The longest FA Cup third round ever: 66 days, 261 postponements and 15-foot snowdrifts

Fifty-four years on from a third round blighted by extreme weather, Paul Simpson relives the Arctic anarchy. Brrrrr!

It took 66 days to complete the third round of the FA Cup in 1962/63. The chaos, hardship and forlorn hopes that afflicted British football in the coldest winter since 1740 are captured in the stamp on the cover of Sheffield United’s third-round tie against Bolton Wanderers, due to take place on January 5 1963, which read: “After many postponements due to unprecedented winter conditions, match finally played 20th February 1963, kick-off 7.15pm (or so we thought until one hour beforehand!) AT LAST! 6th March 1963, kick-off 7.15pm.”

That heartfelt, triumphant 'AT LAST!' was very nearly the final word on the longest round in the cup’s history. The third round suffered 261 postponements (Lincoln City vs Coventry City was called off 15 times) as 15-foot snowdrifts, gale force winds, freezing fog, three months of frost, and temperatures sinking as low as -20.6C, made it nigh-on impossible to play football. A round that started on January 5 – when just three matches were played – finally staggered to a conclusion when Middlesbrough beat Blackburn Rovers 3-1 at Ayresome Park on March 11.

With no matches to inspire millions of punters to guesstimate score-draws, the bankruptcy-fearing pools companies created the Pools Panel

During this round, the FA became so alarmed by the freeze’s financial repercussions – Blackpool, for example, didn’t play a home game between December 15 and March 2 – it offered clubs interest-free loans. The clubs weren’t the only ones feeling the pinch.

With no matches to inspire millions of punters to guesstimate score-draws, the bankruptcy-fearing pools companies created the Pools Panel, a thoroughly British institution that first met on January 26 1963 at London’s Connaught Rooms to invent the day’s football results (but not, bizarrely, the scores).

"If we don't pick any score-draws, does that mean no one wins?"

The first panel was chaired by Lord Brabazon, a peer who knew a lot about aircraft and golf. He was assisted by such retired players as Ted Drake, Tom Finney, Tommy Lawton and George Young, former referee – and future doyen of It’s A Knockout – Arthur Ellis and a Tory MP called Gerald Nabarro, better known for his handlebar moustache and private licence plate (NAB1) than sporting knowledge.

After the panel had forecast its first results (23 home wins, seven draws and eight away wins), an inebriated sportswriter shouted at Nabarro: “How the f*** could you say Port Vale would beat Northampton? You wouldn’t know a football if it hit you in the f***king face.” Unfazed, Nabarro said: “Sir, you are drunk, and even if you were sober you would get the same answer: ‘No comment’. And you can quote me on that.”

By the time the FA had contrived to create some semblance of order out of climactic chaos, the season had to be extended which meant that the FA Cup final would kick off, three weeks later than planned, on May 25 1963.

Only three out of 29 ties were played

The snow kept falling, the frost never loosened its grip and the ice on the Thames became so thick that a car rally was held on it

The weather had started to turn in December. Freezing fog had forced 18 Football League matches to be called off – and eight abandoned on December 22 1962. Four days later, most of England was covered in 14 inches of snow. The snow kept falling, the frost never loosened its grip and the ice on the Thames became so thick that a car rally was held on it. January 1963 would go down as the coldest month of 20th century Britain.

Much of England was under a blanket of snow, the price of fresh food soared by 30 per cent, and in many areas the mains water supply froze. The English game wasn’t really ready for such a drastic, sudden crisis.

Some football clubs still didn’t have floodlights, so the FA urged clubs to play in the afternoon to avoid power cuts. Only a few grounds (Goodison Park among them) had undersoil heating. And the science of groundsmanship was still in its infancy.

So on January 5, only three FA Cup third-round ties actually took place: in the north-west, Preston lost 4-1 at home to Sunderland and Tranmere drew 2-2 with Chelsea. In the south-west, Plymouth were beaten 5-1 by West Brom.

Not the greatest of cycling conditions, really

The other 29 were postponed. With only Sunderland and West Brom definitely through to the fourth round, 62 clubs entered what The Times dryly described as “one of the most unusual draws in the history of the competition” at the FA’s Lancaster Gate headquarters, complaining “There are so many alternatives that the whole business for the moment resembles a nest of Chinese boxes one inside the other”.

On the pitch, the highlight of what should have been a busy week of FA Cup third round action was probably Jimmy Armfield and Tony Walters skating over Blackpool’s ice-covered Bloomfield Road pitch for Daily Mirror photographers. The Times hoped such pitches might help a few Davids skate rings around the competition’s Goliaths. Mysteriously, it didn’t.

Realising the freeze wasn’t going to thaw anytime soon – and knowing how hard the lack of gate receipts would hurt their finances – desperate football club directors clubs felt obliged to consider any idea, no matter how ludicrous, to make their ground playable.

"Right, this is going to take ages. Someone fetch the flame-thrower"

Danish snow-shifting tractors, flame-throwers, hot air machines and de-icing pellets were all tried. On January 22, Norwich made what a club spokesman called “a last desperate effort”, treating the pitch with flamethrowers which “served no purpose whatsoever for as fast as the ice melted, it froze again”.

Even when the snow was cleared, the ground was often frozen up to a depth of three feet. Wrexham smothered their Racecourse Ground with more than 80 tons of sand – and were rewarded by being able to play their tie only four days later than planned, losing 3-0 on a beach of a pitch to Bill Shankly’s Liverpool.

Next: One team – dubbed the 'Ice Kings' – somehow thrived...