Whilst Greg Dyke's idea for Premier League 'B' teams playing in the lower leagues was roundly, and rightly, poo-pooed, his suggestion of installing six hundred 3G pitches across England to 'help' grassroots football has been greeted more favourably.
Pitchcare Managing Director, Dave Saltman, suggests that this is the synthetic bandwagon once again on a roll and that, if you do the sums, existing natural turf surfaces could be maintained at a fraction of the cost, if budgets were made available
Grassroots football is "in crisis" according to FA Chairman Greg Dyke and, after the last World Cup, few would disagree with him. But, whilst the problem might be obvious, the solution is less so.
Dyke's idea of 'B' teams was instantly consigned to the pile marked 'forget I ever said that', but his plan to create 600 all-weather 3G pitches has been welcomed ... sadly without too much analysis.
Writing about it, the ITN sports editor Steve Scott said; "his [Dyke's] reasoning is sound. ... these pitches can be used almost constantly, require very little maintenance and are better for learning and improving technique.
The plan put forward envisages 600 new all-weather 3G pitches, focused on 30 of the country's biggest cities over the next six years.
He continues; "whereas grass pitches tend to be used for four to five hours a week, with matches often cancelled due to inclement weather, 3G pitches can be used for 70 to 80 hours (a week)." It all sounds brilliant, until you examine the facts.
The high costs of installing basic artificial pitches are only the start. They are not maintenance free. They require ongoing brushing and disinfecting; a synthetic carpet can readily become a breeding ground for germs and viruses as it is contaminated with bodily fluids, such as spit, blood and vomit. Regular use will lessen the lifespan of the carpet fibres, and the need to replace the surface will usually occur every 5 to 10 years.
For artificial pitches used at higher skill levels, various tests will need to be carried out to include consistency of bounce and retention of levels. Maidstone Town had to undertake these tests to meet FIFA 2 star performance ratings before their recent FA Cup match against Stevenage; the first ever to be played on 3G.
Snow will make all pitches unplayable, whilst a frozen artificial surface is as unplayable as a natural grass pitch, unless PDV salt is spread in advance at a cost of around £300 a week - not a cost many small teams could afford, and certainly not one that cash-strapped local councils will be prepared to meet.
For those with a care for the environment, the use of scrapped old synthetic pitches, shredded, will only fill landfill sites with carcinogenic waste.
Also, what are the views of the players? Top players worry about playing on poor pitches, but worry also about the impact on their joints, knees and hips when constantly playing on a surface that is a lot less forgiving than natural turf.
The synthetic turf lobby is extremely well funded and is both very vocal and effective. Unfortunately, the natural turf industry is fragmented and fails to provide the strong counter arguments that I am putting before you now.
In this day and age, when all that counts is the bottom line, we should examine the running costs of artificial pitches compared to natural turf, based on their regular use by the tens of thousands of enthusiasts who turn out, mostly at weekends, to play football (see table 1).
Since the late 1960s, the England national team has been consistently outplayed by other nations. In part, this is because our game does not encourage young players with the facilities many other countries provide for their footballing enthusiasts. To encourage more young players to enter and enjoy the game, and for those with potential to develop, we must provide them with good facilities - beginning with good pitches.
Greg Dyke wants to set up centres of excellence in locations all over the UK to develop these skills. I wholeheartedly support this desire. Premier League and Football League clubs do already offer centres of excellence through their Academy and youth development schemes. Installing some additional centres would certainly benefit English football's aspiring talent base.
But, where do the scouts and talent spotters look in the first place? They look to schools and small clubs usually playing on park pitches. Many a top class player has been discovered playing on windswept, waterlogged, desolate pitches.
In my own playing days, during the 80s and 90s, every park pitch was filled with the sounds of enthusiastic, if not always brilliant, football.
The choice for the kids of today appears to be more clearly defined between playing on an Xbox/iPad or venturing out to try and play football on a mud bath of a surface. For those who do play, even at the start of the season, they find that surfaces are poor and deteriorate further as the season progresses, whilst fixtures are often cancelled week after week through the most inclement months.
The argument for artificial installations everywhere sounds solid enough; all weather, all year round play, offering round the clock multi-use opportunities, providing football for all. It is certainly true that an artificial surface allows for far more hours of football to be played per week in comparison to a single natural grass pitch. But, and isn't there always a but, even with 600 artificial pitches, how many of the enthusiasts over the whole country would actually be able to get a game in on the weekends, which is when most amateurs play football?
The obvious answer lies in our natural park pitches, all 8,000 of them. But, and here's another of those buts, local authorities have endured round after round of spending cuts forced on to them by Government cut-backs; park pitches being one of the areas that investment has been reduced to nothing more than cutting the grass and marking out.
Long gone are the days when a council workforce would not only cut the pitches every week during the growing season, but aerate them on a monthly basis, drag a flat harrow across to put back any divots and retain good levels, let alone fertilise and weed kill to make sure that the surfaces were in good order for play. End of season renovations are non-existent on most park pitches, and even 'County' pitches have no more than a goalmouth 'top-up' of soil and seed as a token gesture.
In my opinion, this is where money should be spent - improving the game for the many, not just for the few who live and play near one of the artificial pitches that will be created.
This summer, I undertook a review, on behalf of a council, of all their park pitches - 93 in total. This was for their entry within the Sport England Framework. I followed the FA's guidelines for a non-technical visual survey of all ninety-three pitches in the borough. The results were quite shocking. Not a single pitch achieved a mark of 'good', a handful were deemed as 'standard' and the majority were marked down as 'poor'! I suspect it is much the same with every other local authority in England.
During the two week survey, I met and interviewed many of the council workers. They all spoke with sadness that they were not being given the resources to maintain their grounds, with the inevitable decline in the quality of the playing surfaces. This council's park pitches received a maximum of 16 cuts per year; some clearly received less. There had been no aeration or harrowing carried out for at least two years and the guys could but dream of feeding the pitches to aid establishment.
The single biggest factor for the decline in our natural pitches is surface compaction, created by a combination of usage, maintenance and the weather.
Regular spiking (aeration) alleviates compaction, provides air space to oxygenate the ground and allows grass roots to colonise and provide healthy plants able to give surface stability, quicker recovery and a good quality playing surface through the season. The aeration also greatly improves drainage rates, keeping the surface drier and firmer for play through the winter months. We wouldn't see the dramatic, waterlogged pitches that the synthetic industry seem keen to bandy around as the definitive reason for 'going plastic'. Free draining pitches would also mean fewer or no cancellations through the winter months due to wet weather, as well as a stable and level playing surface that would encourage a better standard of play.
If we look at the maths; 93 pitches with adequate turf care would each host up to 6 hours of football a week through the playing season, i.e. 4 matches. With youth and adult teams utilising these pitches on a Saturday/Sunday morning, Saturday/Sunday afternoon, as many as 744 teams could enjoy a game each weekend on natural grass pitches. How many artificial pitches would be required to accommodate that amount of football?
Without floodlighting (more cost), the short winter days would reduce the amount of games anyway. Bending over backwards to be fair to the arguments of the artificial enthusiasts, if games started at 9.00am on the weekend and the last game finish time through the season was at 6.00pm (and in the depth of winter it would be dark by then!) then, allowing a 15 minute turnaround, an artificial pitch could stage 10 matches (20 teams) per weekend.
In theory, the argument that the pitch can be utilised during the week as well is valid but, in reality, how many working people have the opportunity to play football at 3.00pm on a Tuesday afternoon or 10.00am on a Friday morning?
So, to reiterate; to manage the expectations of local leagues at all ages, Greg Dyke's crisis management solution is to install approximately 20 artificial pitches in and around 30 of the country's biggest cities, each at a capital cost of around £500,000.
Based on this proposal, the council for which I did the survey would have around 15 of these artificial pitches in its area. Imagine how good the natural pitches would look and play if it had £7.5m to spend on the renovation and maintenance of their existing natural turf pitches.
Even with 15 artificial pitches installed, the amount of weekend games would still be less than half (300) of the games potentially playable on the 93 natural surfaces that are already in existence.
Using current jargon, this is a "no brainer"! More footballers (enthusiasts without talent, as well as those who might just rise to the top of the pile) will get to play more football, on much better natural grass pitches, which will enable them to improve their skills - and all for less money than Mr Dyke is offering to spend.
For a greater understanding of the maintenance costs of both natural and artificial costs, I will elaborate further using the pitches I surveyed as the example (see table 2):
The average cost of maintaining a single Step 2-4 football pitch (private non-league club) per annum, to include part time staff, machinery, fertiliser, seed and chemical, as well as a suitable end of season renovation for the whole surface, would be in the region of £20-£30,000. This would ensure six hours of football and training per week. Economies of scale to manage 93 pitches within one local authority parks department should bring this cost down to around £8,000 per pitch to attain a similar quality standard for each one.
As can be seen from the table, this would still allow nearly £2,400 per pitch for some end of season seeding and topdressing, and the total annual maintenance cost for the council would not extend beyond £744,000. Of course, the money required to provide decent quality grass surfaces would only need to be part funded by Greg Dyke's FA and other sponsors; there would be pitch hire income to offset some of the costs. In fact, based on 93 pitches, the surplus money would be £223,000 per annum, allowing a rolling progamme of drainage improvements to one or two parks where primary pipe drainage and secondary drainage of sand slits would be installed, bringing all the venues up to scratch over a 10-15 year period. In contrast, the annual maintenance cost of an artificial surface is significantly higher at £9,720.
An additional consideration is the hire charge of a full size artificial pitch which is, on average, £100 per game, rising to £150 under floodlights. A cost that is prohibitive to most clubs and players anyway. If these 600 new facilities were to be built, the cost per game would need to be reduced to make it affordable for the average player. Clubs have enough problems getting £5 subs from players now, which barely covers the £50 fee for the pitch, before we add in the referee, kit, balls and transport costs.
What is required is a rethink of the strategy that seems to be emerging, not just by the FA and Sport England but by local and central Government. What is preventing Greg Dyke's FA and the Government working together to ring fence funding for parks?
Local authorities already have an obligation to maintain open space. With the funding that Greg Dyke is asking for to install artificial pitches, surely it is common sense to invest a fraction of that money into existing venues and improve what we have already?
The capital cost of installing an artificial pitch isn't where the cost stops either. Artificial pitches aren't maintenance free and require regular brushing, litter picking and disinfecting. In addition, the surface will need to be replaced every 5 to 10 years after the initial installation. The cost for carpet replacement would be around £200,000; adding considerably to the actual annual maintenance costs.
The simple maintenance cost analysis in the table provides the strongest argument for retaining natural turf, before anybody embarks on the environmental and health issues that continue to blot the artificial copybook. The concerns over the use of recycled car tyres as 3G infill being carcinogenic, continue. On the flip side, natural turf takes in carbon dioxide during its respiration process to provide oxygen back to the atmosphere; another tick for the 'green' box.
Interestingly, a recent survey undertaken by Labosport on behalf of the FA and looking at 229 of the current artificial installations showed that 46% of the pitches tested failed their FIFA 2 Star rating.
Reasons for failure included problems with shock absorption, poor ball roll, undulations, ripped seams and worn areas.
The fact remains that, from a financial point of view, if funding is ring fenced purely for the renovation and maintenance of this country's sports fields, playing football for your local team at the weekend would be a healthy, fun and very affordable pastime throughout the playing season.
Despite the Football League Chairmen's recent split vote on allowing 3G surfaces into the three leagues, this is only a temporary reprieve, and it is likely that the next vote will see the balance tipped in favour of 3G.
The PFA insist that the players actually don't want to play on artificial surfaces. Every professional player that I've worked and spoken with for the past twenty-five years has been against artificial surfaces. As a Premier League Manager said to me, why would anyone want to play on something only trying to emulate real grass?
The reality is that English football can accommodate twice as many games, on good quality natural grass, played traditionally at the weekend, for a fraction of the cost of Greg Dyke's proposal. Surely it makes good commercial sense to revisit this and increase the pool of potentially world beating players?