Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Don't blame it on the Weatherman!

There were farcical scenes last week when England’s World Cup qualifier against Poland was postponed due to torrential rain in Warsaw. Officials ignored the weather forecasts and refused to close the retractable roof on the £400million state-of-the-art National Stadium, which had been upgraded significantly prior to the UEFA European Championships last Summer, which were co-hosted by Poland and the Ukraine.

The deluge of rain that followed left the playing surface under pools of water and ultimately unplayable. However it wasn’t until 45 minutes after the scheduled kick-off time before the players, the fans in the stadium and the millions watching on television at home were officially informed of the postponement of England’s World Cup qualifier against Poland.

A Polish fan runs onto the flooded Warsaw pitch, as a steward goes flying!

Matches have been postponed for every imaginable reason - and a few unimaginable ones - but by far the main reason is the weather. So I decided to take a look back in time at past matches where the weather has intervened and forced the postponement of games.

The referee has sole responsibility for judging if a pitch is playable - in particular if it is safe for the participants to play on - though with modern undersoil heating it's not always because the pitch is frozen and unplayable that forces the postponement. Unsafe terraces/stands or approaches to the ground will also force a postponement, the police and local authority also having responsibility in these areas.

High winds occasionally force a match to be called off. Unusual, but a recent example was the Tranmere v Rochdale fixture that should have been played on Boxing Day 2011, but was called off after high winds damaged the Prenton Park stadium roof causing public safety concerns.

On 28th December 2010 and 1st Jan 2011 Sheffield Wednesday were due to play Yeovil and Peterborough respectively. However Sheffield City Council deemed that both matches could not take place because of frozen and burst pipes which served the toilets and refreshment kiosks. The Safety Advisory Group, chaired by Sheffield City Council recommended no spectators be admitted until all repairs were carried out, and the club's maintenance team was unable to carry out these repairs in the sub-zero temperatures, as further bursts were anticipated when the thaw began.

Carlisle United’s Brunton Park is a League ground prone to flooding from a nearby river, and the consequences are severe for the clubs affected by such flooding. Its not just a case of letting the ground dry but specialist cleaning is needed because of the amount of sludge left behind which is usually contaminated with raw sewage. During the floods of 2005 'Billy the fish' was spotted and rescued from the goalmouth at the Warwick Road End of Brunton Park, just as huge industrial pumps were about to be switched on to start clearing the water off the pitch. He was as deemed a lucky mascot as he had overseen the club’s rise from the Conference to League One in a five year period. Billy died in 2010.

'Billy the fish' with Emma Story at Brunton Park, after the floods of Jan 2005

The most bizarre postponement although not weather related goes to the Torquay v Portsmouth Worthington Cup First Round fixture which was due to be played at Plainmoor on Wednesday 11th August 1999. It was the date of a total eclipse of the sun which was visible in the Torquay area, the first in Britain since 1927. Despite the fact that the date and location of the eclipse was probably known about for hundreds of years the local police left it until shortly before the match to request a postponement. They decided that they didn't have the manpower to police both the match and the influx of visitors expected in the area to witness the eclipse. They couldn't put off the eclipse so a postponement of the match it was! The fixture was eventually played on Tuesday 17th August 1999.

On 21st November 1979 England were due to host Bulgaria in a European Championship qualifier at Wembley, but the match was postponed on the evening of the match due to heavy fog. It was played 24 hours later and England won 2-0, with goals by Dave Watson and Glenn Hoddle.

The British record for postponements of a single fixture, not surprisingly, is for a match in the 'Arctic' north of the country. The Scottish Cup 2nd Round tie between Inverness Thistle and Falkirk was scheduled to be played on the 6th January 1979. However after 29 postponements it was finally played on the 22nd February 1979, with Falkirk winning 4-0 at the 30th attempt to stage the match. Three days later Falkirk lost 1-0 at Dundee in the first attempt to stage the Third Round tie!

Again not weather related, another bizarre situation causing the postponement of not one but three matches came about at Anfield, when a Victorian sewer under Anfield's Kop end collapsed. Liverpool had to play their first three Division One matches of the 1987/88 season all away from home, while repairs were made. It delayed the home debut of one of Liverpool's legendary players - John Barnes - who eventually made a scoring home debut in a 2-0 win against Oxford United on Saturday 12th September 1987.

John Barnes making his 'delayed' debut for Liverpool against Oxford Utd in 1987

Some fixtures are jinxed. The Division One match between Spurs and eventual champions Everton at White Hart Lane in 1969/70 was one of them. The match was originally scheduled for Saturday 29th November 1969, but a heavy fall of snow just before kick-off time forced a postponement. The re-scheduled date was Wednesday 17th December and although the match started it only lasted 30 minutes, before being abandoned when a fault at a sub-station caused floodlight failure. Wednesday 7th January 1970 was the next date pencilled in for the fixture, but that one didn't happen either when Spurs had to play an FA Cup replay that same evening. The game was finally played on Wednesday 11th March after a near three month wait, and three different match programmes having been printed.

By far the worst winter to affect football was in the 1962/63 season when a 'big freeze' decimated football in this country for three months with hundreds of matches being called off or abandoned. Only three FA Cup third round ties were played on the scheduled date, the 5th January 1963, with the last tie in that round being played on 11th March. The Lincoln v Coventry tie was called off 15 times and fourteen of the other ties suffered ten or more postponements! From 8th December, when they beat Spurs 1-0, to 16th February when they lost 3-2 at Arsenal, Bolton Wanderers did not play a single competitive match.

Various ideas were tried to beat the big freeze, however, even if a pitch was made playable the terraces and surrounds to the ground were often left treacherous, forcing a postponement. It wasn't until 16th March - nearly three months after the big freeze started - when a complete programme of football was played again. The season was eventually extended to the end of May.

The 1946/47 season - the first post-war League season - was another decimated by a bitter winter. Well over one hundred League matches were postponed and it wasn't until mid-June, seven weeks after the Cup Final was played, that the season finally came to an end. With no floodlights re-arranged matches were played on midweek afternoons, but with coal stocks low and industry almost at a standstill the Government wanted to stop midweek football, to prevent absenteeism from work by the supporters.

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