Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Legendary Phantom Football Match: the strangest sports broadcast of all time

Hibs v Hearts 1935

"It is a dashing tale involving wartime heroism, broadcasting in the face of adversity and the strangest ever Edinburgh football derby, which must rank as the most electrifying in the game’s history. Rarely has a contest produced so many brave performances, blistering goals and heroic saves.

"Unknown to the fans of both teams, this really was fantasy football. The game’s action had been fictionalized by the commentator.

"The game made a legend out of radio voice Bob Kingsley, known as Rex, who was sent by the BBC to cover the game for the armed forces’ service as a treat for soldiers overseas. It was the 1940 New Year’s Day game between Hibs v Hearts at Easter Road (Edinburgh, stadium of the Hibs).

"Unfortunately, a thick fog descended on the stadium and when he sat in the commentary box, he could see neither the players nor the ball. The players themselves couldn’t see as far as their bootlaces.

"When Kingsley turned up he expected to be sent home early because of the fog. Football historian Bob Crampsey tells us that Kingsley asked 'very reasonable questions' as to whether the game should be abandoned, but they were ignored. Why, you might wonder, did the fixture go ahead if the weather was so awful?

"It was because the BBC chiefs had been ordered not to cancel the game. The BBC’s head of outside broadcasts, Leo Hunter, informed Kingsley that the match would go ahead and he would have to give a commentary, because to cancel the game would alert German pilots as to the state of the weather in Edinburgh.

Bridge at the Firth of Forth, in good weather

A. R. Miller  link is here

"Kingsley was told on no account must he mention the weather. The Nazi Luftwaffa must not find out that there was a heavy fog over the Firth of Forth, for fear of hastening an airstrike on the bridge. And so, with the Forth Railway Bridge near the top of the enemy’s ‘hit list,’ Kingsley had to go about his work as though nothing was wrong.

An RAF plane battles with a Luftwaffe plane over Tower Bridge, London, 
during the Battle of Britain in 1940-41. link is here

" 'If you can’t see what’s happening” he was told, “make it up.' "

As the writer put it, "Fawlty Towers 40 years ahead of itself."

"From his seat in the stand, Kingsley watched in stunned horror as the teams came out of the fog and passed the broadcasting hut, and then disappeared into the muck.

Easter Road stadium 1950
"He set about covering the match, even though he could see nothing on the pitch (the sports field). He could only see two players - Donaldson, the Hearts left-winger, and Gilmartin, the Hibernian right-winger. So a complex system of runners and information chains were set up by the struggling

BBC man to make sure he covered the game’s major talking points, such as goals and corner kicks.

"But Kingsley was still forced to invent descriptions of other highlights of the match. And there was plenty, as Hearts won a thriller 6 goals to 5. Starved of immediate information, Kingsley bravely soldiered on, resorting to inventing descriptions of marvelous saves and scorching efforts on goal.

"Kingsley also depended on the reaction he heard from the crowd of some 12,000-14,000 football fans at Easter Road. From the cheers of the crowd he could tell when a goal had been made- the problem was that he couldn't tell for sure which side had made it! He had to send his runners out to see. The size of the roar probably helped indicate Hibs or Hearts, because it was a home game for Hibs.

Hearts logo
"It was said that he let his imagination run wild, making up a sunny match packed with outrageous goals. Bob Crampsey said, 'Kingsley was buoyed only by the knowledge that if he could not see the pitch, few people were in a position to contradict him.'

"Kingsley was slightly disappointed to later find the real thing had ended even more fantastically, Hearts 6-5. Remarkably, the game lived up to the fictional commentary. * Unfortunately many in the crowd, thinking the game was a wash, had already left before the end, and missed the climax. Others were only informed that the match had finished 10 minutes after the final whistle.

"Unaware of the game’s conclusion, Kingsley continued 'describing' the action for 15 minutes after the final whistle.

Hibs logo
"Even some of the players did not know the final whistle had gone, and lingered on the pitch for an extra ten minutes. The official records show that Hearts won 6-5.

"Shortly after the end of the game, as the exhausted Kingsley went off in search of mild restoratives, he heard voices inquiring for Donaldson, the Hearts left-winger, who had not returned to the dressing room with the other players.

"A search party was despatched. He was found loyally patrolling his beat on the far side of the field, calling forlornly to team-mates who had long since gone off and waiting for a ball to emerge from the swirling mist. He hadn’t realised it was all over."

PLAYING A BLINDER (radio play 2002 about this game) . .

"Edinburgh actor and playwright Andrew Dallmeyer wrote a 30-minute radio play for Radio Scotland about the legendary game, titled Playing A Blinder. After two year’s work it was performed, appropriately, on New Year’s Day, 2002.

"Dallmeyer said, 'When I read the story many years ago I thought it would make a brilliant farce.' He has written extensively for the stage and radio since 1973, and now hopes his play will be transferred to the stage.

"Dallmeyer explains how he dealt with research for the play. 'There is some uncertainty about exactly how many were in the crowd or even the identity of the teams, as some of the players were called away to active duty at the last minute. There is no record of the match on tape so I had to imagine how it might have sounded. And Mr. Kingsley had sadly died some years later.

Dallmeyer said, "'I took the approach that Bob Kingsley would have begun his commentary raw and floundering. But as the match progressed, so would he become ever more confident, describing flowing moves and great saves as he became carried away with the fantasy of it all,' with the goalie 'leaping like a salmon.' As for the system of runners to bring Kingsley the news, Dallmeyer suspects this may have resulted in some fairly muddled messages and has a lot of fun with this idea in his script.

But Dallmeyer also stayed true to the main events of the game and the events surrounding it.

"He added, 'Bob’s story was a true example of the human spirit and how we can pull together in the face of adversity.'"

* One of the few other sources for this story on the web is a sportswriter who describes the actual game that nobody saw, a game legendary in itself:

"...the actual match itself was an insane rollercoaster in any case. The score at half-time was 3-2 to Hibs. Or it was until the referee realised he had blown up after 43 minutes. The other 120 seconds were played, during which, naturally, Hearts scored twice. In the second period, the men in maroon extended their lead to 5-3, only for Hibs to haul themselves level at 5-5 with John Cuthbertson completing a hat-trick. Sadly for the home side, it was all in vain, as Tommy Walker – who would later star in England for Chelsea – scored in the last minute to secure an outlandish 6-5 win." [Scott Murray, see below]


I found very few original online sources for this story, and three have vanished. It's hard to believe such a fascinating bit of history is so obscure. I wondered if it was a hoax, but the details sound too genuine. Many of these sources are not originals but simply quote chunks of each other- but I have outdone them, I QUOTE THEM ALL, and leave out almost nothing! Thus if I may say so myself, I consider myself the foremost source, especially since the original article- which we are all basically copying-  in The Scotsman by Bob Crampsey cannot be found.

• Scott Murray for
• [no longer available on web]
• [no longer available on web]
and from these general sites:
[no longer available on web]

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