An edited version of this article appeared in the Cambridge United match day programme for the game against Crawley Town on 30 March 2018.
If you find sleep difficult to come by, the FA Guide to Floodlighting: Building, Protecting and Enhancing Sustainable Football Facilities is just the thing you need.
A page or two of this puzzling volume, with its talk of lux and lumens, will flood the most wide-awake brain with snooze-inducing endorphins and grant a good eight hours of blissful slumber.
But lighting football pitches has not always been such a baffling science. When Blackburn played Accrington in November 1878, the match was illuminated by two lights attached to 40ft scaffolds.
They provided light equivalent to 6,000 candles – many more than the traditional four – but it was still found necessary to paint the ball white so that players and spectators could see it.
Modern floodlighting systems began to appear in English grounds in the early 1950s, but the need for lights was evident to Abbey United as early as 1949/50: fading light hid the identity of the final scorer from officials and the press in a U’s v Harwich match.
In 1952/53, player-manager Bill Whittaker blamed a lack of training time for his side’s failings in front of goal. ‘During the dark nights the lads don’t have a chance to get in dribbling or shooting practice …,’ he grumbled. Cambridge United needed floodlights.
But it wasn’t until 1956-57 that serious thought was given to the installation of a proper system. At that time the team trained two nights a week under a solitary pitch-side lamp, and goalkeeper Arthur Morgan later recalled: ‘You couldn’t play a game under it or even do much work with the ball, so most of the time was spent jogging, running and sprinting.’
The project began in earnest in October 1957, when player Len Saward used some of his testimonial fund to buy a primitive set of lights. This was not top of the range stuff – it consisted of four telegraph poles on each side, each equipped with four lamps – but it was a start.
Newmarket Road’s first floodlit match, an East Anglian Cup replay against Great Yarmouth, took place on October 21. ‘The lights on each side are sufficiently powerful to overlap in the middle of the field!’ gushed the Cambridge Daily News.
The lights’ efficiency was soon improved by the addition of reflectors and an increase in power to 1,000 watts in each group. But this wasn’t enough for ambitious United, and directors began inspecting other non-League grounds’ systems. The financial considerations of a modern installation were daunting – besides the basic costs, a new electricity sub-station would be needed – so in December 1961 the Supporters’ Club started raising funds.
Floodlight Fund badges were sold; fans were urged to ‘give until it hurts’ as blanket collections circulated on matchdays; the proceeds of tombola sessions added to the growing pot. By the end of November 1962, supporters were able to hand over £4,000 to enable an order to be placed.
And so the magnificent structures we see today came to be erected during the long, bitterly cold winter of 1962/63, after players had joined supporters in digging the foundations.
On 11 March 1963, when the four steel pylons with 24 lamps each were at last soaring 37 metres into the Barnwell sky, when £13,500 had been spent and when the weather relented, the U’s ran out to face Bedford Town under the Abbey Stadium’s crowning glory.