In early September, non-league Maidstone United FC sealed a two year deal with local higher education centre MidKent College. The deal signals the formation of a new football academy at the club, whereby students from the college will spend five days a week at Maidstone's new Gallagher Stadium studying for a BTEC Level 3 in Sport, as well as a range of vocational football-related qualifications, whilst learning more about the game, training to play and competing in three regional and national leagues - Conference Reserves League (national), the English Colleges League (regional) and the Kent Students Sports Association League (local).
This comes at a time when a growing number of professional clubs are being forced to drop their academies, as costs for nurturing young talents rise steeply.
Such investment, which would have been impossible twelve months ago, has been made a reality with the relocation of the club to their new ground following many years in the wilderness, sharing with the likes of Dartford, Sittingbourne and Ashford since the sale of their original home ground over twenty-four years ago.
The Kent club played host to Championship high-flyers Brighton and Hove Albion in their opening pre-season fixture, with their new £2.6m Gallagher Stadium in James Whatman Way officially unveiled to a packed home crowd. Albion manager, Gus Poyet, was glowing in his admiration for the host's new surface, labelling it "magnificent" and adding that "the players were happy and the ball rolled very well. There were no issues and no injuries, so it was perfection. Congratulations to Maidstone."
It may baffle some as to how a non-league club like Maidstone United could afford the luxury of a pitch that would grace the top flight. The bounce of the ball is "perfect", according to Stones Director Oliver Ash, with no bobbles or uneven patches. "When wet, it fizzes across the surface and, when dry, the bounce slows up," he adds. The reality today is that the same qualities that are attributed to a Desso or fibre sand pitch, can also be made of 3G, which is in part why Maidstone opted for the synthetic alternative for their new home.
The virtues of synthetic surfaces are becoming more widely accepted, even at the highest level. A landmark ruling by the Football Association (FA) means that, for the first time, permission has been granted for the use of synthetic pitches in the early rounds of FA knockout competitions.
A far cry from the early disaster stories of Queens Park Rangers and Luton Town, third generation (3G) carpets are markedly different. Many coaches and professionals praise their quality and playability, and the Kent club is the latest in a growing list of lower league outfits to opt for a 3G instead of natural turf - choosing to install the surface in their new stadium, to reduce the effect of the weather and create a vital income stream for themselves, and clubs like them, fighting to balance the books. This was certainly the thinking behind Maidstone's decision.
"Choosing a 3G pitch allowed us extra revenue from pitch hire, fewer cancelled fixtures, opportunity to hire it out to local community teams and generate additional revenue in the clubhouse from pitch users," Ash explains. "There's also much scope for use of it off season for other events and other sports, including the local American football team that will use the facility this year. We'll improve the standard of play by having a perfect surface: the quality of ours, we believe, is the same as Wembley."
The 3,000 capacity Gallagher stadium was built in part thanks to a £150,000 grant from the Football Stadia Improvement Fund, the largest financial backers of non-league football in the country, with the rest of the £2.8m met by the owners, shareholders and supporters. The main contractor was Gallagher of Maidstone, who is the main club sponsor, and owners of the stadium naming rights, as part of the contract package. The pitch was supplied by Fieldturf and installed by Tony Patterson Ltd.
Bill Williams, chief executive of Maidstone United, said: "The contribution from the Football Stadia Improvement Fund has helped to make the Stones homecoming a reality. For the first time in nearly a quarter of a century, the county town of Kent has its own football stadium - a facility that will be enjoyed by supporters and can be used by the whole community."
Maidstone United is an example of how quickly a club's fortunes can fall. Twenty-two years ago they were in the old Fourth Division play offs, dreaming of a progression up the leagues, akin to that seen by the likes of Wimbledon and Crawley Town more recently. The Stones suffered the heartache of missing the Play-Off final spot, and had over-extended themselves in trying to become Kent's Premier football club.
They sold their home ground back in 1988 to MFI and moved in with Southern League Dartford, some twenty-five miles away but, despite league football still being on the table, the crowds weren't willing to follow.
The plan was to move back home once Football League fixtures were established, and the club bought land for nearly £400,000 in the town, but planning permission was declined and they were left with land they couldn't use.
Mounting financial problems began to impact on the field and, in the 1991/92 season, the club sacked manager Graham Carr - father of comedian Alan Carr - and were financially crippled and forced to withdraw from the Football League in August 1992.
The will of the fans meant the club reformed as Maidstone Invicta and were accepted into the Kent League, with the long-term dream of a return to the town still the uppermost aim.
Land was found in the town, deals were finally done and the Gallagher Stadium was built, being officially unveiled on the 17th July this year.
It's easy to see why the club want to establish a secure financial future and with an asset that will offer year round income generation. For Maidstone, 3G was less a choice and more a necessity.
"It was not viable not to have a 3G pitch," reveals Ash. "Direct revenue is about £100,000 a year, indirect income adding to that figure. Also, having the other community teams sharing the ground develops an intimate club culture, which is also positive for revenue generation and loyalty down the line," he stresses.
"If the club is to be successful, it has to have a sound business base and make profits in order to reimburse capital costs and to give it stability." Income for overall pitch hire, including allowances for virtual income from first team matches and academy use, will be about £150,000 in a full season, with outgoing costs, such as lighting, maintenance and amortisation needed to be deducted from that figure, he adds.
The FA's willingness to relax the rules on 3G use, is in recognition of the high standard of the modern carpet, and an awareness of the financial constraints of the lower league clubs. "The shift in stance from the FA is due to our recognising the value of using 3G," explains Mark Pover, the FA's National Facilities and Investment Manager. "3G has an advantage in certain circumstances, over and above natural turf," he argues.
"We expect that the standard of grass pitches will fall, due to the recession and cuts in budgets, especially where local authorities are tasked with their upkeep," he continues. "Our plans for 3G form part of a wider, multilateral approach to the maintenance and upkeep of natural and artificial pitches."
The FA's target is to enable every club to have access to 3G facilities for training purposes, which means a further 1,500 pitches will need to be constructed to meet this goal, one that is delivered primarily through the Football Foundation.
Oliver Ash is also keen that more clubs are made aware of the benefits of 3G pitches, especially at the lower league and non-league level, which is why he launched the 3G4US campaign, which has already brought twenty-four clubs on board since its formation in February.
"Our aims, firstly, are to exchange practical, commercial and technical information amongst clubs who either already have or wish to install a 3G pitch," Ash explains. "It was a difficult project for us, especially to know how to go about installing our pitch because few clubs had done it. The technology is changing all the time and there are a myriad of suppliers and contractors out there, so clubs often don't know where to start."
"Based on our own experience, we wanted to make it easier for clubs to get advice and information from outfits like us, who have gone through it, rather than trust the manufacturers to give them reliable information."
It seems the initiative is already garnering much success, with Ash involved in several examples where clubs exchange advice on all facets of 3G pitch suppliers, installation, finance, maintenance and trouble-shooting. "When our pitch didn't drain properly after the first few days, we became very concerned. It was thanks to the advice of Sutton Coldfield FC that we solved the problem though, so it shows already how valuable sharing information can be."
The second main objective behind 3G4US is to promote the advantages of 3G pitches and provide information to make them more acceptable further up the football pyramid. "We've already seen a result in that the FA have allowed 3G up to First round proper, although 3G4US may not be alone in helping achieve this relaxation of rules.
In its first season, the Gallagher Stadium will play host to all first team and reserve games, plus academy, youth and community club training and fixtures, amounting to a total of fifty hours a week, a figure that a natural pitch simply couldn't match.
"You get more games from 3G, and it can endure lots of consistent play, which a natural pitch cannot," explains Mark Pover. "The potential to generate income is also appealing, with figures in the £60,000 to £80,000 per annum region likely for a well-managed facility." (referring largely to community based pitches).
"There does need to be a strategic outlook though," he insists. "Synthetic pitches are not a cash cow, so if they're built in the wrong place, or too close to another facility, then it could prove a costly venture. If long-term plans are good though, the initial outlay will be paid back in a decade and the community benefits are wide reaching."
Community use played a big part in Maidstone's decision to install 3G at the new Gallagher Stadium, yet it is not something to be taken lightly by those considering a permanent move from natural turf, and particularly those who might wrongly assume that 3G requires little, if any, maintenance. This myth is fast being dispelled, however the message still needs hammering home, and those considering 3G need to have a plan in place to accommodate daily maintenance.
Maidstone has now employed a stadium manager and a part-time groundsman. "The pitch needs regular weekly maintenance and it takes about five hours," explains Ash. "This involves brushing the surface, cleaning and sweeping. Monthly scraping to stir up and decompact the rubber crumb is also undertaken, as will be a twice yearly special maintenance programme to remove moss and other natural growth which can damage the performance of the pitch." It will be part of 3G4US's remit to impart this type of knowledge on to clubs that want to opt for 3G, as investment in this surface is one that cannot be taken lightly.
The potential cost of installing an artificial surface can be in the region of £500,000, and clubs in leagues close to the professional divisions would currently have to replace their match pitch with natural grass if they won promotion to League 2, or find another venue for home games. Artificial surfaces were banned in 1988, with the last remaining one in the top four divisions - at Preston North End's Deepdale ground - replaced in 1994.
But, decisive advances in technology, combined with possible financial and community benefits certainly now offer food for thought, and the FA has shown its commitment to promote the best surfaces on the market.
Whilst FIFA and UEFA agree that having a year round surface that can be used in any weather is a good thing, the FA remain reticent to any further development to the rules governing Football League clubs. At present, if Maidstone were to reach the FA Cup first round proper, any home fixture would have to be played up the road in Chatham.
Despite this, Ash is confident that 3G technology is good enough to potentially change opinion in the future.
"We believe that positive evidence over the next few years from increased exposure and publicity will keep pressure up for change at Conference Level and maybe League 2 - after all, the majority of League 2 Chairman were recently voting to allow 3G at their level," Ash adds.
"The FA Cup may see a few more 3G pitches stage high profile games at higher levels. It just takes a bit of time for positions to change, and common sense should prevail in the end. For non-league or modest League 2 clubs, 3G pitches are a business lifeline that cannot be sensibly ignored."
Ash is less concerned about the elite end, believing that wealthy Premier League and some Championship clubs will be able to afford to play on grass and keep it in shape. "They (Premier League) also have sizeable training facilities, so space is no issue either. For those clubs (probably League 2 and downwards) who have a shortage of space and limited means to maintain several high quality pitches, the advantages of 3G are substantial enough on their own to make the surface either a real plus or even a necessity. For us, it was either 3G or bust."
All images by courtesy and ©Andy Nunn