Are synthetic surfaces to return?

subbuteo ball on plastic pitch

The BBC reports that the Football League could give synthetic surfaces the thumbs up. But what do fans think? At present the FSF has no set policy on the subject. To help gauge opinion we’ve listed the plastic fantastic pros and turf war cons. Let us know your views via media@fsf.org.uk.

THE PROS

The ‘3G’ (third-generation) technology is key to this argument. Modern synthetic surfaces are extremely high-quality, consistent in bounce, 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 – first banned in 1988, 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 won't shred your legs.

During Euro 2008 qualification England were beaten 2-1 by Russia on artificial turf at the Luzhniki Stadium (home to Spartak Moscow). Celtic also played there in a 2007 Champions League qualifier with Paul Hartley’s goal earning them a 1-1 draw. Eastern 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.”

But it’s not just Eastern Europe where plastic is popular. A number of clubs in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and even Scotland now use plastic pitches. In 2010 Airdrie United became the fourth Scottish club behind Alloa Athletic, Montrose, and Stenhousemuir to play on an artificial surface. There isn’t an issue on Earth that unites 100% of supporters but speak to fans north of the border and they accept synthetic surfaces for very practical reason.

Tom Frame of Stenhousemuir’s Warriors Trust has 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 now of Wigan. However, promotion to the SPL meant that they had to change to grass.

“Our surface is six years old and in great condition. 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. All the original sceptics have been won over. Airdrie’s is the newest and possibly a slightly improved surface and Annan Athetic are going plastic, I believe, in 2012-2013. We would never revert to grass.”

Fans of other Scottish sides with plastic pitches agree:

  • Willie Marshall of Airdrie Trust: “We’ve had no adverse comments from our own or visiting supporters. From a viewing perspective, there doesn’t appear to be any untoward bounces during play. I find it a good park to play on too. And, given the recent spate of icy weather we’re one of the few teams in the lower divisions who haven’t had any games cancelled yet.”
  • Chris Smith from Montrose FC Supporters’ Club: “The main advantage comes late on in the season where our surface remains consistent regardless of the weather or wear and tear. The surface remains playable at lower temperatures that grass and therefore reduces our backlog towards the end of the season.” He also points out that it doesn’t give home sides that much of an edge – Montrose lost 6-0 at home to Stranraer who usually play on grass.
  • Brain Roach of Alloa 1878 Supporters Club: “With regards to the actual surface and how it affects the game the effect appears to be minimal. The bounce is slightly different but most players should be able to adjust to that after a few touches. The surface does encourage better football, particularly over the winter months. For example, we witnessed an excellent game of football between Alloa and Peterhead on Tuesday night that may have been a mud bath under other circumstances.”

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. In recent months both Accrington Stanley and Wycombe Wanderers have stuck their head above the parapet and said they’d like to introduce plastic pitches in order to cut running costs and increase non-matchday revenue. A survey by Sky Sports also showed that just under half of all league clubs supported the principle of playing on 3G.

It can cost as much as £500,000 to lay the latest synthetic surface but this is par for the course when it comes to having a grass pitch re-laid and they have nowhere near the same lifespan. Some pitches in the Football League are already part-plastic and they certainly don’t resemble the grass you see on your nearest pub pitch. Watford already use the “Desso pitch” which has synthetic fibres woven with turf.

There’s no discernible difference in terms of action on the latest synthetic pitches, they 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? Sometime the grass really is greener.

THE CONS

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: “We didn’t like it yesterday and tonight 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.

“If you play on it every week, you get used to it. It’s not an excuse but I played on Astroturf myself and I hated every minute of it. We’ve had it at QPR but we don't have it anymore in England. I don’t agree with Astroturf and I don’t think Astroturf should be used in a competition like this.”

Martin O’Neill also criticised artificial pitches - the then Villa manager saying FIFA should “have their heads examined” after keeper Thomas Sorenson suffered a non-contact injury. That incident took place at Toronto FC and the club has since ripped up its plastic pitch and re-laid a grass surface.

Artificial pitches are more common across the pond where football (or soccer) teams often share their stadium with American Football 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.

Closer to home Scottish side Dunfermline Athletic were given a UEFA grant to install a plastic pitch in 2003. The artificial pitch came in for heavy criticism from Dunfermline striker Gjorgi Hristov and ex-Rangers centre-back Jean-Alain Boumsong who branded the pitch “unbelievable” and “dangerous”. Within two years they’d decided it wasn’t good enough and turned back to grass.

Burnley chief executive Paul Fletcher, a former professional, is also opposed and thinks it could even damage the game as a spectacle. The north west side use a combination of grass and synthetic materials which he says produces the best of both worlds.

“I hope they do not appear anytime soon,” Fletcher told the BBC. “I do not think the spectators would like it because it would be like seeing a game of five-a-side not a real game of football. I can understand clubs wanting an all-weather pitch that they can use 10 times a week but it would be false. Just like if you put a plastic surface down on the tennis courts at Wimbledon, it would not quite be the same.”

Fletcher was also concerned about the stresses and strains it would put on players joints: “The players of my era have had major problems with hips and joints as they have got older. Modern pitches have shock pads and they are getting better and better but, in my view, they will never replace the beautiful surface of grass.”

It’s not just ex-players who have concerns. Geoff Webb is chief executive of the Institute of Groundsmanship, the trade body for all groundsmen.

Speaking to Sky News he said: “Why fix something that is not broken? I think pitches throughout the Football League and the Premier League are seen pretty much as the world’s best and they are an asset for football.”

“So from our point of view it is obviously a worrying trend and I'm sure a lot of people will be thinking ‘what happens next’. They have been marketed pretty much, I think, as maintenance free and some people fall into that trap of saying that they are completely maintenance free when they are not.

“They are not all-weather surfaces - if the weather gets really cold you are going to have to think about whether you can keep the game on or not. There are many similarities with turf as it stands at the minute and it is certainly not a panacea for everything. Don't think that they are a short-cut.”

Many fans 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 anyway, who ever heard of a fan wanting their ashes scattered on the hallowed plastic?

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