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When Nature Strikes

Robin Hackett
December 23, 2010
Snow has caused real problems this season © Getty Images

Football across England ground to a standstill over the weekend as snow and ice devastated a country yet to come to terms with its climate.

Mother nature has a persistent habit of disrupting the beautiful game; ESPNsoccernet dives into the history books to look at its stranglehold over the sport.

Rovers fail to return (1891)

Burnley's first success in the East Lancashire derby came amid freezing temperatures, heavy snow and fierce wind. Blackburn, whose previous visit to Turf Moor had ended in a 6-1 victory, found themselves three goals down at half-time and they were reluctant to endure any more misery in the Arctic conditions.

Rovers delayed their return to the field and, when they did re-emerge, a fight broke out between Burnley's Alex Stewart and Blackburn's Joe Lofthouse. Both were sent off, and ten of the Blackburn players decided to walk off.

The Burnley players tried to add to their lead against their solitary opponent - goalkeeper Herby Arthur - but were thwarted by the offside rule. The referee, JC Clegg, then abandoned the game.

Blackburn apologised and said the players had been numb with cold and couldn't continue, but the Arbitration Committee hearing the case "expressed disapproval at the conduct of the men leaving the field, and the match was ordered to stand as a win for Burnley". Rovers were deducted two points and were ordered to play a friendly at Burnley.

Cold war (1940)

The record number of cancellations for a single day came during the Second World War. It was a spell that, according to the Guardian at the time, recalled the 'Phenomenal Frost' of 1895.

Only two of the 56 wartime matches in England and Wales on February 3, 1940, took place and one was barely a contest at all as Plymouth beat Bristol City 10-3.

The losing side had some justification for their defeat, however. Only nine of the Bristol City players were able to make it to Bristol Temple Meads train station to travel down to Plymouth, so their manager, Bob Hewison, contacted the Argyle chairman - via a taxi driver - and borrowed two of the opposition players for the match.

Lightning strikes (1948)

Two soldiers were killed in April 1948 after being struck by lightning during the Army Challenge Cup final at the Aldershot Military Stadium.

The flash hurled all 22 players and the referee to the ground, with eight people being taken to hospital. Two players were killed but, while it was reported that the lightning struck the referee's whistle, the official survived.

A spectator told the Guardian: "The whole of both teams fell to the ground as if they had been shot."

An army private added in the Daily Mirror: "The referee seemed to have caught the lightning directly - for a moment he was completely covered by the flash."

The teams - Royal Armoured Corps, Bovington, and the 121st Training Regiment of the Royal Artillery, Oswestry - agreed to share the cup.

Dancing on ice (1962-63)

English football saw a big freeze set in during the festive period in 1962, and normal service would not be resumed for over two months. During one week in January, 54 games were called off in England and Scotland, while journalists were thwarted in their attempts to file copy at several games that did go ahead as their typewriters and pens froze up. A Scottish Cup game between Airdrie and Stranraer had to be postponed 33 times.

Blackpool played just two games - both away - between December 15 and March 2 as their pitch froze over and, in early January, Jimmy Armfield and goalkeeper Tony Walters were photographed in the national press ice skating on the turf.

Everton looked to a chemical solution, Leicester erected a tent over Filbert Street, and Norwich used flamethrowers in an attempt to thaw the Carrow Road pitch, but the ice returned too quickly.

Similarly, Chelsea used a tar burner but club secretary John Battersbv said: "Instead of patches of rough ice, we have sheets of smooth ice. We are thinking of doing the whole pitch, letting it freeze again and charging for ice skating."

Celtic's season put on ice (1978-79)

Scottish football has been particularly vulnerable to the weather this winter, but it is nothing compared to the 1978-79 season, when the freezing conditions ensured Celtic went from Christmas until March without playing a single league game.

Former Celtic player Bobby Lennox said: "It was so bad that I actually suffered an ankle injury at Firhill and was out for six weeks, but I never missed a game because they were all postponed."

Players were carried off after strong winds blew boards across the field © Getty Images

The cancellations had seen the Hoops fall to the brink of the relegation zone in February, but they then played 18 times in 72 days and took the title in dramatic fashion in the rescheduled Old Firm derby on May 21.

Lightning strikes again (1998)

Even more tragic than the 1948 incident, all 11 players for Congolese village side Bena Tshadi were killed in a match with Basangana in October 1998. Around 30 people at the match are said to have received burns, but none of the Basangana players received any significant injuries.

The Congolese Press Agency said at the time that investigations into witchcraft were taking place, with sorcery apparently commonplace in the region. Scientists posited a more likely explanation: the survivors were wearing boots with thicker rubber soles and so had better insulation.

The tragedy occurred just days after lightning struck during a South African game between Moroka Swallows and Jomo Cosmos, which left seven players and the referee spreadeagled on the pitch. The Swallows were two goals down in the closing minutes of the game, leading the Cosmos coach to question whether some of the players had been playacting to force an abandonment.

How to get a head in advertising (2007)

In a South African match between Orlando Pirates and Black Leopards at Ellis Park in 2007, play was delayed by 15 minutes due to a power cut and was then temporarily halted five minutes after the kick off as winds blew the advertising hoardings onto the field.

The Ellis Park stadium manager, George Stainton, described the wind as "a massive, horrific gust that dislodged trees". Two players - Pirates' Lehlohonolo Seema and Leopards' Jabu Maluleke - had to be stretchered off, and the assistant referee also sustained injuries. Seema said he feared he would be "decapitated".

The referee, Charl Theron, restarted the game but, before it could be concluded, he had to call it off - again - due to a lightning storm.

Hillsborough flood (2007)

The widespread flooding across Great Britain in 2007 saw South Yorkshire's River Don burst its banks, and Sheffield Wednesday were the unhappy recipients of a mass of flood water.

"The water rose as high as Row F in the main stand, probably up to 6ft, and there is probably about 3ft of water still on the pitch, which does not seem to be draining very quickly at all," a club spokesman said. "Flood waters have gone into the directors' area, the boardroom, the dressing rooms, the Riverside restaurant and the kitchens."

The incident occurred in June, outside the football season, but it led to costs of around £1 million and the pitch was in a state of disrepair during the 2007-08 campaign, which many felt contributed to the club's dismal home form.

Sting in the tale (2009)

Mexico's World Cup qualifier against El Salvador at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City last year had to be halted after just three minutes when a swarm of bees invaded the field.

Officials had to direct fire extinguishers at the bees, residing in the El Salvador goal, and it was six minutes before the action restarted. Mexico went on to record a 4-1 victory that secured qualification for South Africa.

A groundsman lets off a fire extinguisher to clear a swarm of bees © Getty Images

Blown away (2010)

A freak storm in Athens County, Ohio, saw the destruction of a stadium during a high school game this year. The second half of the girls' game between Athens (Ohio) High School and Alexander (Ohio) High was delayed due to a lightning storm and was followed soon afterwards by a tornado warning. The tornado - the first to hit the area for 37 years - proceeded to tear up the stands and press box.

Athens boys' coach Issac Thomas, in the stands to watch the game, told the players to hit the ground and Athens athletic director Chuck Robinson said they were "very, very fortunate" to escape the incident without serious injury.

"My first thought stopping in and seeing this was that we were going to have multiple fatalities because I just don't see people living through this," Wayne Breeze, the assistant fire chief of neighbouring York Township, told WSAZ-TV. "Someway, somehow, someone was looking over us."

Shock and boar (2010)

In 2010, in a fifth-tier match between Borea Dresden and Lokomotive Leipzig at the Jaegerpark stadium, boars entered the pitch and created substantial holes while foraging for food.

Having seen a recent game against FC Sachsen postponed due to flooding, Lokomotive chairman Steffen Kubald said: "We're accustomed to problems in the cold months - ice, sudden onset of winter and so on - but this is the second time something unusual has happened and the schedule leaves us with no room."

It was not football's first boar attack. French side Nancy saw their pitch ruined by the animals in 2003 while, in 2008, in a Northern Senior Division Two game in England between the Gloucestershire villages of Soudley and Charfield, a number of boar invaded the field while a match was in progress. The animals squeezed through a fence to leave giant potholes on a pitch that had recently been returfed and expanded at a cost of around £1,000.

That incident came only a couple of months after another side in the area, Whitecroft, had seen their penalty area destroyed by boar.

Chris Lucker, operations manager for the Football Association in Gloucestershire, was perplexed: "This is the first time we've heard of anything like this. Usually, it's motorbikes or a car that tear up pitches, not boars."

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