Fog stopped play

John Russell harks back to something we’ve hopefully seen the last of.

In days of yore I used to be able to stroll to Villa Park but these days very few fans live within east walking distance of the ground so everyone has become a travelling supporter. But back in those days the greatest enemy of the travelling football supporter was not ice and snow but FOG.

My mother used to get up at 6 o’clock every morning to clear out the ashes from the grate and deposit them in the dustbin – which is why it is still called a dustbin. Then she would set the fire for the day and light it so that the room was warm for when the rest of us came down to our Weetabix – choice was non existent, it was always Weetabix. .Since she and the rest of the nation stopped setting fire to lumps of coke or coal in the early hours the fogs which this created have virtually become a thing of the past. But things were different back then…

My most vivid memory of the now infamous pea souper fogs came in the mid-sixties when I was cycling home from work one evening barely to see a bike length ahead. I reached Witton Square, where I had to negotiate a waiting Outer Circle bus. Whereupon the bus proceeded to keep close on my tail along Brookvale Road. I was clearly the driver’s ‘eyes’ and I hoped I did not have to make a sudden stop. Aware of what he was doing I realised that the driver would shortly have a problem. I intended to turn left into Gipsy Lane whereas the bus need to go up Marsh Hill. So I stopped, the bus stopped and I went back to tell the driver that I would guide him up towards the school then leave him to his fate, me mine. He thanked me for my assistance. Such were the joys or otherwise of the fog.

Now you want to hear about the Villa.

I will turn first to the 14th January 1961 for no other reason than I think I have what may be the rarest Villa match programme I possess. Excursion trains used to arrive in plenty of time ahead of the kick-off, often sufficiently early to get a dinner in Woolworth’s. But on this day we came to a halt in the tunnel at Lime Street station, Liverpool where we remained stationary for an inordinate time – up to an hour as it turns out. Finally we were released from our torment only to be let out into the mist. But it did not seem all that bad, as confirmed when the bus made it to Goodison Park. It was now two o’clock (Everton were one of the few clubs who had a 3.15 kick off – something to do with the pubs closing at three.) Except the game had already been postponed. The fog did not seem all that bad and when he arrived manager Joe Mercer, a Liverpudlian, was livid on learning of such an early postponement. Fog was fickle stuff and just as likely to clear with a breath of wind as it was get thicker. Except it was forecast to get thicker – which indeed it did as the minutes wore on.

Meanwhile, because it had already been postponed there were no programme sellers on the streets. So I spotted an opportunity. I went into the club offices and persuaded a secretary to open a bundle of programmes and sell me a few rather than have them all go to the shredder. I acquired eight to pass onto those of my regular acquaintances who had not had the same forethought. But the programmes were printed on superior quality paper and I have always thought I may have been sold the directors copies, hence my thought it may have a rarity value. Some clubs might have been tempted to use the programmes at the re-arranged match but when it was eventually played (W 2-1) it came with a fresh programmes.

I now move back to Highbury on 2nd January 1954. Fog is so unpredictable that it could appear out of nowhere, as was the case here when after only 22 minutes the clouds came down to earth. We were already losing three-nil at the time so were happy to escape to the dressing rooms. But we were due at Highbury again the following Saturday in the third round of the cup. The general consensus was that we could not be as bad second time and might even have learnt from our experience and actually win. Wrong. Arsenal had also learnt, so if to prove a point they completely overran us 1-5. Interestingly, when the rearranged game was played (1-1), at under 15,000 Arsenal had their lowest gate for decades.

Having the game abandoned when you are losing is one thing but having it abandoned when you are winning is quite another matter, as happened at Portsmouth on 15th January twelve months later; fogs are synonymous with January probably more so than their traditional month of February. The two points would have been especially welcome as we were then in deep do do. And there were only eleven minutes left on the clock.

Barely three weeks later fog also came into the reckoning during our famous five-game epic with Doncaster Rovers, when the second replay at Maine Road was called off at the ninety minute mark. This fact was to deny us the record of having played in the longest tie ever. At the same time Stoke and Bury had been involved in a similar epic but one of their games had continued until fog called a halt in the 111th minute of extra time so those extra minutes allowed them to take the plaudits.

Fog nearly ruined our attempt to become inaugural winners of the Football League Cup. Our fourth round tie at home to Plymouth Argyle was called off on a Monday night as late as 7.15 with the fans outside becoming increasingly frustrated at the indecision. Plymouth were staying overnight at a city centre hotel so it was decided to try to play the game next night on the Tuesday. A brave decision as conditions were not all that much better but the game went ahead. Rumour has it that MacEwan scored one of our 3-3 goals direct from a corner but nobody ever claimed to have actually seen it.

No thought whatsoever was given to spectators at the time. The only rules where fog was concerned was that the game can continue as long both goals could be seen from the centre spot, that play could not be seen from the terraces was of no consequences. Occasionally when mist descended at Villa Park fans from the two ends would pay the extra 6d transfer charge to get a better view from the Trinity Road terrace.

It was almost something of a relief when, despite the floodlights, fog brought an end to our home game against Manchester City close on four o’clock when we were one-nil down. It heralded the start of the long winter of postponements and abandonments and an unprecedented eleven-game losing streak. Significantly it was the re-arranged match against Manchester City which finally saw victory in the twelfth game, 3-1. Harry Burrows should have scored an unprecedented hat-trick of penalties if he had not blasted the third one over the bar.

Rain rather than fog was more often than not the cause of abandonments but this article is about fog as otherwise I would like to tell you of the sequence of events surrounding Christmas 1965 and further experiences of wasted journeys. Just be thankful that the worst experience of fog these days is unexpectedly coming across a pocket of the horrible stuff on a road deep in the countryside.