The Great Pitch Debate
By Simon Hughes
Anyone who can remember the 1980s will no doubt remember the first mobile telephones, tight fitting shorts, and among other things artificial (or plastic) football pitches used by teams in the Football League. We have gotten wiser since then, mobile phones have become smaller and fashion trends have come and gone, and like many famous relics of the 80's, plastic pitches are making a comeback.
Queens Park Rangers became the first and remain the most high profile club to give up on natural grass and go plastic when they installed English football's first artificial playing surface in 1981. They were soon followed by the likes of Luton Town, Oldham Athletic, and Preston North End as the trend for a better playing surface spread through the Football League. The leading argument was that an artificial surface would remain in the same condition throughout the entire season allowing clubs to cut their pitch maintenance costs and spend money elsewhere. The theory was that smaller clubs in particular would benefit from this new innovation.
After an initial period, one by one, clubs began to return to the tried and tested grass surface as the arguments against using plastic quickly grew. In 1988 the Loftus Road plastic was given the chop after receiving numerous complaints. In its place the club invested in a new sand based grass surface.
So why didn't the new era of artificial pitches take off as was planned? Seemingly, they proved to be a disappointment, sure enough these pitches were a far cry from the usual 'mudbath' pitches of the winter which then turned hardened into the desert like surface, common with an end of season. Nevertheless the artificial turf was unpopular among players and managers alike. Players found it difficult to control themselves let alone the ball, and as any sane person would suggest sliding tackles weren't advisable, as the surface was so abrasive. The ball itself bounced awkwardly, sometimes it would seemingly bounce 20ft into the air while at other times it wouldn't bounce at all. All in all this meant that playing on an artificial surface could be a nerve-racking experience for many players especially defenders and goal keepers as the ball would come skidding in all directions.
Unsurprisingly games played on artificial surfaces caused a storm of controversy from managers who claimed that the home side had a huge advantage and that 'it just wasn't football'.
Yet most worrying of all was the evidence that the hardness of the artificial surface increased wear on joints particularly on the knees therefore increasing the likelihood of injuries and adding further long term problems for players.
So when the last of the plastic surfaces was replaced with grass you could be forgiven for thinking that like many things from the 80's artificial football pitches would be forever confined to the history books.
This season has seen a number of pitches throughout the Football League come under criticism for their overall quality. The game between Chelsea and Charlton at Stamford Bridge in December was played on a surface that resembled a beach and consequently provoked outrage from Charlton manager Alan Curbishley. In addition the pitches at Villa Park, St. James' Park, and St. Mary's, amongst others have also come under fire. The problem is understandably worse outside of the Premiership. Crewe boss Dario Gradi has described the club's Gresty Road pitch as the worst he has encountered in football, this comes after Crewe spent £300,000 on improving the surface over the summer. The quality of the pitch has in no way helped Crewe's push for automatic promotion as their home form falters.
Increasingly clubs are finding it both costly and frustrating as more and more games are called off because of frozen or waterlogged pitches which then dry out and become dangerously firmer as the season progresses.
The Artificial Pitch debate has once again surfaced as clubs attempt to find a cost-effective way to resolve the problems with their pitches. Given their history are Artificial Pitches really the way forward for the Football League?
In speaking to Groundsmen, they feel that the problems associated with natural grass pitches is not as serious as many people fear.
December brought a few weeks of torrential rain, up until then all the pitches looked fine. The combination of a wet pre Xmas and a bitterly cold post Xmas brought about the sudden decline in pitch surfaces. It was the teams whose home fixtures coincided with that period who have been affected. If you look closely you will see that only half of the league's pitches have had trouble while the others pulled through fine, even Highbury got caught out this season. Once the grass is lost, there can be little recovery until the spring.
Of course pitches are far better than those of the 70's, and 80's- technological developments together with trial and error have helped improve playing surfaces a great deal.
Many of the problems are of a direct consequence associated with the re-development of football grounds. High stands and enclosed stadiums like the ones seen in the Premiership and at many large grounds cut out natural light needed for grass growth.
Like their grass counterparts artificial pitches have also seen the benefit of technological advances. After 20 years of development the so-called 'third generation' pitches are said to be distant cousins of the pitches of the 1980s. Fibres that resemble natural grass have been designed with the idea to emulate a grass surface in terms of the way the ball performs. These fibres also allow the surface to be much softer therefore reducing the impact on players and being less abrasive. Unquestionably the 'third generation' pitch is an improvement on the old style 'plastic' one but is it the answer?
Quite simply, it comes down to the economical state of the English game. If the Football League were to support the implementation of artificial pitches it would mean that clubs would have to fork out over £500,000 on the new pitches. Granted it's an investment in terms of usage gained, but how many second or third or even first division sides could afford that much when many are already fighting off the administrators. The Football League itself is not able to supplement the implementation.
UEFA it seems are keen on the experimental venture, by offering to pay a percentage of the costs of installation they are hoping to attract clubs in Europe. However, current regulations do not allow Champions League or UEFA Cup games to be played on artificial surfaces so many Premiership sides may be put off also.
While it seems that there is no simple short-term solution, Groundsmen everywhere believe that if UEFA were to commit themselves to the problems with 'growing the real thing', instead of allocating money on new synthetic developments we would be nearer to a remedy for the perfect all year round natural grass playing surface.