Trust Curator Tom Wright reflects on bad weather that has previously affected the Scottish footballing calendar and the installation of under-soil heating at Easter Road Stadium.
The recent severe weather that brought the country to a standstill and decimated the fixture list is nothing new for football, even with the relatively recent advent of under-soil heating that we tend to take for granted, but it is sometimes hard to believe that the system only came into general use in this country less than forty years ago.
From the very beginning of the organised game, many different methods of protecting pitches from the ravages of winter had been tried, including covering the pitch with straw or the use of braziers, but none had proved particularly effective. Bizarrely, in 1971 Leicester City had even paid over £5,000 for a huge plastic tent covering the entire playing area that allowed warm air to be piped underneath, and although innovative, the idea failed to catch on.
The horrendous winter of 1962/63 almost brought football to a complete standstill for nearly three months. Throughout January, February and the early days of March the snow, frost and ice had caused havoc with the entire sporting card, very few games managing to escape the grip of the inclement weather.
Several attempts had been made to play Hibernian’s Scottish Cup tie against Second Division Brechin at Glebe Park and a request for the game to take place at nearby Arbroath presumably because of its location to the salty sea air, was refused by the far seeing SFA.
The game did eventually manage to go ahead however on a pitch liberally covered by a revolutionary new anti-freeze mixture which, or so it was claimed by the manufacturers, would soften the soil enough to allow the proceedings to take place.
According to press reports at the time, the few hardy souls who braved the elements ‘watched 22 players slip and slide’ on what was described as a ‘porridge pitch that was quite clearly unplayable,’ and although Hibs would eventually win the game no more would be heard of the wonder solution.
At a meeting of all 37 Scottish clubs around that time St Johnstone had proposed that starting the following season a 6 week shutdown in mid-season would alleviate the problem, but had been out voted, the consensus of opinion being that the unpredictability of the Scottish weather would make the plan impractical.
In February 1966 a Scottish Cup tie between Hearts and Hibs had been cancelled owing to four inches of snow covering the Tynecastle pitch. Fortunately the game went ahead a few days later after a sudden thaw, but for some time envious eyes had been cast in the direction of Murrayfield where the underground electric blanket that had been installed in 1959 had allowed rugby to proceed regardless of the weather, and many thought it a practice worth considering for football.
Joe McBride clears a ball from a blanket of snow on the Easter Road pitch in 1969
In 1958, Everton had been the first club in the entire country to install an ‘electric blanket’ closely followed by Bolton, Oldham and Manchester City. Arsenal, normally at the forefront of any innovation that would benefit the game, had not installed its own electric blanket at Highbury until 1964.
In Scotland, Dundee United were said to have imported special winter boots that would help on treacherous surfaces. Hibs however, had their own solution to the problem and in the summer of 1980 the Easter Road side became the first Scottish football club to install under-soil heating.
The Swedish system, consisting of over 18 miles of hot water pipes situated nine inches below the surface placed one foot apart, had cost the then not inconsiderable sum of £60,000. With running costs of around £5,000 per year, the ambitious venture would now prevent games at Easter Road from being cancelled due to adverse weather conditions, and with a life expectancy of over 50 years it was anticipated that the system would soon start to pay for itself.
Just a few months later the investment would begin to reap its rewards when the game against Falkirk at Easter Road became one of only two senior games in the entire country to escape the severe winter weather. As well as attracting a larger crowd than could normally have been expected and also a host of interested onlookers from other clubs all keen to see the blanket in operation, Hibs’ 1-0 victory would be the start of a great 13 game run interrupted only by a solitary defeat by St Johnstone that would set the Easter Road side well on the way to the 1980/81 Scottish First Division title.
The following December, Scotland would be hit by its worst weather for many years resulting in the mass cancellation of games throughout the length and breadth of the country. However, while most if not all the other matches had been postponed, Hibs under-soil blanket allowed the games against Partick Thistle and the New Year holiday fixture against Dundee to go ahead as planned.
Hibs’ Boxing Day game against Celtic at Parkhead had also fallen victim to the severe weather and with a free Saturday, Manchester United were invited to play a friendly in Edinburgh. Played in Siberian temperatures and watched by a far bigger crowd than would normally have been expected considering the atrocious conditions, the game ended 1-1, with the United captain Brian Robson unfortunately carried off with a dislocated shoulder after a robust challenge by the uncompromising Erich Schaedler.
While the pitch itself had been in perfect condition, the same could not be said for the as yet uncovered main terracing with reports of several, thankfully minor, injuries due to the icy underfoot conditions. Today however, it is not only the state of the pitch that is taken into account before a game is allowed to go ahead but perhaps sensibly also the condition of the surrounding roads and the travel arrangements of visiting fans.
It was not just the underground conditions that some found unsuitable. Ricky Hill, a promising 19-year-old forward from Bermuda, had been invited to Easter Road for trials. On a frost bound Easter Road pitch, Hill took his place in a reserve friendly against Hearts apparently wearing several T-Shirts under his strip and several pairs of socks.
With the conditions obviously far different to what he had been used to back home, Hill would soon return to Bermuda on the understanding that he would return to Edinburgh when the weather had improved. However, it would be the last we would see of the talented youngster at Easter Road.
In January 1985 several games throughout the country had again been cancelled due to the weather and Hibs took advantage of the underground blanket to play Celtic in a friendly at Easter Road. During the game, Ally Brazil took the opportunity to score his first ever hat-trick in senior football in a surprising, to say the least, 6-3 victory against a side then lying second in the table. Friendly or not, it would have been one of the highlights of Brazil’s career and the players of both sides were delighted to sign the match ball for him after the game.
The unpredictability of the weather however continued to amaze. During Hibs’ game against Dundee at Dens Park in February 2003, a few snowflakes had started to fall just before kick-off but within half an hour the now heavily falling snow had totally obscured the lines leaving the referee with no other option but to abandon the game.
Nowadays, it is a prerequisite for all Scottish Premiership sides to have under-soil heating and it is fairly unusual for top class games to be postponed because of the weather. Fortunately, the recent severe weather is rare and we can all continue with our spectating relatively carefree and untroubled.
Written by Tom Wright