It is a matter of record that the first competitive floodlit football match in England was played at The Dell on the evening of Monday 1 October 1951.
While the significance of the event was recognised, it was not accorded a high billing. Possibly because there had been several floodlit matches at The Dell over the previous twelve months.
Southern Daily Echo Sports Editor George White (under his by-line “Commentator”) had trailed the match in his weekly Football Echo feature, and on page three of Monday’s Echo, in passing, beneath the report of Saturday’s hard earned draw at Birmingham City and the news that Saints manager Sid Cann was on a scouting mission in Ireland. “The Saints’ Reserves and Tottenham Hotspur Reserves play the first floodlit competition match when they meet at the Dell this evening (kick-off 7.30 p.m.) in the Football Combination. This intelligence was followed by the two line-ups – the item did not even warrant a header.
There was a little more passion on page two of the Echo the following day:
“Floodlit soccer has come to stay”
SAYS SAINTS’ MANAGER
Sid Cann’s reaction was by no singular, Reading manager Ted Drake and Fulham’s Bill Dodgin (former Saints’ player and manager respectively) were both enthusiastic: “Floodlit matches must find a place in modern football,” said Dodgin; while Drake reckoned there were “Big possibilities.” Both added that the floodlights at Highbury were “brighter”, but Arsenal’s system, which had been unveiled to the public ten days earlier in a friendly against the Israeli side Hapoel-Tel-Aviv, had cost over ten times more.
The concept was not new; there had been football and other sports conducted under lights since the 1870s (there had been a soggy, windswept exhibition Rugby match at the Antelope Cricket Ground in November 1878) and floodlit sport, not least soccer, was taken for granted in most of Europe and in the Americas – Saints had played under them during their tour of Brazil in 1948 – but the Football Association were opposed to their use.
It was Sid Cann’s idea to install lights at The Dell, primarily to facilitate evening training sessions for the Club’s youth and amateur players.
Cann had joined Saints as a masseur in 1946 and succeeded Bill Dodgin as manager on the latter’s defection to Fulham in the summer of 1949. A moderniser, Cann was influential in the development of The Dell’s treatment room into one of the best in the country so it is easy to understand why the board saw potential in him, but his appointment was not warmly received by the players and it precipitated a slump in Saints’ fortunes which would see them relegated to Division Three (South) in 1952.
On 19 October 1949 “Mr. Corry” was invited to a board meeting at The Dell. According to the 1950 edition of Kelly’s Southampton Directory, Mr Corry “Bertie Arth. M.Inst. B.E. R.E.I.C.” was an “electrical enginr” (sic), residing at 21 Howard Road (approximately four minutes walk from the boardroom). The minutes of the meeting relate:
… there was only one instillation to be seen in this Country and this was for night Rugby League games at the White City Stadium [London], the total number of floodlights installed is 120; 1,000 watt units, mounted 120 feet above the playing field level. The lighting results proved most satisfactory and such an instillation is the ideal necessary for night football… if floodlighting is to be established to meet the wishes of Mr. Cann… it was certainly a much more expensive scheme than seemed to be anticipated by the directors.
Mr Corry’s quote was £5,000. He eventually agreed to install a system costing around £600, consisting of sixteen 1,500 watt lights, rigged under the eaves of the East and West stands
In September 1950, after consultation with the police, Mr Corry was paid £70 to install lights in one of the stands, enabling spectators to find their way out in the dark. On page three of the Echo on Tuesday 31 October the headline was:
Will Saints’ floodlight experiment lead to evening league football?
That evening an estimated crowd of 10,000 attempted to witness a thirty-minute each way exhibition match against Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic (nowadays known as AFC Bournemouth): the first match played under a permanent floodlight instillation in an English Football League stadium. It was a pity the weather was not kinder.
George White observed in Wednesday’s report, under the headline:
“You can play football by floodlight even on a foggy night”,
The Saints could not have had much worse conditions for their experimental floodlit match than the fog that shrouded the Dell last night. But though the conditions were so bad, that very fact helped assure critical observers that there are big possibilities in the scheme.
As it happened, the fog was so dense the referee, Mr H.G. New of Portsmouth, lost the coin when tossing-up, and the Echo photographer lost his bearings on attempting to leave the pitch after taking a picture of Wally Judd, George Curtis and Ernie Stevenson preparing to kick-off. Nevertheless, Saints’ right-back Bill Ellerington, a veteran of Saints’ 1948 Brazilian adventure, was reminded of playing in Rio de Janeiro: “We could see the white ball quite well most of the time …”
The Club hosted a post-match dinner at the Royal Hotel (The Southampton Park Hotel in Cumberland Place) and Commentator felt that most of those there – a sprinkling of Fleet Street journalists, club managers and directors, England’s team manager Walter Winterbottom and various other FA bods, were impressed enough to think there was a future for floodlighting – at least as far as winter training was concerned.
However, in the following Saturday’s Football Echo Commentator divulged that the FA remained doubtful. “Still,” he added, “there is the point that, if a ground is fitted with floodlights and there is a very dull Saturday afternoon, would the FA permit the lamps to be turned on and so improve visibility—and even save the match from being abandoned on account of bad light? That would not be unreasonable.” Indeed not.
That December the FA lifted its ban on floodlit football. In January they added the proviso that permission must be obtained from the FA, the local county FA or whichever body was running the competition concerned. How many applications were turned down before the Football Combination gave Saints got the thumbs up to host Tottenham’s reserves a year on? How many football grounds, other than The Arsenal Stadium, had floodlights?
According to Simon Inglis, in his excellent and much revised tome The Football Grounds of England and Wales (Willow, 1983), the FA began allowing FA Cup replays under lights in 1955, but only in the first two rounds.
A FRATTON FIRST
The honour of hosting the First Football League match under lights fell to Portsmouth. They were given permission to play their postponed Division One fixture with Newcastle United on the night of Wednesday 22 November 1956 (losing 2-0) – four years and four months after their first domestic floodlit match, a Hampshire Combination Cup tie at The Dell in October 1951, in which first team players were prominent. It had ended two-all. By the way, the Fratton Park lights were first switched on for a friendly against the Saints on Monday 2 March 1953. The result was one-all.
Meanwhile, floodlit friendlies had become a feature of Saints’ supporting. Nevertheless, other clubs were generating more publicity with better systems and more glamorous opponents. For instance, thanks to spectacularly successful matches at Molyneux against Honved of Hungary, Moscow Spartak and Moscow Dynamo in 1952 and 1953, Wolverhampton Wanderers have HAD a higher and wider reputation as floodlighting pioneers than the Saints.
The first chance Saints’ partisans had a chance to see League football under lights came on Wednesday 6 September 1956. A 6.30 kick-off. George White noted that “the match will be finished under lights if necessary.”
His match report opened: “As the crowd left the Dell last night after seeing the Saints Beat Colchester United 2-1 there was one topic of conversation—Jimmy Shields’ wander goal which two minutes from the end gave Saints victory.” Despite the close attention of Colchester defenders “Shields pivoted and suddenly loosed a right-footed shot of terrific power towards goal from a distance of 20-yards or more.” Saints’ trainer Jimmy Gallagher pronounced it “the most amazing goal I have ever seen.” Readers had to wait until Saturday’s Football Echo to learn that the floodlights had been used, and that it was difficult to “distinguish players when play was beyond the middle of the pitch.”
A month later, Wednesday October 4 to be exact, Norwich City became the first side to play ninety minutes of League soccer under The Dell’s lights. Such was the Club’s excitement at the prospect an exclamation-mark was added to the announcement in the Echo advertisement: “League Football by Floodlight” – just the one.
A crowd of 18,986, the largest of the season, turned to. No doubt the fact that it was another “first” was part of the attraction; plus, there must have been a sprinkling of football lovers who usually worked on Saturday afternoons, but the greatest consideration was probably that the Saints, now managed by Ted Bates, were showing formidable form and were shaping up as promotion contenders.
Saints won 2-0, with Commentator positively loquacious on their merits. The fact that it was the first League match played out under floodlights at The Dell was a minor consideration. In the next edition of the Football Echo floodlighting was being discussed on its shortcomings rather than its merits – though the criticism was constructive. Floodlighting, though it remained an exception in professional football rather than the rule, was in Southampton to stay.
It is interesting to read George White’s observations in the Echo report of the reserve match against Spurs back in October ’51: “Many people said that football under lights gave them the impression that they were watching something more like entertainment than a sport, and this was born out by the fact that people were inclined to applaud good play by clapping instead of shouting wildly.”
ANOTHER BRIGHT IDEA?
Floodlit football in England became the rule rather than the exception in the 1960-61 season, with the introduction of the Football League Cup, a competition intended for weekday evenings. From then on even the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United were following in Saints’ footsteps.
Floodlights are taken for granted these days, even car parks have them, and, as we have seen with the new LED floodlights at St Mary’s, like football, they have continued to evolve. Even in the UK.
The story of how they have evolved at Southampton must wait for another time.
The Club announced back in June that St Mary’s Stadium was in the process of being fitted with a new, innovative, LED floodlighting system, the most advanced in Europe, not just to enhance the spectacle of evening football but to enable more advanced television technology to be employed on matchday evenings. It is fitting that Southampton is FC once again leading the way in floodlighting: after all, WE INVENTED THE EVENING KICK-OFF.
From the Football Echo 4 November 1950, an Orf’’s eye view of the events of the previous Tuesday,: the first soccer match played under a permanent floodlight instillation in an English football ground. Saints drew 0-0 with Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic..
BELOW: as seen on the Football Echo’s front page on November 4, Southampton’s top sports shop was not slow to exploit its connection with the historic event.
The visit of the Courtiers to The Dell in 1950 was not the first floodlit football match in the UK, there were many exhibition matches down the years. The universally acknowledged first was at Bramall Lane Sheffield on Monday 14 October 1878 (ABOVE), which was illuminated by lights mounted on thirty-foot high towers on each corner of the pitch.
Exhibitions of the new electric lights were all the rage that year and a little over a month later the advertisement below was prominent in the local press (this one is from the Hampshire Independent, Saturday 23 November). The venue is better remembered as “The Antelope Ground” and the “Grand Football Match” was between two teams of Trojans’ players; Trojans, then as now, devotees of the Rugby Union code.
Due to severely inclement weather the event was a complete wash out, but the football went ahead and the participants were presented with medals by Mr Alfred Pegler, goldsmith and jeweller of 151 High Street, one of the town’s more prominent tradesmen.