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An Icy Welcome From Tranmere

Sixty years ago this week Chelsea played an FA Cup-tie at Tranmere. It was a game, a round and a season like no other.

In the modern era of undersoil heating and decent drainage it is rare for games to be postponed in the top flights of English football for weather-related reasons unless there is heavy fog or a sudden torrential storm. I don’t want to tempt fate but British winters, or certainly those in the South of England, tend not to be that severe or last that long.

That has not always been the case. The winter of 1962/63 was epically severe and prolonged, normal life, let alone football, coming to a halt for weeks, meaning massive fixture disruption and an extended season. The recent midseason break was unwelcome but planned, the one 60 years ago was definitely unscheduled and definitely unwelcome.

On Boxing Day 1962, Chelsea won 2-0 at Luton Town on a frozen and snowy pitch, Graham Moore scoring both goals as Tommy Docherty’s exciting young side went six points clear of Sunderland at the top of Division Two. They had now won ten and drawn one of their last eleven matches.

Chelsea p24 37pts; Sunderland p24 31pts; Plymouth Argyle p24 30pts; Stoke City p23 29pts; Bury p23 29pts

With two points for a win (as opposed to the modern-day three) Chelsea’s lead was a significant one, and contained a decent buffer against a slump in form.

The press were unequivocal and unanimous, talking about guaranteed promotion and praising the team’s poise, confidence, intelligence and rhythmic purpose. Bobby Tambling, the Daily Mail pointed out, was the ‘thinker behind every attacking movement’, though this was his first game in nine that he had failed to score. On a fashion note, the whole team, apart from iron-man Frank ‘The Tank’ Upton, wore yellow gloves at Luton.

What could, and did, go wrong was the weather. Half the Football League games that day were postponed and, as the team travelled home from Luton, the cold snap turned into heavy snowfalls across the South of England. The snow continued to fall and, within days, the whole country was covered in a thick blanket of snow. It snowed most winters and usually cleared up after a few days. The Luton home game scheduled for 29th December was postponed. In 1963 Chelsea in common with almost every club had only rudimentary methods of preventing frozen pitches and clearing snow, but surely it would thaw by the New Year? Wrong. The snow and ice actually stayed on the ground for several weeks. Great for Christmas card photographers and juvenile sledgers (I was five), less good for live football.

Despite the weather, Chelsea’s FA Cup Third Round tie at Tranmere Rovers on 5th January was able to take place, one of only three played that day in the worst day in FA Cup history for postponements. The game was all ticket, though how many ticket holders from London would have been able to travel given the massive road and rail problems is debatable. A special supporter train was cancelled the evening before the game and supporters wishing to travel by train were forced to put themselves at the mercies of a struggling London to Merseyside rail service. The game kicked off at 2.15pm to allow the Chelsea party to get to Lime Street to catch a train home, not a reason I have ever heard before for a fixture move. BBC footage of that game is available on YouTube, . Wolstenholme talks about the ‘roars from the faithful Chelsea supporters who have made the long journey in these bad weather conditions’, and cheers and rattles can be heard after the Chelsea goals.

Chelsea lined up:- Bonetti; Shellito, Mortimore, Upton, A. Harris; Murray, Venables, Blunstone; Tambling, Bridges, Moore

Tranmere were in the lower reaches of Division Four but, on a horrible Prenton Park pitch consisting of ice and slush, with the lines marked in blue and Chelsea again sporting yellow gloves, they went ahead early on. Bobby Tambling hammered a 33rd minute equaliser as the game became highly competitive. Home centre-forward Dave Hickson, a player with a well-justified hard-man reputation, can be seen on the TV pictures clearly punching John Mortimore in the face after Mortimore tackled him. Trainer Harry Medhurst ran on to tend to his prone player and remonstrated with an unrepentant Hickson, who attempted to drag Mortimore to his feet. The latter got up, rubbed his face with snow and got on with the game, and the referee only spoke to Hickson.

Tambling (dark shirt) nets Chelsea's first at Prenton Park

As the game got more fractious, Chelsea players openly berated the referee after Tranmere’s disputed second goal, which they felt involved a clear handball. Hickson, inevitably, was keen to discuss the matter with them. It was rare for players to argue with the referee so persistently in those days and commentator Ken Wolstenholme was unimpressed with that, and with Hickson’s response. Within a few years, Don Revie’s Leeds helped make such behaviour commonplace but these were still comparatively respectful times. Barry Bridges fierce first-time shot in the sixty-first minute flashed into the net, meaning a replay at Stamford Bridge, though Tranmere hit the post very late on. Wolstenholme talks about the ‘roars from the faithful Chelsea supporters who have made the long journey in these bad weather conditions’, and cheers and rattles can be heard after the Chelsea goals.

Bridges fires home Chelsea's second equaliser

Chelsea were criticised for ‘tigerish’ tackling, and Upton was booked, though given Tranmere’s physicality, any other approach on that pitch would have meant almost certain elimination. Chelsea were also praised for attempting to pass the ball on such an unhelpful pitch. Despite the lowly opposition, Chairman Joe Mears’ comment ‘I am well satisfied to be going home with a draw’ said it all as Chelsea became one of 62 teams in the Fourth Round draw. It is surprising newspaper typesetters did not run out of the letters ‘o’ and ‘r’.

Coldstream Guards helped to try make pitch playable for the original replay date on Wednesday 9th at 7pm (the date was moved from the Tuesday after the clubs spoke immediately after the final whistle, to hopefully increase the chance of the game being played).

In the event, the Prenton Park trip was Chelsea’s last competitive game for over three weeks. As the snow fell, Docherty’s restless nature took over and he organised two friendlies in Malta, which was immune from the cold spell. The games were an attempt to keep spirits high, and the players match fit, during the unscheduled winter break, although Ken Shellito badly sprained his foot and was out until March.

Hundreds of British sailors and holidaymakers turned up to watch the games. At the second game stones were thrown at the Chelsea team after the game by locals upset about tough tackling, mounted police got involved and ‘fighting broke out outside the stadium between Maltese and English fans as they streamed out’. The games were won 1-0 and 4-0, getting away from the dire weather lifted the squad and Bridges later said they had a ball, although constant drizzle in Valetta ironically represented some of the worst weather on the island for years.

Off the pitch, local seventeen year-old winger Peter Houseman signed as a professional. Chelsea were linked, in common with half the First Division, with mercurial Glasgow Rangers midfielder Jim Baxter, though Docherty denied he was interested. With little football happening, desperate journalists went into overdrive with transfer stories. Chelsea were also linked, in a period of a few weeks, with a dozen players, the best known being Steve Chalmers of Celtic. None of these ‘deals’ happened but they gave under-utilised journalists something to write about.

League games were still being cancelled on a regular basis and Chelsea’s next game was the Tranmere replay at the end of January. The fact that the match programme cover had January 1963 on it, but no actual date, shows the level of uncertainty about when games could be played. A crowd of 20,500 turned up, not bad considering the weather and travel conditions. There was talk of it being played in the afternoon, but the Electricity authorities assured the club that the floodlights would be fine. Three pitch inspections were needed before the referee gave the go ahead to play on a freezing and heavily sanded pitch.

Chelsea, the ‘young soccer sultans’, won 3-1. Goals by Bridges, Moore and a wonderful thirty-five yard volley by Terry Venables all came in the first half, with Hickson replying. Tambling collided with visiting goalkeeper Harry Leyland, fell hard on the icy pitch and was stretchered off with a badly hurt shoulder but, luckily, the continued inclemency meant he had time to recover before the next game. Ian Watson, another youngster who had come through the youth ranks, made his first team debut at full back, partnering Allan Harris in the absence of both Shellito and Eddie McCreadie as Chelsea hung on with ten men in those pre-substitute days.

Bridges (No.9) scores the first goal in the replay

It was becoming apparent that there were going to be a glut of games in the closing weeks of the season, making a strong squad even more important. Surely, though, Chelsea’s lead was sufficient buffer against any continuity problems when games started again? In the end, the Football League programme was disrupted to such an extent that the season had to be extended by almost four weeks. Chelsea had five matches postponed and rearranged, including key games against Stoke and Sunderland games and by the time the thaw began in February and some certainty was reintroduced to fixture scheduling, Chelsea’s last League game was rearranged for 21st May, at home to Portsmouth.

At last, on 9th February, the weather in South Wales had improved sufficiently that Chelsea could play their first League game since Boxing Day. The team travelled in expectation of continuing their run, still confident after their superb run up to Christmas. The pitch was awful, a mix of sand and slush, but Docherty had no complaints about the 2-0 defeat, ruefully commenting that Swansea adapted themselves better. Upton was booed by the home fans for his ‘excessive energy in tackling’. Aware the team was not as sharp as before the unsolicited break, Docherty had the team in for afternoon training.

In the end, Chelsea had another two weeks to prepare for their next game, a return to South Wales to play Cardiff. Allan Harris returned but Chelsea lost a physical game, on a pitch with ice at one end and mud the other, 1-0. Docherty felt Chelsea were clearly the better side, but two defeats since recommencing League action was a poor return. There was still a five-point gap to Sunderland and Bury so, with two teams to be promoted and just sixteen games remaining, there was surely little to worry about?

In the event there was a lot of worry about. Two games a week became the norm but Chelsea could not replicate their August to December form. They did not win a League game until 27th March, against Derby County, after three months and a run of five League defeats. Of their last 14 games only five were away so in principle the run in should have been straightforward but ongoing spluttering, and a crucial home defeat by Stoke in front of 66,200 nervous supporters, meant they needed to win at Sunderland and at home to Portsmouth to get promoted, ahead of Sunderland, on goal average. To Docherty’s enormous credit they achieved it, winning 1-0 at Sunderland and 7-0 at home to Portsmouth.

What would almost certainly have been a canter back to the First Division became a grim struggle, thanks largely to that bleak winter. Given every side was impacted it is unclear why Chelsea struggled so much but struggle they did, and when I interviewed The Doc in 2017 he could not put his finger on exactly why.

Chelsea travel to Manchester City on Sunday for their third round cup game. In 1963 the only competitive games they played between New Years Day and February 9th were the two Tranmere cup-ties. In 2023 they are scheduled to play seven games in that time, more if they beat City. Weather permitting, of course.

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