Argyle Is...

THERE were a number of errors in Roger Walters’ Argyle Is...Special ‘The Club and the Floodlight Revolution’ printed in the programme...

...for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy second-round match against Exeter City, which also commemorated our 5,000th game. We apologise and are happy to publish a fully corrected version below. 

Roger's popular 'Argyle Is...' series has featured in the Argyle programme, The Pilgrim, since 2013-14. You can read new 'Argyle Is...' columns at every home game, plus many other original features, by buying each new edition of The Pilgrim. 



Researched by Roger Walters


IT is more than 60 years since floodlights first towered over Home Park and yet the ground itself is more than 122 years old. The change, halfway through its history, revolutionized Home Park, just as floodlights revolutionized football generally. Our visitors today and our Devon brother club, Exeter City, were involved with us. 

Before the advent of floodlit football, the sport can be said to have been in the “Dark Ages”; in the short daylight of midwinter, this was literally true. On December 2, 1899, the amateur Argyle Football Club played its first match at Home Park, albeit they were the ‘away’ club, in a 6-0 Devon League victory over Plymouth FC. The match report in the Western Independent says the match ended in darkness “...which doubtless accounted greatly for the erratic movement of the players”.  

The problem was that Saturday was a half-working day. Many workers did not finish until 2pm, so players and spectators could not get to the ground until 3pm. Plymouth was so built-up, getting to almost all football venues involved a journey into the countryside. Before 1901, there was no public transport to Home Park, which caused many to complain of the ground’s isolated location. During the shorter daylight hours, Plymouth football clubs struggled to complete 90 minutes; matches often ended prematurely when conditions became too dark, or a shortened playing time was agreed, sometimes as little as 20 minutes each way.

When professional League football first came to Home Park in 1903, this chaos had to stop. The kick-off time had to be set throughout the season, according to the month, from 2.15 - 3pm. The early kick-off time meant that many could not make the match or turned up late. This effected crowd numbers and, of course, revenue. 

Into the 20th century, football was crying out for ground floodlights but, strangely, in England the authorities at ‘The Football Association’ and ‘The Football League Management Committee’ stood resolutely against them, even when electrical technology improved to provide practical solutions. Floodlit matches were accepted on the continent.. 

In 1930, the progressive Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman had seen and was impressed by a floodlit match in Brussels. He tried in vain to persuade The F.A. to sanction floodlit football. The F.A. said playing under artificial light was “undesirable” and, to stop any more pressure, officially prohibited members taking part in such games. This floodlight ban stood for more than 20 years, until 1950.

The F.A. were forced into reviewing the situation after England played in the 1950 World Cup, staged in Brazil. This was their first entry into the competition, begun in 1930, as the FA had withdrawn from F.I.F.A. in 1928. In the Brazil tournament, F.I.F.A. allowed floodlit matches. South America led the way in introducing floodlit football, especially Brazil with its hot, tropical climate making it beneficial to play the game they loved so much in the cooler, but dark, evenings, thus providing better matches and entertainment. The first Brazilian match under lights, supplied by the headlamps of trams, was played in 1923, and floodlights were first introduced to their football grounds in 1928.

In 1946, Liverpool Football Club undertook a tour of America where five of the matches were played under floodlights. The club and its directors were mightily impressed by the experience and became aware of the opportunities evening floodlit football could bring a professional Club. Liverpool became enthusiastic proponents of midweek football leagues to bring extra revenue to the underused bigger grounds.

Football was in a boom period in post-war Great Britain, wherein enormous crowds regularly attended matches, including at Home Park. Under pressure, The F.A. lifted its ban on floodlit football in December 1950 and further gave the okay for competitive matches from January 1951, but the matches had to be sanctioned and permitted by them and both clubs had to agree

Having experienced floodlit matches in South America on close-season tours, Southampton and Arsenal became the floodlight pioneers in England. Both clubs chose to mount the lights on their stand roofs, rather than pylons, as their grounds’ site geography dictated. On October 1, 1951, Southampton became the first club to take advantage of The F.A.’s relaxed rules, officially opening their permanent, but rudimentary, floodlights in losing 1-0 to Tottenham Hotspur in a floodlit London Combination encounter in front of a good crowd of 13,654. They were followed by Arsenal, on October 17, who officially inaugurated the new Highbury floodlights when they staged their annual challenge match versus Glasgow Rangers in front of a 62,000 attendance.

The first post-1950 football ground floodlights were still quite primitive in technology. Each individual lamp was slow to activate, taking more than 15 minutes to reach full power. They could be mounted on gantries placed on stand roofs if the ground had enough points around the pitch that were also high enough and could take the weight. The alternative was to fit the lamps on to pylons, usually four, each placed in the corners. Height was crucial to prevent shadows and a high ball disappearing out of view in the night sky. Early on, goalkeepers complained of losing the flight of the ball from corner kicks. These latticed pylons turned previously anonymous football grounds into easy-to-find landmarks, like the tower of a church beckoning the worshippers.

The first floodlit football in Plymouth was not played at Home Park. On February 23, 1953 at the Plymouth Sports Stadium, Pennycross, a South Western League XI lost 4-2 to Torquay United. The reporter from the Western Morning News was not impressed by the stadium’s floodlights, saying they “...made the game appear as if it was played on a stormy winter’s day” and the players “...were not easily distinguishable.” But, the 4000 spectators, once they got used to conditions, saw a fast entertaining match as the players quickly adapted to the floodlights. 

Exeter City were amongst the early wave of Football League clubs that installed lights, playing their first floodlit match at home to Argyle on Monday, March 9, 1953. With the new floodlights roof-mounted, after an opening ceremony, a crowd of 8,130 saw the Grecians defeated 3-0.

At the end of August 1953, the floodlight installation at Home Park had been completed, composed of four corner-positioned 75ft-high temporary scaffold towers. Each tower, set in concrete, was mounted with a cluster of 16 reflective lights, making a total of 64 lamps. Tests showed the entire playing area was floodlit from corner to corner without a shadow and the ball stayed in vision, however high it was kicked. The towers, similar to those at Fratton Park, were said to be the highest of their type in any stadium.

A year after installing the temporary scaffold towers, Argyle’s chairman Sir Clifford Tozer, said that, because of a lack of funds, the scaffolding would give good service for a year or two more before they erected permanent floodlight pylons, which they had planning permission to do from the local authority. In fact, it will come as no surprise that the temporary towers stood for another four years and were not replaced until October 1958.

On Monday, September 28, 1953, for the first time, a match at 60-year-old Home Park was bathed in artificial light. The 88,000 watts of light attracted 8,250 to witness the new spectacle. The crowd roared frantically, though the Football Combination Cup match between Plymouth Argyle reserves and Bournemouth reserves was described as “mediocre”, ending 2-2. The verdict on the lights was “good”.

Argyle returned the compliment to Exeter City by inviting them to be their first opponents for the official opening of the Home Park floodlights on October 26, 1953. A small crowd of 2,050 braved bad weather to see Argyle triumph 3-1. As neither The F.A. or the Football League Management Committee had given permission to play F.A. Cup and Football League matches in the artificial light, Argyle, like the other clubs that now had floodlights, started a series of midweek matches termed as ‘floodlit friendlies’. In these matches, the team wore special silky green shirts to catch the light so that they were more visible to the crowd - and probably each other. My own personal experience of attending matches at Home Park began under these lights and I remember visibility was perfectly adequate.

Brought before the viewing Home Park public under lights was top Division 1 club Newcastle United on Monday, October 4, 1954 (Argyle won 3-2) followed by Chelsea on Monday, October 18, 1954, with an attendance of 13,244. Argyle scored first before the opponents glided to victory 5-1. Chelsea became the Division 1 champions at the end of that season, and, as such, were invited to take part in the first European Cup. later in the season two Austrian clubs visited for floodlit friendlies: Linzer Athletic Sports Klub on Wednesday, January 26, 1955, (Argyle won 3-2) and, two weeks later on Wednesday, February 9, Simmerringer SC Wien (Argyle won 7-1). In these matches, player substitutions, which the Football League did not allow until 1965-66, were a feature.

Permissions for floodlight FA Cup and Football League matches came in dribs and drabs, the authorities for both competitions feeling it necessary to drip feed the clubs, thus slowing down the revolution and keeping matters under control. Conversely, to fully exploit the use of the new floodlights, the bigger clubs eagerly wanted new midweek fixtures that were not a repeat of the fixtures they already had.

A group of clubs wanted to form an Anglo-Scottish floodlight league that would appeal to supporters and boost the takings. Formation of the league was refused. Arthur Rowe, the manager of Tottenham Hotspur, wanted his directors to push for a challenge cup competition with Spurs, Arsenal, Glasgow Rangers and Hibernian taking part, and playing each other home and away, six matches in total under floodlights. This similarly never got off the ground. In 1960, Rowe even mooted a Grand European Floodlight League that required good lighting - how right he became. 

Floodlights enabled the start of a new competition in 1955-56 entitled “The Cup of Champions” begun by UEFA. In its first season, it was improvised; not all of the 16 participating clubs were champions of the country’s top league; all were chosen by the French football magazine L’Equipe. Chelsea were chosen as the club to represent England but The F.A., yet again showing resistance to progress, saw the competition as a “distraction” and banned Chelsea from taking part. The only British club in the inaugural “Cup of Champions” was Hibernian, who made it through to the semi-final of the home and away aggregate knockout competition. The final was played at the Parc Des Princes, Paris, between Real Madrid and Reims, of France, on June 13, 1956. Real Madrid became the first European champions, winning 4-3. There was English participation in the final as the referee was Arthur Edward Ellis from Halifax, who later became known as the referee in the television comedy gameshow It’s A Knockout, from 1969-1981.

The whole competition was a great success, attracting big crowds. 129,690 at the Bernabeu Stadium watched Real Madrid win their home leg semi-final 4-2 against Milan. The following season, Manchester United under manager Matt Busby, as champions of England, would not allow The F.A. to bar them from this European competition and became the first English club to take part in it. The young Busby Babes made it to the semi-final and were defeated 5-3 on aggregate by Real Madrid, who became the European champions again for 1956-57 season. The 1957-58 season of the competition will be forever remembered for the Munich air disaster which took the lives of eight of the Manchester United players.

Back in England, permission to stage FA Cup replays under floodlights came in 1955 “where both clubs agree”. The first FA Cup replay under floodlights took place on September 14, 1955, in a preliminary round, when Kidderminster Harriers played Brierley Hill Alliance. The first replay involving Two Football League clubs was played on a neutral ground, at St James’s Park, Newcastle, between Carlisle United and Darlington on November 28, 1955, in a first-round decider. In 1956, FA Cup third round matches were also sanctioned under lights.

In the 1955-56 season, for the first time, Football League matches were allowed to be played under floodlights; again, under the stipulation “where both clubs agree.” The first fixture to do so was in Division 1, as it was then known, on February 22, 1956, at Fratton Park. The kick-off was delayed for 30 minutes because of a blown fuse. Portsmouth were defeated 2-0 by Newcastle United in front of a lower than average 15,800 crowd. From the following 56-57 season, a number of Football League matches began in daylight and finished under the glare of floodlights. Exeter City played their first such home league match on Saturday, November 10, 1956. St James’s lights came on when required; opponents Watford, as the rules stipulated, had consented.

Argyle’s first Football League Division 3 South match starting in daylight and finishing under floodlights at Home Park was played on Saturday, December 15, 1956, resulting in a 2-0 victory over Brentford watched by 6,203. The match attendance, which included a number of Hungarian refugees, was the lowest post-war; there was a 50 mph gale blowing and rain descending in sheets. The difficult conditions gave the white ball a life of its own as Argyle shot on any sight of goal. Later in the 1956-57 season, Home Park staged its first 90 minutes floodlit Football League match – on Monday, March 11, 1957. It was a 1-0 defeat for Argyle against Crystal Palace, with an attendance of 12,393.

A bewildering and beguiling list of opponents continued to be brought to Home Park for midweek floodlit friendlies. In the 1955-56 season, Argyle met Frankfurt, of West Germany (5-0); Tottenham Hotspur, of Football League Division 1 (0-0); Stuttgart Kickers, of West Germany (3-3); and Botofogo, of Brazil (2-3). It was exciting to see Brazilian international players at Home Park in April 1956, well before the visit of Pele and Santos, but the best loved match of all the continental visits came in 1956-57.

On Monday, November 11, 1956, Home Park was blessed with the visit of champions of West Germany FC Koln (Cologne). Their crisp, penetrating style gave Argyle a lesson. It was described as “glorious football”, and the 7,106 appreciative fans heartily cheered the visitors’ 3-2 victory. Fans watching similar matches on British grounds were being educated - football had moved on. Possession of the ball was tantamount, and as exciting as football in England can be, the isolating stance taken by The F.A. had done the nation no favours. At least, thanks to floodlights, we had now joined the revolution.

At the annual meeting of the Football League in London on Saturday, March 31, 1958, the last barrier to floodlight football was taken down. It was decided that, as long as the floodlights had the approval of the Football League Management Committee, clubs could no longer object to playing under the lights for league matches. This meant clubs could set their own favourite afternoon and evening kick-off time and keep it right through the season without the fear of the opponents’ objection. Argyle, as they had always wanted to do, were one of the few clubs to choose a later 3.15pm kick-off time to allow supporters to get to matches in time after work.

Argyle’s floodlight-aided late kick-offs caused me an anxious end to my Saturday afternoons, watching “Grandstand” on television from the 1960s. Exiles like me had to wait a frustratingly long time for the Home Park results to come in. Argyle’s ‘home’ result never manifested itself on the programme’s chattering teleprinter, and the final score was often still blank as a result reader read them in sequence from the completed divisional visual displays. I was willing the results to suddenly appear, which it often did, before the screen moved onto the next division. On a few very annoying occasions, the programme ended without the BBC revealing the result – thank goodness we now have the Internet.