One of the tricky things about writing this Throwback Thursday column is that preserved records and archives of matches get a lot spottier the further you go back in time. Obviously I can’t just embed a YouTube video of Preston North End’s 5-0 drubbing of West Bromwich Albion on the first Boxing Day in English league football back in 1888. (If only!) But even written records of the time aren’t that great. We know Preston won that first-ever league title without losing a single match, and we know some details from other fixtures, but that inaugural Football League season from 1888-89 still has some gaps in the official record.
That issue was particularly vexing for this week’s column, which looks back at a famous New Year’s Day match from Scotland during World War II. It’s a big date in Scottish football and something football fans and trivia nerds like to dig up from time-to-time. But there’s a problem— while we’re pretty sure the game actually happened, we can’t, strictly speaking, confirm it. And there are some, uh, conflicting reports.
This week, we try to look back at the Edinburgh Derby from New Year’s Day, 1940. But we make no promises as to the veracity of this account. Our perspective, it seems, is a bit foggy.
Britain had officially been in World War II for about four months. While the Luftwaffe wouldn’t begin The Blitz for another nine months, bombing runs throughout England and Scotland weren’t uncommon. Still, life had to go on. So despite the threat of bombing, and league football being officially suspended so players could join the war effort, some semblance of competition was continued through the war. And on New Year’s Day that first full year of the war, that included a— technically unofficial— meeting of the Edinburgh Derby.
That clash between Hibernian and Heart Of Midlothian at Easter Road was a big enough deal that the BBC decided to broadcast it over the radio, both at home and for British soldiers serving abroad. And here is where things start to get complicated.
On New Year’s Day, Edinburgh was enveloped in a pea-souper. The fog that had blanketed the city was so thick that visibility had been reduced to about 10 feet. It made it extremely difficult for Edinburgh residents to function as normal (holiday notwithstanding), and under normal circumstances it would’ve made football an impossibility.
But the game was set to be broadcast for soldiers fighting on the front lines. If the match was canceled as per the rules— and, you know, common sense— it would’ve tipped the Nazis off as to the current weather conditions in Edinburgh. Lives could’ve been lost. Important public infrastructure could’ve gone up in flames. For the sake of the country, the Nazis had to believe that nothing was amiss.
And so the game went ahead, on a pitch where the players couldn’t even see each other, and in front of a crowd of 14,000 who spent the next two hours unsure what the heck was going on.
Here’s how the game played out according to the official record. The first half was a tight contest, and with just over half an hour gone the game was level at 2-2. Bobby Nutley then scored to give Hibs a 3-2 lead which they would take into the tunnel at halftime. Or so they thought; the referee called the game two minutes early and had to corral the players back out onto the pitch in order to finish the half. In the ensuing chaos, Hearts scored two to post a 4-3 lead once halftime was officially called. The visitors made it 5-3 a few minutes into the second half, but with time ticking away John Cuthbertson added to his first-half goal in the 70th and 75th minute to complete a hat-trick and draw Hibs level at 5-5. But with just a few minutes to go in these absurd proceedings, Chelsea legend Tommy Walker regained the lead for Hearts and the match finished, eventually, at 6-5. Not everyone heard the whistle go at halftime and some of the players continued to play, while the crowd waited until someone told them it was over. Hearts left-winger John Donaldson, who scored twice in the first half, had to be rescued by his teammates who had left the pitch without him.
That’s what we know of the game from the record and from a few first-hand accounts. Those listening to the game on the radio, however, got a very different version of the game.
Owing to the security issue surrounding the German bombing runs, BBC broadcaster Bob Kingsley was directed to call the game as if it was a clear and sunny day. Kingsley, patriot and good sport that he was, agreed to call the match to the best of his ability and to not give away the current weather conditions. Given that he couldn’t see anything more than a few feet directly in front of him, describing the match proceedings was something of a problem. He tried to solve it at first by dragooning some runners to race up and down and touchline, observing the action and darting back to report on their findings. It wasn’t a bad idea under the circumstances, but the exercise quickly devolved into a multiplayer game of Telephone and too much of the action was getting missed.
Knowing he had to act quickly, Kingsley made a bold decision. He started making stuff up.
Kingsley’s play-by-play of the match was, as The Guardian put it, “... an elaborate freeform jazz riff, inventing a fantastical comic-book match packed with outrageous mazy dribbles, superlative goals, incomprehensible saves, near misses and fights.” The recording of the broadcast has been lost to time, which is a damn shame, because it sounds like it was the white-knuckle thrill-ride of the summer. How much resemblance it bore to the game that played out on the pitch at Easter Road is an entirely different matter. And while Kingsley went about 15 minutes over time (he, like many on the pitch and in the stands, didn’t know the match was over at first), the result was accurately reported, listeners were thoroughly entertained, and the Nazis were none the wiser.
The Scottish Premiership isn’t holding any matches on New Year’s Day this year, although the next meeting of the Old Firm kicks off on New Year’s Eve. In English football, the closest we have would be a minor London Derby between Arsenal and Crystal Palace. But look on the bright side— you’re much more likely to know what actually happens on the pitch this weekend.