Tom Wright details the history of floodlight fixtures, which dates back to as far as 1878.
In a recent historical article, the Hibernian Historical Trust covered the development of the Easter Road ground throughout the years. One major development was the introduction of floodlights in the 1950s that was to have such a vital role to play in the advancement of the game.
Floodlights were not new phenomena, but it was the modern introduction of the medium that was to play such a crucial part, particularly in the growth of European competition, a part accurately predicted by the Hibs chairman Harry Swan.
The world’s first floodlit football game took place between two Sheffield representative sides at Bramall Lane on 14th October 1878. It was estimated that over 14,000 had paid to see the game, an attendance several times more than had attended that years FA Cup Final.
Unfortunately, the organisers had made the mistake of failing to light the approaches to the ground and it is thought that around 6,000 more were able to gain free admission to the ground under the cover of darkness. However, the experiment was generally considered to have been a great success and before long several other games would take place under artificial light.
Just a few weeks later on 11th November that same year, Hibs became one of the first clubs in the country to play under lights in a game against an Edinburgh Select at their then home ground Powderhall. Played during a blizzard of snow and watched by just a few hundred hardy souls the experiment was a dismal failure when one light failed, with the others producing light insufficient to illuminate the proceedings, the game finishing in relative darkness.
Other clubs would experiment with the medium over the next few years including Celtic who played a game at Parkhead in 1893 with lights strung along wire high above the Parkhead pitch, but generally the lighting of games was met with a lukewarm response and it would be almost 70 years before the subject would seriously raise its head again.
Hibs themselves had first encountered the medium in modern times in a game against the Swiss side Berne during the clubs close season tour of Germany, Austria and Switzerland in 1950. Neither the directors nor the players had been notified beforehand that part of the game was to be played under lights, the chairman later admitting a sense of annoyance at the fact, but it was only as the night grew darker and the lights brighter that the astute Harry Swan realised the enormous potential for floodlit football and he vowed there and then that if Hibs were ever to install their own lights that they would be the best in the country.
In what was Scotland’s first ever floodlight game in recent times, on 7th November 1951 the reigning league champions Hibernian took part in a friendly against Stenhousemuir at Ochilview. Under lights normally used only for training with several more installed behind each goal, the visitors would win the game 5-3 with goals from Mulkerrin (2), Johnstone, Souness and Turnbull. To make it easier for the fans to follow the play, the normal brown leather ball had been painted white, the match officials wearing luminescent kit to make them more visible, but even then the spectators often failed to make out the action taking place in the murky gloom.
The first professional side in Britain to install floodlights was the Southern League side Headington United (later Oxford United) with a game against Banbury Spencer in December 1950. The first league side was Swindon Town against Bristol City in April 1951. Others including Arsenal, Doncaster Rovers and Leeds United would soon follow, the latter pair inaugurating their lights with games against Hibs.
Contrary to popular belief, Hibs were not the first Scottish side to install lights, but the fifth. The game against Stenhousemuir had alerted other enterprising clubs to the advantages of playing under light and by the end of 1953 Rangers, Kilmarnock and Falkirk had installed their own systems, all mounted along roofs of their stands, and later East Fife whose lights had been situated on low columns placed at each corner of the ground.
Plans to introduce floodlights at Easter Road had been announced at the beginning of the 1954/55 season and the supporters attending the friendly against the Czechoslovakian side Sparta Praha at the beginning of September would have been fascinated at the sight of the four 100 foot high latticed steel pylons, one in each corner of the ground which as yet were still lacking the platform of lights.
The Hibs directors had travelled extensively seeking advice on various lighting systems determined that the club would have nothing but the best, and after careful deliberation the contract for floodlights or ‘Drenchlighting’ as the manufacturers had labelled them had been awarded to the well known Edinburgh firm Miller and Stables. The ambitious project took six weeks to complete and when finished the lights were said to be the brightest in the country, with Hibs generally accepted as pioneers of ‘real floodlights.’
On 18th October 1954 an important milestone in the history of the club took place with the official opening of the new lights in a challenge game against local rivals Hearts. Although bad weather had kept the crowd down to around 18,000, far fewer than the 42,000 that had attended a league game between the sides a few weeks earlier, it was obvious even then that the lighting of games was to have a huge impact on the future of the game. Not only would it now make it far easier to arrange fixtures, but it would potentially also attract much larger audiences that had previously attended midweek afternoon games.
Easter Road Stadium in the 1950s, with the floodlights at each corner of the pitch
The first recognised floodlit games in Scotland in modern times took place in October 1953 when Falkirk faced Newcastle United in a challenge match at Brockville and Kilmarnock played Manchester United at Rugby Park. A few weeks later Rangers would inaugurate their own lights with a game against Arsenal.
According to press reports, the first league games in this country to take place under artificial light were said to be the Rangers versus Hibernian fixture at Ibrox and the Kilmarnock game against Falkirk, both on 3rd November 1956 when the lights were turned on 15 minutes before the end. That honour however had already fallen to Hibs in a 4-1 victory against Queen of the South in a league game under the Easter Road lights on 21st March that same year.
In 1955 an attempt by Hibs, Hearts, Partick Thistle, Manchester City, Newcastle and Spurs to set up a Floodlit League that would feature only games between the respective countries would eventually come to nothing after opposition by the Scottish and English authorities.
Some games would go ahead under the guise of ‘unofficial Floodlit friendlies’ but after both Manchester City and Spurs later claimed to find the proposed dates for the games inconvenient, the matter was at an end. Even years later, the Hibs Chairman Harry Swan would still confess bewilderment at the resistance of the football authorities to the ambitious venture that he felt would have been of great benefit to clubs on both sides of the border.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there had also been an initial reluctance by many Scottish clubs to install floodlights, Aberdeen refusing to play Hibs under the Easter Road lights as late as 1958 claiming that it gave the home side an unfair advantage.
The Tynecastle lights were officially opened with a game against Hibs in 1957, and Celtic notoriously slow to accept many progressions in the games did not install their own system until 1959. Hampden lit up as late as 1961 and the last club in Britain, with the exception of any new members who have joined the leagues since, was Stranraer in 1981.
Written by Tom Wright