Artificial pitches could “return” to English football as early as 2015/16 after clubs from Leagues One and Two voted in favour of their reintroduction, says industry magazine FC Business.
29 out of 48 clubs backed a rule change which would allow FIFA 2-star-rated 3G surfaces for games in League One, League Two, the League Cup, and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
So-called plastic pitches were banned in England 19 years ago due to their impact on the game – extreme bounce of the ball, serious injury fears and friction burns that really, really sting…
However, back in March the FA announced they were happy for FA Cup games to take place on 3G pitches. UEFA never got round to “banning” plastic pitches and British sides have regularly played European club games and international fixtures on them.
A formal vote by all Football League clubs on the proposal will take place in November. Championship clubs weren’t involved in the most recent discussions and while they don’t wish to “explore” 3G pitches, they are happy for Leagues One and Two introduce them.
This would inevitably lead to some Championship games being played on 3G as teams rise through the leagues. Premier League clubs would also have a decision to make.
- What do fans think? The FSF has no official policy on this and we’ve outlined some of the pros and cons below – let us know your views via this FSF poll.
3G technology is key to this argument as modern synthetic surfaces are extremely high-quality and nothing like the pitches that fans in the 80s were unlucky enough to witness at Luton Town, Oldham Athletic, Preston North End, and QPR.
That version of the artificial pitch – last seen in 1994 – was really designed for hockey, not football, where friction burns from sliding tackles, unnaturally high bounces, and concrete-hard base surfaces were less problematic. Modern synthetic surfaces are far more forgiving with a very similar bounce to grass.
A sliding tackle needn't shred your legs and FIFA Consultant Eric Harrison points out there’s no real danger for players: “Research showed that there are more minor injuries on artificial surfaces but more serious injuries on grass.”
Plenty of top-class games have taken place at Spartak Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, including a Euro 2008 qualifier defeat for England (above). European football expert and editor of The Blizzard Jonathan Wilson says he doesn’t see a problem with synthetic surfaces.
“I’m always a bit baffled by the fuss over plastic pitches. The modern version play like very good grass pitches,” says Wilson. “I think it’s often a bit of an excuse to blame the Luzhniki pitch. My only problem with plastic pitches is that I like variety, and there’s a danger of homogenisation if a lot of clubs install the same sort of pitch. But I think anybody who’s played on good plastic knows it’s the best surface amateur players ever play on.”
A number of clubs in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Scotland now use 3G. Fans north of the border seem generally accepting of synthetic surfaces for very practical reasons.
“Over 30% of the clubs in the Scottish Professional Football League now have synthetic surfaces and we're generally in favour of it. From our perspective, due to the nature of the weather in Scotland and the amount of fixtures cancelled due to unplayable pitches, it makes perfect sense to install 3G pitches which increase the chances of games being played,” said Andrew Jenkin of Scottish Fans.
“Additionally, they can be utilised for community purposes, Stenhousemuir being a great example of a club to use the main pitch as the hub for all their youth activities and first team training. Anything which brings communities together through football while reducing costs has got to be a good thing from our perspective.”
Speaking to the FSF in 2012 Tom Frame of Stenhousemuir’s Warriors Trust had no hesitations: “We were the first of the four teams that went plastic. Dunfermline had a poor quality experimental pitch, which was disliked intensely and ditched. Hamilton followed and did well with theirs helping produce youngsters like James McCarthy and James McArthur. However, promotion to the SPL meant that they had to change to grass.
“It is licensed by FIFA and the bounce tests, drainage tests etc take over five hours to complete. Studies in Sweden and our own experience show that there are no more or less injuries on the artificial surface. However it can be utilised 12 hours-a-day and seven days-a-week. Therefore, it is possible to gain some revenue through pitch hire. The best thing that I can add is that no-one even talks about the surface anymore. We would never revert to grass.”
Airdrie, Alloa Athletic, Annan Athetic, Clyde, East Stirlingshire, Forfar Athletic, Montrose, and Queen of the South all play on 3G surfaces too and supporters groups at those clubs seem happy, emphasising the reduction in postponed games as a real benefit to both clubs and travelling fans.
Artificial surfaces can take the type of pounding that would soon turn grass pitches into a mud bath. This allows teams to train in their stadium and save a small fortune on training grounds costs. And when the players aren’t training the pitch can be rented out to amateurs eager for the chance to play at their team’s stadium.
Those potential savings and additional revenue streams appear very attractive to many Football League outfits. It can cost as much as £500,000 to lay the latest synthetic surface but it’s an expensive business relaying grass pitches and they have nowhere near the same lifespan.
Many professional pitches are already part-plastic and they certainly don’t resemble the grass you see on your nearest playing field. 3G pitches can save clubs money, generate new revenue, last a lifetime, and give fans the chance to play on their side’s pitch. What’s not to like? Sometimes the grass really is greener.
There’s a lot of talk about 3G technology and how it’s so close to grass you can almost smell the cuttings. UEFA’s director of communications William Gaillard even claimed that only cows could tell the difference between grass and the new generation of pitches. But step back from the synthetic sales patter and you’ll find that many players and managers are less convinced.
Harry Redknapp was scathing after his Spurs side faced Young Boys of Bern on their artificial pitch a few seasons back: “The players were pulling faces and suggesting that they didn’t like the look of it. We couldn’t get to grips with holding the ball; it was bouncing off us. I left four players out because they weren’t comfortable on the pitch in training.
Artificial pitches are more common across the pond where football (or soccer) teams often share their stadium with NFL outfits. LA Galaxy manager Alexi Lalas (he of long hair and guitar) has defended plastic pitches in economic terms but admitted that players’ recovery times were lengthened.
Former Burnley Chief Executive Paul Fletcher, an ex-pro himself, is also opposed and thinks it could even damage the game as a spectacle. “I hope they do not appear anytime soon,” Fletcher told the BBC. “Just like if you put a plastic surface down on the tennis courts at Wimbledon, it would not quite be the same.”
Northampton Town’s Marc Richards argued that 3G pitches aren’t for “old legs” either. “Being an all-weather pitch it means you will get all your games on during the winter, so for things like that it’s fantastic. But as an older player there’s nothing like playing football on grass - it’s a bit softer and sometimes when you try to pass it on Astroturf it looks a bit sloppy because of the surface. It’s really sticky and bobbly, so I’m not really in favour of it.”
FIFpro, the world players’ union, also reported on the Australian Women’s team’s opposition to 3G pitches being used for the Women’s World Cup 2015. “The surface totally changes the game and things as common place as slide tackling become much more dangerous on artificial turf,” says forward Sam Kerr.
A 2010/11 study following 32 Swedish and Norwegian Premier League sides found that "clubs with artificial turf at their home venue had higher rates of acute training injuries and overuse injuries compared to clubs that play home matches on natural grass".
It’s not just players who have concerns. Geoff Webb is Chief Executive of the Institute of Groundsmanship and in December 2013 promised to “go into battle” supporting ground staff. Some fans also fear that the spectacle of the live game will suffer.
It might be very small, at times almost imperceptible changes in bounce and motion, but football is a game where success depends on tiny margins. In the headlong rush to embrace anything and everything new, football can sometimes lose sight of what makes it special.
Football has grown into the global game over the past 100 years and it’s now more popular than ever. Football’s working just fine, you don’t need to tinker with every last element of the sport in the name of progression and technology. Sometimes stability and tradition is just fine too. And who ever heard of a fan wanting their ashes scattered on the hallowed plastic?