IT is 71 days since Bolton Wanderers last took to the field at Burton Albion for a breezy 2-2 draw which bore little relevance to either club’s fate in League One.

The season – even with 10 games remaining – was effectively over for Keith Hill’s side but little did we realise how literal that sentiment was about to become.

Football was locked down before Bolton could host Peterborough United the following weekend, the coronavirus pandemic which had previously failed to permeate the sporting bubble suddenly thrust front and centre.

Only once before in Wanderers’ history has the club had to put things on hold for anything like as long – and at least then the lack of football was not for the want of trying.

The Great Freeze of late 1962 to early 1963 decimated the sporting calendar and brought the entire country to a standstill.

The Bolton News: How Victoria Square looked in the Big Freeze of December 1962How Victoria Square looked in the Big Freeze of December 1962

Snow fell six inches deep in Bolton during December and up to 18 inches in parts of nearby Cheshire. Winds of 119 miles per hour were recorded on the Isle of Man.

Wanderers, whose Burnden Park ground was susceptible to weather at the best of times, were left without a fixture for 70 days, including the postponement of eight league games and the rescheduling of an FA Cup tie against Sheffield United on no fewer than 13 occasions. No other team in the land were stranded in the same way.

Attempts were made to train – both under the stands at Burnden and at Bromwich Street – but the conditions made it practically impossible for players to keep their fitness up.

Alex Smith, the goalkeeper who played understudy to the great Eddie Hopkinson, remembers a winter of great discontent, and so has some sympathy with the professionals who have been left fending for themselves in the last couple of months.

“If the players these days are anything like us – we were climbing the walls after a few weeks,” he laughed from his bed store on Derby Street. “We still went into the club every day and jogged round under the stands but Bolton was basically a block of ice.

“We had a gym but the players couldn’t all fit in there. And the trainer tried to get us doing a little bit of ball work – but for a keeper like me, Albert Lord or Hoppy, it was no good.

“We couldn’t dive on the floor. Not that I did a lot of diving anyway!

“I suppose players at the moment can go outside and have a run around the park, even though they are not playing. It’s depressing for them but at least they have got the weather.”

The Bolton News: Wanderers trainer George Taylor tried to keep the players motivated during the Big FreezeWanderers trainer George Taylor tried to keep the players motivated during the Big Freeze

George Taylor was tasked with keeping the players fit back in those days and Smith remembers turning up to Bolton one morning to find him waiting aboard a coach with the engine running.

“They got us all board and then told us we were heading for Southport for a change of scenery,” he said. “The temperatures on the coast weren’t quite as bad and so we got to run up and down the beach a bit.

“It was boring, I certainly remember that. Every morning you’d get up and go into the club but by lunchtime you’d realise there was nothing more you could do.

“How our wives didn’t kill us, I don’t know!”

In a hark back to a very different era, TV crews even assembled some of the players’ wives outside the Town Hall for an interview.

“Granada asked for all the wives to turn up on the Town Hall steps to talk about what it was like having us at home all the time,” he recalled.

“I think we were all going stir crazy because we were footballers, we wanted to be out there playing the game but there was no chance. The whole place was like an ice rink.

“At least I suppose we could look outside and see the weather, and if we fell over it was our own daft fault. This thing at the moment is invisible, you don’t know what you are up against and that’s quite scary when you think about it.”

Things got so bad for Bolton at one stage that the team boarded a plane and flew to Ireland, facing Manchester United in a friendly.

More than 6,000 fans turned out at Flower Lodge in Cork to see the Reds win 4-2 on February 13, 1963, three days before Bolton’s wait to play was finally ended at Arsenal.

Francis Lee scored twice for Bolton – Johnny Giles, Paddy Crerand and Dennis Law netting for United, who had taken the lead with a Graham Stanley own goal.

The game at Arsenal, whose stadium had the rare luxury of undersoil heating, also ended on a down-note for poor Eddie Hopkinson.

With the game finely balanced at 1-1, a soft free kick was awarded against Bryan Edwards on the Arsenal right.

The Bolton Evening News’ Hayden Berry continued: “Armstrong placed the free-kick badly, swinging it straight to Hopkinson, who would normally have ‘swallowed it,’ as they say.

“But Strong challenged and so, Hopkinson said later, accidentally poked him in the eye – and in that involuntary blink the ball sailed straight in.

“That is why Hopkinson was bent down, holding his hand to his face, as an almost unbelieving Arsenal team jumped for joy.

“He was still a very unhappy player in the dressing room… Taking full blame for his mates’ lost bonus.”

It is fair to say they quickly forgave him.

“Ha – always blame the keeper, never the 10 in front of him,” said Smith, reminding us that membership to the goalkeeper’s union is for life, not just for a playing career.

The harsh conditions sparked a debate within the game about a winter break, one which raged on for decades afterwards in the belief it could help over-worked players perform better for England at international tournaments.

Back then, the onus was more on the lack of entertainment being provided in the dimly-lit December games, even at a luxurious venue like Highbury.

JR Wall wrote in the programme for the Arsenal game: “In all our thinking about the national game we must surely look at things with an ever-changing viewpoint. Firstly and most importantly, the spectator himself looks for a satisfying spectacle of reasonably entertaining football.

“Frolics on the ice with bumps and bruises, lost tempers and fisticuffs is not really entertainment and the man on the terraces is now far too discerning to accept it as a reasonable return for his outlay of admission money.”

Who knows what the discerning man on the terraces would have made of Bolton’s games against Wolves a few decades later.

By the start of March, attempts to play the FA Cup third round game against Sheffield United had reached farcical proportions.

“I remember getting on the coach and being told the game was definitely on – I’ve no idea how many times we’d tried to play it by that point but the bus was going this way and that, all over the place, as we tried to get over the top,” Smith remembered.

“We got over there about 4pm and started to prepare. They were still saying ‘yes, it’s on’ but then as soon as night started to fall, so did the temperatures. It was as if they hadn’t thought of that.

“We ended up having to go back by train. I’ve no idea what time it was when we got back but we didn’t seeThe Bolton News: Fun and games at Rivington Pike during the Big Freeze of December 1962Fun and games at Rivington Pike during the Big Freeze of December 1962 a blasted ball kicked!”

Once again, Bolton struggled to get themselves going for the cup tie, losing 3-1 at Bramall Lane when it was finally played on March 6. Three days later Franny Lee gained a measure of revenge by scoring a hat-trick against the Blades in a rescheduled league game at Burnden.

The 62/63 season was still completed in May despite the long break, and Wanderers played no fewer than eight times in April.

They finished a couple of places above the relegation zone - and one above United - with Francis Lee and Wyn Davies both getting into double figures.

Though clubs were hardly helped by the lack of gate receipts during the Big Freeze, Smith reckons football was able to cope with the hiatus because finances were in a much better shape.

“At Bolton we never had mention of financial problems and I’d like to have seen the books to see how close we actually got,” he said. “When you think of what the gates were at that time, I don’t think the wages ate up anything like what they do now.

“Clubs were not as reliant on the money coming in from TV, so I think football back then was able to cope a lot better than it seems they are doing right now.”