It has been widely reported that The Football League will soon debate the proposed reintroduction of artificial pitches at professional level. Whether or not this will happen anytime soon is a matter for considerable discussion - a period of consultation is currently taking place until 30th April, after when the subject will be debated by member clubs - but one thing is for certain: any future use of artificial pitches by Football League clubs will in no way replicate the failed 'plastic pitches' of the 1980's and 1990's, which have done much to tarnish the reputation of artificial turf over the years.
Instead, the modern 3rd Generation (3G) artificial turf systems are unrecognisable, both in their aesthetics and their performance levels, and have even had the stamp of approval from football's world governing body, FIFA. Here, Nick Harris, from artificial pitch maintenance company Technical Surfaces Ltd, examines the finer characteristics of 3G turf, and outlines the key maintenance practices required to ensure that artificial turf can replicate top-quality natural grass to the highest standards, as demanded by football's elite.
3G artificial turf systems are uniquely constructed to emulate natural sports surfaces as closely as possible. Playing characteristics such as ball roll and bounce, stud slide and shock absorption are generally considered to be improved by the carpet's longer fibres (around 50-60mm) and cushioning rubber infill. To allow a 3G pitch to provide a consistently high standard of play, these features must be preserved. Regular De-compactions help to agitate the surface and remove contamination, simultaneously lifting the carpet fibres and loosening the rubber infill, which can become flattened and compacted during play. Keeping the pile upright not only protects the carpet fibres from wear, it also preserves the playing characteristics and restores the aesthetic qualities of a 3G pitch. Loosening the rubber infill also helps to improve drainage and control the feel of the surface underfoot, whilst allowing for infill levels to be monitored at repeated intervals.
Regular maintenance is vital to the long-term viability of a 3G artificial pitch, and combining daily and weekly in-house routines with more specialist work is the key to a successful maintenance programme. Drag brushing should be carried out at least weekly, to maintain a consistent distribution of infill and help lift the carpet pile. Compaction of the infill can also be reduced with suitable equipment.
It is also important to regularly remove the dirt, debris and contamination that can bed in amongst the rubber infill. A 3G pitch should be swept using a rotary brush with filtration systems that lift and clean the top layer of rubber infill, before returning it to the carpet. This should ideally be carried out on a monthly basis to complement in-house drag brushing. A more intense clean should also be completed either annually or as a minimum every 2nd year, to ensure comprehensive de-compaction and dirt removal.
As with all artificial turf systems, moss and weed growth can create problems on 3G pitches and must be tackled regularly. Failure to remove this material will increase contamination levels, leave the pitch looking unsightly and, most importantly, pose health and safety risks to players in the form of slip hazards.
Regular pitch inspections help to ensure that rubber levels and distribution are assessed and corrected before any infill displacement can weaken the carpet fibres, increase the rate at which the carpet wears, compromise the playing characteristics and foreshorten the life expectancy of the surface. Rubber levels should be topped up every 1 to 2 years as a minimum.
As with natural grass, the good condition of an artificial pitch can only be sustained with regular care and attention throughout its life. It is essential to understand the routines and practices relevant to 3G pitches in order to achieve the best results - something that should be at the heart of any debate about their proposed use in English professional football.
If you have a 3rd Generation surface and need help or advice on maintenance contact Technical Surfaces on Tel: 08702 400 700 and ask to speak to a Technical Manager.
Pictured above: The Football League will soon debate the proposed reintroduction of artificial pitches at professional level.