in,’ the chairman explained. And this time it seemed to work: the derby went ahead and the recently-promoted Blues secured a 1-1 draw watched by just under 35,000 – some of whom had not received the message that the kick-off had been brought forward an hour to 2pm.
Manager John Neal was more concerned by the state of the pitch – which resembled a lunar landscape – and it eventually emerged those pricey hot-air heaters had scorched the grass, which did not grow well again that season.
Football behind closed doors
We are, of course, old hands at this gap-in-the-season lark. In response to the Coronavirus pandemic and government regulations, the Premier League suspended its 2019/20 fixtures from 13 March to 17 June. There was an understandably eerie atmosphere on 8 March 2020 at Stamford Bridge for what proved the last game before the close, against Everton.
‘We are following Public Health England and NHS guidelines,’ a club statement explained, ‘which means that our stadiums are currently open for business as usual. However, in line with those guidelines we have increased our cleaning routines across all of our facilities and strengthened hygiene and sanitisation in public areas. We ask visitors to the stadiums to ensure they wash their hands in any of the public toilets within our facilities upon arrival.’
On the pitch, the first visible alteration was the ending until further notice of the formal pre-match handshake ceremony. Off it, the men’s toilet soap dispensers were, indeed, refreshingly busier than usual. Despite some wearing masks, the hand-dryers were drowned out by acclamation from the stands as Frank Lampard’s side thrashed the Toffees 4-0.
Over the days following, the season seemed certain to stall as the entire Everton squad went into self-isolation and numerous Premier League players, including Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi, tested positive for the virus. Head coach Lampard’s Friday media conference for the following weekend’s trip to Aston Villa was postponed. On 14 March that fate officially extended to the whole of the Premier League football programme, initially for three weeks, then longer, and eventually indefinitely.
Opposite the Bridge, the Butcher’s Hook public house, where Chelsea Football Club was founded, captured the mood of many with its rhetorical question on a pavement board: ‘What will we do without football.’
Chelsea can be proud of its altruistic response to the crisis. The club converted its handy hotels for free use by exhausted NHS workers at local hospitals and the club underwrote the supply of hundreds of thousands of meals to the health service and organisations provisioning the elderly and vulnerable.
Still, ’Next home match’ on the wall outside the ground took on an increasingly optimistic air. Three months after originally billed, nine league fixtures to be fulfilled under ‘Project Restart’ were played as the terrible toll of lives continued. While stringent health and safety measures were observed at training grounds, rival dressing rooms were made distant and five substitutes were allowed, supporter numbers in the stands were restricted and Covid passes were inspected at turnstiles.
Chelsea would win seven of those games, lose two, and on 26 July secure Champions League football for what we hoped would be a unplagued 2020/21 season. Thankfully, matches were mostly fulfilled in that campaign, though the catch was crowds being barred or limited for 17 more months. A restricted attendance of 20,000 was allowed for an eerie FA Cup final where Chelsea lost to Leicester, then 10,000 were welcomed back to the Bridge for a 2-1 revenge victory over the same adversaries in the league.
A happy few of 14,000 were able to attend the famous night in Porto 11 days later when the Blues edged past Manchester City to win the Champions League a second time. Restrictions were fully and finally lifted in August 2021 for the visit of Crystal Palace, and the first full house on the Fulham Road for over a year and a half savoured a 3-0 win.
In a throwback, the Pools Panel (heirs to Bader, Nabarro, Brabazon and co) had produced results over the nine missing matchweeks of 2019/20 for its remaining 250,000. Fifty-seven years on, the past players deciding who would have beaten whom were Ian Callaghan, David Sadler and Tony Green. Despite Anfield and Old Trafford allegiances, the wise heads were only one point out with their predicted Chelsea match outcomes, awarding 65 rather than the actual 66 points earned by the season’s close (They did, though ‘donate’ champions Liverpool eight points more than they eventually earned.).
In fact, the panel convenes whenever a fixture is loosed from its 3pm Saturday mooring, and even renewed its Stamford Bridge connection this year when Derek Johnstone, a striker who made four men’s first-team appearances for the Blues in the mid-Eighties, joined the cast.
Chelsea Women, meanwhile, were awarded the WSL title in June 2020 on points-per-game after the competition was abandoned for the season. Interruptions also meant their 2020/21 FA Cup final against Arsenal was bumped from May, and could not find a slot in the Wembley calendar until 5 December 2021 – 100 years to the day the Football Association had banned women from FA-affiliated pitches.
The old ways
Previous generations handled things quite differently when it came to mass infection and the like. In 1918/19, when Spanish Flu engulfed the globe, the professional game, already stripped down to small regional competitions because of war, merely pressed on. In fact, as explained in this long read, while the population was reduced by up to a third by the fatal infection, football carried on regardless – and Chelsea even won a trophy: the London Victory Cup.
Then there was the small matter of two world wars. The 1914/15 Football League season continued unabated during World War One, but a postponement announced in May 1915 persisted until the first matches of 1919/20.
When the Second World War began on 3 September 1939 three sets of fixtures had already been played (with Chelsea lying mid-table) but the season was swiftly abandoned. Although the FA Cup was staged again just months after peace was restored in 1945, starting with the preliminary rounds, the first Football League fixtures of the post-war era did not arrive until August 1946.
It is also the 70th anniversary of the man-made but unplanned, ‘Great Smog’ of 5-9 December 1952, which caused a shorter but similarly deadly disruption. Industry, coal-burning households and weather conditions produced Britain’s worst-ever pollution incident – what Londoners called a ‘pea-souper’ – claiming an estimated 12,000 lives.
Dense yellow fog meant officials at the Bridge for the Chelsea-Liverpool game could see neither goal from the centre circle and the surface was frozen hard. A minor casualty of the referee’s decision to postpone was 18-year-old midfielder Alan Dicks. One of Ted Drake’s ducklings, the teenager had been told he would make his debut as Bill Dickson and Phil McKnight were both ill, but had to restrain himself for another week.
Similarly, 10 minutes into the second half at sunny Stamford Bridge on Christmas Day 1937 Chelsea were drawing 1-1 at home in an all-London duel with Charlton when a mighty blanket of fog suddenly descended over the field, engulfing first the Addicks’ goalie Sam Bartram then their full backs, along with the Chelsea forwards.
The game was hurriedly abandoned and the players trudged off – all except Bartram. Legend has it that he stayed on guard, staring into the gloom in case George Mills should break through and shoot, for a whole 10 minutes while the other 21 players were in the warmth of the dressing room. Departing supporters tried to tell him the game had been called off – but why would he trust them? – and eventually team-mates who noticed his absence sent out a search party to break the news.
You might also imagine that in February 1952 the respect football showed to Queen Elizabeth’s passing was also extended at the death of her father, King George VI. In those ‘stiff-upper-lip’ days, though, the Football League programme continued as normal, with the concession of players sporting black ribbon armbands. A minute’s silence was observed before every game, however, followed by the national anthem. For many present, this offered the novelty of singing ‘God save the Queen’ for the first time in half a century, since when Victoria was on the throne. The reverse was true in September.
Technology has made pitches playable in all weathers, smog was curtailed by the Clean Air Act of 1956, but pandemics – and World Cup finals – stop for no one.
When a full football programme returned in March 1963 after The Big Freeze, the Daily Telegraph suggested: ‘Take one frying pan (or football pitch), melt a quantity of ice, stir in enough earth, sand and peat to form a liquid paste. Add 22 players, flavour with a referee, simmer for 90 minutes until players are uniformly brown and unrecognisable. Serve chilled to half‑frozen spectators who, after weeks of neglect, have such an appetite for the game that they are unlikely to summon the Maître d’.’
The backlog of postponements meant the big game was on the menu every three days throughout March, April and May 1963, with crowds flocking back. They, like the fans of today, were just delighted to have their beloved football back at last.