We may be embarking upon the first official winter break in English history, but it pales in comparison to the Big Freeze of 1962/63, when the appalling conditions put paid to virtually any football in England for two months. We retell that story here, with a particular focus of course on Chelsea, whose promotion push from the old Second Division was temporarily derailed by the snow…
It started in the week leading up to Christmas 1962. Snowfall and freezing fog caused 26 Football League games to be postponed or abandoned on 22 December. By Boxing Day, much of England was covered in 10 inches of snow. The weather’s vice-like grip on the country would not loosen until March.
Remarkably Chelsea’s game at Luton on December 26 went ahead, on what The Times described as a surface ‘more suitable for skating than football’. Tommy Docherty’s emerging young side won 2-0, moving six points clear at the top of the Second Division. It was a significant gap when you consider teams were awarded two points for a victory in those days, and the top two teams would be promoted.
What followed was the worst winter of the 20th century. A huge anticyclone formed near Iceland, bringing bitter northerly winds south towards the UK. January 1963 remains the coldest month in this country since 1814. Temperatures dropped as low as -20.6 degrees. It was unremittingly cold.
Road and rail transport was severely disrupted, airports closed and parts of the Thames froze over. The price of fresh foods increased 30 per cent, millions of milk bottles disappeared, and in plenty of areas the mains water supply froze. The Blitz spirit had to be channelled as strict rationing returned.
The first Saturday of January 1963 was FA Cup third round day. Just three of the scheduled 32 ties went ahead, including ours at Tranmere – parts of the North-West had got off relatively lightly. A 2-2 draw at Prenton Park meant a replay back in London.
Road burners normally used to melt tarmac were brought to Stamford Bridge (pictured top) in a desperate attempt to thaw the pitch for the replay, but to no avail. Five postponements followed before we eventually got the better of our Merseyside opponents on 30 January.
We got off lightly. The third round tie between Lincoln and Coventry was postponed 15 times, while Birmingham v Bury, Sheffield United v Bolton and Walsall v Manchester City were called off 14 times. The round stumbled to a conclusion on 11 March, more than two months late, with the final put back three weeks to late May.
Things were little better in the league. By the beginning of February nearly 300 games across the Football League had been lost to the weather. London and southern areas were particularly badly affected.
Between the Tranmere ties, Docherty decided to take his players abroad for some warm-weather training and a couple of friendlies. Malta was the chosen destination, with average temperatures a balmy 17 degrees.
‘It turned out to be a mixed trip because we lost Ken Shellito to injury,' remembers Docherty.
'We did what we thought was right at the time, but we lost potentially the best right-back in the game for a while, so we can't say it was a success.'
The flying full-back's temporary loss did unbalance the team, and was one reason for a subsequent drop in form. Striker Barry Bridges considered some other causes.
'We went out to Malta, and what happened was that although we were there to train, we did have a good time. We lost five games in a row when we came back and we were really struggling. Was it the weather? Was it because we just switched off? I don't know.'
Bobby Tambling, Bridges’ partner up front and a scorer of 35 league goals that season, believes the run of away games caused by so many postponements at Stamford Bridge significantly contributed to our stutter.
In February 1963 in London, it snowed on 20 of the first 23 days. The only league fixtures we mustered that month were in Wales, defeats at Swansea and Cardiff. Then, on 2 March, Stamford Bridge was finally deemed fit to host its first league game since December 15. Huddersfield won 2-1, and fears of an implosion only increased with successive losses in the North-East at Middlesbrough and Newcastle.
A 3-1 success against promotion rivals Derby steadied the ship, and although Chelsea never hit the heights of the first half of the season, we eventually squeezed over the line in second place. Just goal average separated us and Sunderland, who we beat 1-0 in our final away fixture. That so many home games postponed during the Big Freeze were rescheduled for the run-in certainly helped our cause.
'We were sailing home before Christmas, but after Boxing Day we were absolutely useless, it was like we were a completely different team,' Bobby Tambling remembered.
The record books show the personnel barely changed before and after the weather-induced disruption, but one thing is certain: the positive momentum built up ground to a halt just like the country did. A young team lost its rhythm, and the desperate nature of the recovering pitches were not conducive to the passing football Docherty encouraged his team to play.
'Personally, I think it was because we were a very young side, probably a bit too young, but when you look back it was probably the best thing that could have happened to us,’ Bridges recalls.
Chelsea finished an impressive fifth on our return to the First Division, and mounted a genuine title challenge the following campaign with much of the team who had battled through the winter of 1963, and come out stronger for it.