War, weather and working weeks: the previous times football has been halted in England
Football fans across England and beyond are currently without their sport of choice as the world responds to the ongoing spread of coronavirus.
The game in this country will be suspended until at least 30 April, with leagues across the world similarly on hold.
But this is not the first time English football has either been postponed or cancelled for a significant length of time because of factors beyond its control.
War, weather and worker productivity have all previously hampered or brought a necessary curtailment to the sport in this country.
BBC Sport looks back at each of the past major occurrences, the circumstances of their imposition, how they were managed and their subsequent repercussions on the game.
‘Play the greater game’
The first serious curtailment of football in England was both a necessary and long-lasting one, brought about by Britain’s declaration of war against Germany on 4 August 1914.
However, it was not without controversy.
Other sports such as rugby and cricket quickly cancelled their competitions, but the Football Association took the divisive decision to press ahead with the 1914-15 season, fearful – as many clubs are as a result of the coronavirus pandemic – that cancelling games would have dire financial implications.
The government initially sought to harness football’s popularity (with the support of the FA), seeing it as an abundant potential source of recruits, with posters geared towards players and supporters and addresses made during half-times encouraging men to sign up.
However, disappointed by the numbers joining, the propaganda machine was quickly turned against the game, with politicians, press and high-profile public figures, such as Sherlock Holmes writer Arthur Conan Doyle, declaring that the continued playing of football was an unnecessary distraction and harming the war effort.
In a further attempt to court players to serve and for football to demonstrate its support for the country, the “Footballers Battalion” – a part of the Middlesex Regiment – was established in December 1914, ultimately resulting in the recruitment of hundreds of professionals. A second such battalion would follow.
Public support for the game would deteriorate over the course of the season, with attendances and income dropping significantly for clubs, who now found themselves in an untenable position.
Shortly after the end of the season, in April 1915, professional football was halted for the duration of the war.
Football was largely gone but it was far from forgotten, remaining a necessary means of escape at the darkest of times.
At home, amateur matches continued and there was a growth in the popularity of the women’s game.
Abroad, soldiers would often play impromptu games wherever and whenever the opportunity arose.
The most famous of these was the legendary match on Christmas Day 1914, which saw some Allied and German troops on the western front lay down their arms and emerge from the trenches to temporarily fraternise and kick a ball around.
Like the world around it, football was severely damaged by the war.
Many of those who left the professional game to fight never came back and many of those who did were scarred by the experience.
But the need for the game, for sport in general, was also reaffirmed by the experience of the global conflict. Football would return for the 1919-20 season, as would the crowds, seeking something to cheer and a return to a sense of normality.
‘The People’s Game’
Britain’s involvement in the Second World War prompted more decisive action from the FA, who immediately halted the Football League season, three fixtures into the 1939-40 season.
In truth, they had little choice, with the perceived threat of attacks from the air prompting the government to restrict travel and close all places that resulted in mass gatherings, including sporting venues.
This would eventually be relaxed to allow unofficial competitive fixtures between regional sides in “Wartime Leagues”, some of which were broadcast on the BBC, in recognition of the role the sport played in the health, wellbeing and morale of the country.
Unlike the First World War, there was a cup competition – the Football League (War) Cup, the finals of which regularly drew crowds in excess of 50,000.
The regional leagues were not without controversy or detractors, who found the regional format alien and matches often too unpredictable.
There were also disputes between the Football League and clubs, most significantly the leading London sides, who split from the league for the 1941-42 season over a desire to arrange their own fixtures.
Many fans were also put off by the inconsistent guest player system, designed to allow clubs to field a full side in the absence of their serving players but which often saw individuals turn out one week and head elsewhere the next.
However, the continuation of football in some guise was largely seen as a huge positive and this period helped cement the game as a key component of British identity.
As Matthew Taylor, a history professor at De Montford University’s International Centre for Sports History and Culture explains: “It was during the so-called ‘people’s war’ that the idea that football had a central role in British social and cultural life first took root.”
The war officially ended on 2 September 1945 and the Football League returned for the 1946-47 season. Unfortunately, this campaign would not immediately bring a much-needed return to normality for the beleaguered sport.
A June finish
In 1947, the continuation of football in England was again threatened by a situation posing problems not dissimilar to those being wrestled with as a result of the coronavirus.
Almost bankrupt from the cost of fighting the war, facing an impending fuel crisis and with an infrastructure in dire need of improvement, the British government sought ways to improve worker productivity, which included a proposal to end midweek sport from March.
Left with little option, like all other sports, football fell into line and immediately into crisis as a result of the fixtures that had already been lost to a particularly vicious winter, bringing with it freezing temperatures, heavy snow and flooding.
Prior to the government proposal, seven successive weekends of Football League fixtures had been lost to the weather, leaving a lot of games to get through and precious little time.
This left the Football League with some topical dilemmas – to reward teams based on their current position, declare the season null and void or extend the campaign?
As has been the initial response of the game’s current authorities, they opted for the latter, agreeing that the campaign would run until June.
At the time of the decision, Wolves led the First Division by four points with a game in hand on second-placed Liverpool and four on Blackpool, in third. Stoke were one of a host of teams in a chasing pack a bit further back.
The following few months, during which some sides were forced to play multiple games in almost as many days, resulted in a three-horse race for the title and with one game remaining, Wolves, Liverpool and Stoke, were separated by a point.
If Wolves beat Liverpool they would win the title, but they went down 2-1, putting the Reds top and champions elect at least until Stoke could play their final game, at Sheffield United two weeks later.
The Potters’ 2-1 loss at Bramall Lane gave the title to Liverpool, with their defence getting under way just 70 days later.
‘The Big Freeze’
The winter of 1962-63 is England’s coldest on record since 1740, with January 1963 the coldest month of last century in Britain.
Between late December and March, the country was hit by 20-foot snow drifts, with rivers and lakes freezing as a result of temperatures that reached as low as -20C.
Inevitably, sport took a hit with both rugby codes and National Hunt racing suffering, while football saw fixtures postponed en masse.
The FA Cup was particularly badly affected. The third round, which began on 5 January, would not conclude until 11 March – 66 days later – and there were 261 postponements with 16 ties called off at least 10 times.
It was in these sub-zero conditions that the British record was set for the most postponements of a single match, with the Scottish Cup clash between Airdrie and Stranraer failing to be completed 33 times before the former ran out 3-0 winners at the 34th time of asking.
With clubs having up to 70 days between fixtures, some took off for warmer climates, with Chelsea travelling to Malta for training.
Others sought venues where games could be played, with Coventry and Manchester United travelling to Ireland for friendlies.
Some got creative, with Halifax opening their stadium to the public as an ice rink.
When the thaw finally arrived in March, teams were faced with a backlog of fixtures. To fit them all in, the league season was extended by a month from its normal end date at the end of April.
Finally able to play all their remaining games, Everton would emerge as champions, claiming their first piece of post-war silverware, while Manchester United would claim the FA Cup – their first trophy since the Munich air disaster five years earlier.
One lasting creation from this season was the Pools Panel, which for five weekends running in 1963 provided results for postponed games and has continued to do so ever since.
A little bit of history repeating in Italy?
Significant and impactful suspensions or cancellations are not unique to English football, though.
Other countries have suffered them too, including one notable occasion in Italy from over a century ago, which remains mired in controversy to this day and will be of particular interest to modern Lazio fans.
Only once before has the top division in Italy been forced to stop early because of external forces, at the outbreak of the First World War.
Back then, Italian football was structured differently to today, with the winners of a northern and southern section facing each other to decide the ultimate title winner.
At the time of Italy’s entry into the war, Lazio had already won the southern section, but one game remained in the northern equivalent, which Genoa topped ahead of Torino, Internazionale and Milan.
Left vacant for the four-year duration of the war, the Scudetto was eventually awarded to Genoa without the outstanding games ever being played.
It is not clear when exactly the title was handed to Genoa, but one take of the story states that it was so awarded because of the Rossoblu’s perceived superiority over Lazio at the time.
With Lazio currently second to Juventus by just a point in Serie A, the Biancocelesti will be hoping their fate is not once again taken entirely out of their control.