Light up the sky – the peculiar appeal of floodlights

THERE was an old pub-quiz poser that asked how many sets of football floodlights you passed when you drove up the M1 (or was it A1?) motorway. I cannot remember the answer now, but that question highlighted the sign-posting aspect of the good old floodlight – steel pylons with an assortment of lamps perched upon them. They were not aesthetic in any way, purely practical and often quite ugly. British football floodlights were straight out of industrial estates, municipal car parks or dockyards. They were certainly a case of function over form.

But don’t we just love the old-fashioned floodlight? They’re a dying breed, overtaken by modern stadium design where lighting is placed on main stands. Occasionally, you might find an abandoned pylon, cut-off in its prime and a sad tribute to post-WW2 progress, rusting, moss-ridden and undoubtedly a resting place for pigeons and their droppings. It’s hard to believe that people used to scale them like Everest to gain a better vantage point to watch a game, especially when the terraces were packed in the days before we discovered health and safety.

The old floodlight was also a superb marker when you were looking for a football ground on an away trip. As soon as you approached the outskirts of town, you would scan the horizon and try and spot the obvious signs of life. If it was a winter game, it was highly likely you would see the lights flickering as they were turned on in the late afternoon sky. 

Frequently, floodlights were out of proportion with the rest of the ground. I recall seeing pylons at Wolverhampton, Portsmouth, Hereford and other stadiums that seemed absolutely enormous, towering over the neighbourhood and sending streams of light into neighbouring back gardens, suggesting that on midweek matchdays, there would be no need to use domestic lighting to watch TV. 

I have always had a strong affection for eastern bloc floodlights. Football illumination in the Soviet era could be quite spectacular, huge, geometric, overhanging pylons that were not just functional but also evoked the space race and represented a technological two-fingered salute to the west. “This is what we can do,” seemed to be the message. They might appear like sci-fi alien ships, huge tripods that contained horrors from other worlds. 

But floodlights of all shapes and sizes helped to create the spectacle. When they were alight in some towns, they created a somewhat surreal atmosphere not just in the stadium, but in the surrounding area. From a distance, you could see a glow, almost like a smouldering bonfire. I recall walking away from the Vasas Budapest stadium a few years ago, before it was refubrished, and while there were no street lamps, the floodlights lit-up the dark and a slightly intimidating neighbourhood as I tried to find the metro back to my hotel. I saw stray dogs silhouetted by the Rudolf Illovszky lights, which sent a shiver down my spine (I don’t like big dogs, especially those that don’t speak English).

And I have never had a more intimate experience with a floodlight than when I sat almost at the top of Valencia’s iconic Mestalla stadium and even felt the heat of the lamps on my back! 

Technology has made the light almost natural at some grounds. In Saitama, thanks to advanced Japanese techy, it was almost like daylight at 10.00 pm at a match involving Urawa Reds.

Technology has reached such a stage that the old-type of lights are probably no longer needed, smaller, more minimalistic pylons and lamps are the order of the day for those that need them. Yet I can’t help comparing them to the machines that climbed out of the meteor-cum-UFO featured in the old 1950s film, War of the Worlds.

However, with so much emphasis on climate change, we should perhaps ask ourselves if floodlit football will be scrutinised at some stage. If you recall, back in the  early-1970s when we had an energy crisis in Britain, midweek night games were suspended. Perhaps we can look forward to a future where solar and other forms of renewable energy are utilised to help the cause?

Floodlights as we knew them in those far-off days clearly have a limited life span, so it is a case of enjoying them now because you never know when they will disappear. There are still some gems to be seen in central and eastern Europe and beyond, but as more and more new football arenas are built, lighting will surely become more integrated.

The sight of those old pylons starts to get the adrenalin flowing for many fans, they indicate you are closing in on the game. It is part of the ritual of football and when you’re sat basking in the spotlight, watching the actors on the stage, the atmosphere is hard to beat. It will soon be back!

Photos: PA Images

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine, reproduced by permission.

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