Wednesday, November 23, 2011

AFTN are traditionalists. Any regular readers will know that.

You could describe us as grumpy old men, living in the past and not embracing change. Harking back to bygone days that may or may not have existed in quite the glowing light that our memories paint. We prefer to go with traditionalist!

One of those traditions that we have been known to harp on about is that football is meant to be played on grass and we don’t want any of those newfangled artificial pitches.

Ultimately, we still feel that way but our stance has most certainly melted, to the stage where we’re not sure whether there’s more of the snowman or more of a puddle.

I’m of the age that whenever anybody mentions “plastic pitch” to me, my immediate thoughts plunder my memory bank and throws out the horrendous pitches that existed at Stirling Albion’s Annfield Stadium in Scotland and the likes of QPR’s Loftus Road and Luton’s Kennilworth Lane in England.

I never experienced watching a live game at either of those venues south of the border, so that’s probably more media brainwashing with regards to those. I did though have the misfortunes of watching East Fife play at Stirling’s bouncy castle in the late 1980’s.

It was a horrible surface. A sickly green colour that produced uneven bounces and scraped shins and other extremities.

Opposition players hated playing on it, opposing fans hated watching games on it. It gave Stirling a bit of an advantage, playing on the darned thing every other week, but with the kind of bounces you were getting, it was still a bit of a lottery for both sides playing football on it.

Those days are past now, and in the past they must remain. For it’s a whole different ball game with the new, state of the art artificial surfaces that are out there.

So much so, that there’s currently a national debate raging on as to whether this is the only realistic way forward for lower league and non league sides the length and breadth of the UK, with cash strapped sides like Accrington Stanley convincingly arguing that it is.

Football clubs that currently have artificial pitches not only swear by them, many also put them down to keeping their very existence going.

There’s estimates that a Club with an artificial pitch can generate upwards of £100,000 in extra revenue each season. With so many clubs in serious financial peril right now, this is a potential godsend for them and not something that can be turned away.

It could be the difference between continuing to operate and going to the wall.

The installation of an artificial surface lets the pitch be used every day of the year if clubs wanted. It can be used on matchdays, it allows for better training facilities and it can give some sides a bit of a home field advantage.

It guarantees a perfect playing surface for every match, but even more importantly, it guarantees that the match is actually going to take place and bring in much needed revenue. No last minute postponement surprises and the financial worries that brings.

Add in use in all weather conditions, for hours at a time and the fact that it can be rented out to whoever, and it really does make financial sense for clubs to go down this route.

So why aren’t more doing it?

Well, there’s the large six figure cost involved to get the pitch in the first place (you’re looking at around £4-500,000 upwards).

Then there’s the rules that don’t allow it in some competitions (Football League, FA Cup, FA vase to name but three), even though the world’s governing body FIFA sanction their use.

There is still a stigma in the UK about such pitches. Many of us are a little bit stuck too much in our ways and need to embrace the future a little bit better.

These pitches are even commonplace in the likes of Spain. Another footballing hotbed, with passionate fans, but one which also has a better climate than what we’re stuck with in the UK! They go down alright over there.

You just have to look at the last two winters in the UK. Horrendous snow and frost decimated fixtures across the country for weeks upon weeks. Undersoil heating can only do so much and most can’t afford such a luxury anyway. This may make the surface playable, but it can’t do anything about the ruts and divots created by the weather.

East Fife have stated in the past that they were concerned about the sudden stop in vital cashflow, and the financial costs at this time of the year are horrendous for small clubs already struggling to survive.

Every fixture lost, can be another nail in the coffin for some.

East Fife have already talked about installing a state of the art artificial pitch in their proposed new mythical stadium.

When the initial announcement was made, there was a scream of “Noooooooooooooo” echoing around AFTN Towers. Now though, we’ve changed our mind.

Taking all the positive financial aspects out of the equation, what really turned my views round on this subject was experiencing a plastic pitch first hand watching Vancouver Whitecaps in Major League Soccer.

The Whitecaps moved into their new home, at the $563 million renovated BC Place, in October this year.

Since I began watching the Caps in 2007, they always played on a grass pitch at Swangard Stadium. The move to the “big leagues”, meant that this stadium was not an option and a temporary move was made to Empire Field before the permanent move to BC Place.

Empire Field sported an artificial turf and it was awful. The Caps players hated playing on it and actually went away and trained on grass in local parks most of the time. The pitch was also blamed for a number of niggling injuries that the squad endured this season past.

FC Dallas’ Daniel Hernandez can testify to just how crappy the pitch was, catching his studs in it and twisting his leg for a season ending knee injury.

So the warning lights must now be flashing with you and you’re questioning my sanity in saying that I’m warming to artificial pitches after these tales.

There are still some bad surfaces out there, where the problems of old still persist. Get one of the brand spanking new surfaces though, like what has been installed at BC Place, at a cost of around $1.2 million, and the difference is night and day.

The Whitecaps are playing on a new Polytan surface, said to be the closest thing to real grass and earning the highest possible rating from Fifa. It really is hard to tell. The bounces are natural, there’s been no injuries caused by the pitch so far, and the players have been very positive about playing on it.

The Whitecaps also secured two wins on the thing, which was rare enough in 2011!

I’ve slowly been won round.

Clubs need to get income generation from outside of their daily football operations to survive and artificial pitches will do that.

I’ll still always prefer grass, but let’s be honest here, how many clubs can afford to have lush, bowling green pitches these days?

If installing a plastic pitch is going to be the difference between my club, or any club, thriving or dying, then there can only be one decision made.

Let’s hope people like the FA come to same conclusion.

8 comments:

  1. Enlightening article. Since you are now a supporter of the higher quality polytan, maybe you shouldn't refer to it in a derogatory term like "plastic pitch"' and find a more suitable complementary term.

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  2. I don't see the term "plastic pitch" as necessarily a derogatory term, but I do agree a better phrase should be used as that doesn't do the new surfaces justice and they've come on leaps and bounds since those early pitches.

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  5. 3rd Generation Artificial Turf Pitches are better than any Saturday or Sunday league teams that i could hope to play with or against but are still not even allowed at such a low level...MADNESS.
    we turned up one Sunday morning last season to find a burnt out car on an away grounds pitch...

    Anyway a note to all the terms 4th generation are merely a marketing tool and should be ignored and you may even find the term 5th or 6th generation spurted out which again are marketing tools. 3rd generation is the term but by definition it is referring to monofilament 55-60mm pile height artificial turf or to the lesser quality fibrillating artificial turf.

    if you have the money go for the monofilament everytime and be weary of the specification of the turf such as the pile height, backing type and weight etc in order to not be under sold as there are literally hundreds of types of 3G surfaces available all with there own merits and problems

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