FEATURE: Still playing in June...Rotherham United and the marathon season of 1946/47

FEATURE: Still playing in June...Rotherham United and the marathon season of 1946/47

By David Beddows | 25/06/2020

FEATURE: Still playing in June...Rotherham United and the marathon season of 1946/47
Rotherham United's team and officials in 1947.

 

FOOTBALL in shutdown, grounds locked up, players standing idle and worries about finishing the season…

No, we're not talking 2020 and the unparalleled impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our national sport, but about the bone-shakingly cold winter of 1947.


Even by the standards of the Great Freeze of 1963, which brought football to a standstill and disrupted daily life, it was a bad one.


Because while 1963 was the coldest winter in the UK for more than 200 years, the winter of 1947 was one of the snowiest.


In fact, the white stuff fell somewhere in the UK for 55 consecutive days between January and March.


Rotherham United didn't play their final game of the 1946/47 season until the middle of June.


Thousands of people were cut off for days by snowdrifts up to seven metres deep. Supplies had to be flown in by helicopter to many villages and the armed forces were called in to help clear roads and railways.


Rotherham felt the chill as much as many towns, shuddering in its coldest temperatures since 1910.


And for a steel and mining community still dealing with the bleak austerity of a war-ravaged nation and rationing, the bad winter was the last thing townsfolk needed.


Competitive football was a tonic for so many people and thousands upon thousands flocked to see their local team after the war. 


Rotherham were no different. A crowd of 2,500 turned out to watch the reserves beat Hull City at the start of the 46/47 season, which marked the resumption of full-time football, and the first team regularly pulled in crowds of 13,000 and more at Millmoor in the old Division Three North.

 

The club's momentum which had built up just before and during the war years continued after the war under manager Reg Freeman.


Propelled by the goals of Wally Ardron, Gladstone Guest and others, the Millers were unbeatable at Millmoor, reeling off win after win, and at the turn of the year they were trying to chase down Doncaster Rovers for the one and only promotion place.

Then the winter set in.


As the snowstorms worsened, attending games became more hazardous. In an attempt to prevent the country from grinding to a halt, the government ordered a widespread industrial shutdown and the knock-on effects were felt at the turnstiles.

 
Due to a severe paper shortage, the size of match-day programmes were also significantly reduced, some to just a single sheet.
Despite all that, Freeman's Millers didn't miss a single game until February.


In one of their last matches before the postponements hit, at Stockport, the Advertiser reported that the Rotherham players were pelted with snowballs throughout the match.


The "irate and unsporting" home supporters also directed them at poor old Stewart McLean, Rotherham's goal scoring inside left, when he shaped up to take two penalty kicks.


The Millers had the last laugh, winning 2-1, but it was to be the last time they'd play for a month.


There wasn't the scope to play midweek games back then and no floodlights.


As the Arctic conditions continued to take a vice-like grip across Britain, the fixture backlog continued to pile up and at one point the entire structure of football in the country was in danger of collapse.


Hundreds turned up at Millmoor one Saturday expecting to see their team play Barrow.


According to the Advertiser, the club didn't take the trouble to tell the press the match had been called off on the Friday afternoon with the permission of the Football League and without an official inspection by a referee. Even some of the directors didn't know the match was off until a few hours before the scheduled kick-off!


It is no surprise that clubs struggled to pay their bills.


In a spell of five weeks, Rotherham United took in just £70 yet because of their regular snow clearing work, their expenses were considerably higher.


The postponements across the country left the League with some dilemmas with obvious parallels to this year.


Should they reward teams based on their current position, declare the season null and void or extend the campaign?


Like the game's modern-day authorities decided soon after the coronavirus, they opted to extend the season, agreeing a six-week extension until June.

 


When the action re-started at the end of March, Rotherham quickly blasted off the cobwebs by winning at Accrington.


As winter turned to spring, they rattled off long stretches of wins and more than 20,000 watched them beat Doncaster Rovers at Millmoor at the end of April.


The victory wasn't enough for United to catch their near neighbours and Rovers had top spot sewn up before the end of the season.


By early June, deep snow had given way to bright sunshine when Rotherham played Rochdale in their final home match of the season.


They were looking to make it 21 wins out of 21 at Millmoor, equalling a home record set by Brentford.


Rochdale, unfortunately, spoiled the party, escaping with a 3-3 draw despite the Millers laying siege to the opposition goal late on.


Finishing runners-up was still an achievement considering all the players, remember, held down days jobs alongside their football commitments.


Then, more than eight months after their first match of the 1946/47 season against Tranmere, Rotherham played their final match of a marathon campaign away to New Brighton on June 14.


A few of the players took the opportunity to spend a few days down at the coast and it turned out to be a low-key end.


The Advertiser noted that the crowd of 2,500 was the lowest of the season in the biggest ground in the Third Division.


“The hardy Rotherham supporters who made the trip remained cheerful throughout the day despite the rain never stopping,” it said.


Thankfully, the next few winters were kinder and Rotherham kept banging on the promotion door.


They twice finished runner-up in Division Three North before finally winning it in 1951 and taking their place in the old Second Division.