Frozen In Time: The Longest FA Cup Third Round In History

In 1963, the FA Cup third round would take an astonishing 13 weeks before it was completed
06:55, 06 Jan 2022

The winter of 1963 was so harsh that birds froze to branches, the sea became solid and rivers had lumps of ice flowing down stream for weeks on end; what’s more, the football calendar was so badly disrupted that the FA Cup Third Round that season took almost three months to complete.

The first signs of what was to come appeared on Boxing Day 1962 when heavy snow arrived up and down the country and in many places remained until early spring as arctic winds caused huge drifts up to 20 feet deep.

And things got worse before they got better as that January was recognised as the coldest month of the 20th century, with temperatures of -19 degrees Celsius being recorded in several locations and the mercury rarely getting above freezing anywhere in the country.

The country was brought to a standstill as roads became impassable, trains were frozen to rails and planes remained grounded; but for football, and particularly the FA Cup, it was a real problem, so when Middlesbrough finally defeated Blackburn in a replay at Ayresome Park on the 11th March 1963, it brought the curtain down on the most elongated “weekends” in the history of any tournament.

The third round, which had begun on January 5th, would take an astonishing 13 weeks before it was completed and the competition looked like it would never be finished as game-after-game was affected by arctic conditions .

Only three of the ties scheduled to take place that weekend went ahead while the rest, not surprisingly, fell victim to the weather. Lincoln City’s game with Coventry City was postponed no less than 14 times, while in Scotland, a cup tie between Stranraer and Airdrie was called-off on 33 different occasions.

Bolton Wanderers were unable to play a single competitive game from 8th December to 16th February, while over the Pennines in Yorkshire Barnsley only managed two matches between 22nd December and March 12th, even at a time when playing games in harsh winter conditions was very much the norm.

There were a total of 261 postponements with half of the 32 FA Cup ties being postponed an incredible 10 times or more as officials desperately tried to prevent the season running into July, but with no thaw imminent there was little they could do.

While some teams hurriedly arranged friendly games over in Ireland, where the conditions weren’t quite as bad, back home clubs employed a number of crazy methods to try and ensure at least some of the backlog was cleared.

While the players headed for Malta for warm weather training, Tommy Docherty’s Chelsea used tar burners to try and remove the snow and ice from the Stamford Bridge pitch while flamethrowers were even used at Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road Ground.

Such was the disruption to the fixture schedule that 1963 saw the birth of something which would eventually become a staple of the British football season for years to come when the Football Pools Panel, created after three void Saturdays, met for the first time on January 26th and sat for the next four weekends consecutively.

In order to clear the build-up of postponed FA Cup fixtures the authorities even decided that clubs could play ties on neutral grounds wherever possible, though due to the lack of playable pitches anywhere in the country this did little to ease the congestion.

A thaw eventually arrived that March but by now the damage had been done as playing surfaces had been reduced to little more than sandpits or mud baths, leading to some rather entertaining games when the FA Cup finally returned after the enforced hiatus.

Having used the postponements as an opportunity to play a number of high profile friendlies against Manchester United in Dublin, Jimmy Hill’s Coventry City eventually returned home to face a fixture pile up of epic proportions.

Their third Round tie at Lincoln City eventually went ahead at the 15th time of asking and victory ensured they would play five more FA Cup ties, including two replays, in just over a fortnight, with the last just a matter of days before their quarter-final clash with Manchester United.

While the battle for the league title went to the wire with a thrilling three-way battle between Everton, Leicester and Spurs, which eventually saw the championship return to Goodison Park for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, the FA Cup was still somewhat lagging behind.

And on May 26, some three weeks later than usual, Manchester United and Leicester City eventually strode out onto the hallowed Wembley turf to compete in the final of what surely remains the most complicated and chaotic tournament in the competition’s long and illustrious history, with Matt Busby’s men eventually lifting the trophy that looked, for a while, like nobody would ever get their hands on.

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