The first floodlit football match

In 1878, the year that Joseph Swan patented the incandescent light bulb, the first floodlit game of football took place – but it wasn’t a particular success. Up until then, the traditional 3pm kick off had been settled upon as a convenient time to ensure that the final whistle blew before the sun went down. However, frustrations over the failure to decide the 1876 FA Cup Final (when bad light curtailed extra time) brought calls for illuminated matches.

The first floodlit match was played on Monday 14 October 1878 at Bramall Lane between two Sheffield Football Association sides. As many as 30,000 spectators turned up to witness the curious experiment, arranged in part to promote the Tasker electrical company, run by local engineering pioneer John Tasker. It was quite a spectacle, and remains one of the most curious football matches ever played.

“The match was announced to commence at half-past seven o’clock,” reported the Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, “and considerably before that hour the roads to Bramhall Lane were completely besieged. The wonder was where all the people came from. There seemed no end to the ever-coming stream, and the crowd of excited people outside the gates struggling to pass in at the turnstiles created a scene of great animation. The vast enclosure – extensive as it is – appeared quite crowded, so large was the assembly, and there must have been a considerable number who failed to get a fair view of the play, as it was quite impossible to see over the heads of the dense masses of humanity, all craning their necks towards the debateable territory.”

Four lamps were placed on wooden stages at each corner of the pitch, and they were powered by two portable Siemens dynamo machines situated behind each goal. Once the lamps had been successfully illuminated, each was hoisted 30 feet in the air. “The illuminating power equalled 8000 standard candles, and the cost per hour for each light was about 3½d,” reported the Independent.

At 7.30, the teams emerged, wearing blue and red, and captained by Sheffield’s famous footballing brothers Charles and William Clegg. “At first the light was certainly too powerful to be looked at with comfort,” said the Independent. “The distinguishable colours of the two sides were clearly visible, although it was rather difficult to discern the individual movements on the top side of the ground. Whether the lights were fixed to the best advantage is an open question; the general impression was they were slightly too near.”

As the match got underway, it became clear that the lights didn’t cover the whole pitch, and couldn’t be moved quickly enough to keep up with play. As Tasker’s engineers busied themselves to fix the lighting, it seemed there was more action off the pitch than on it. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the lamps were so powerful that spectators and players struggled to see properly. The Manchester Times reported: “Some amusement was caused by the brilliance of the light, which dazzled the players sometimes, and caused some strange blunders.”

In the end, the actual football became something of a sideshow alongside a display of electrical ingenuity. The Blues won the match 2-0, scoring a goal in each half. Tomlinson scored the first, but the second goalscorer couldn’t be identified. “Speaking of the play, we must say that both sides exhibited wonderful form,” said the Independent, “although the Blues as a body played better together, and to this maybe attributed their success.”

“The contest over, the difficulty was to leave the ground. Such a concourse has never previously been seen at Bramhall Lane, and as the means of exit are not particularly easy, there was quite a scene when the spectators attempted to leave. Great good temper, however, was exhibited by all, and eventually the great crowd cleared away without, as far as we were able to ascertain, the slightest accident.”
That wasn’t quite true. A later report stated that a horse-drawn waggonette had ploughed through the crowd during the match, leaving four people seriously injured. The Sheffield experiment had been an ambitious failure. Subsequent experiments over the next few weeks, including a couple of high profile matches in London, also failed to impress, and floodlights weren’t properly introduced to football for another 70 years.

Published in issue 7 of Late Tackle.

Published by Paul Brown

Writes about football, history, true adventure. The Guardian, Four Four Two, When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard, Longreads, Deadspin, etc. Latest book: The Ruhleben Football Association. Twitter: @paulbrownUK