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John Bladen

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Real or Plastic?

Written by on February 23, 2012 | 7 Comments »
Posted in Money Game

With only a modest amount of publicity, England’s Football League is conducting a survey of officials, executives, players, coaches and other stakeholders regarding the use of artificial pitches in football. 

Far from dipping a toe in the proverbial waters, the Football League (FL) is asking how those involved in the game would feel about the use of artificial pitches in league and cup games on a permanent basis.  The underlying implication is that this is no idle consideration; that some clubs want to use them, and soon.

Generally, the use of ‘plastic’ pitches in football is derided as being unseemly – even unprofessional.  Those who played on earlier generations of what was then called ‘AstroTurf’ (after the company that pioneered it) can attest the artificial pitches of the 1980s had some benefits, but also significant drawbacks. 

They offered tremendous grip and traction when dry, making even average weekend warriors able to change direction on a dime (though the price of such acts could be high. “Where are the ice-packs?” was a common refrain).  When very wet – or worse, frozen – these pitches became simply treacherous.  The incidence of serious knee and/or ankle injuries also seemed quite high relative to natural grass playing surfaces. 

A few professional clubs in England & around the UK did install artificial pitches around this time.  Ultimately, though, the FL decided this was not a direction football needed to go in England, and banned the use of them for professional games.

Fast forward 25 years, though, and the subject is again being broached. 

It is a dramatically different technical world today.  For one, the concept of “grass” or “plastic” is irrelevant.  Many professional pitches (and facilities for other sports) use hybrid pitches such as the Desso Grassmaster, which is a combination of natural grass and artificial fibres (through which the grass grows, providing additional resistance). 

Many of the beautiful new grass pitches we greatly admire are not grass, in the strictest sense.  Even stolid, parochial FIFA has approved certain brands of artificial turf for use in some competitions.

The new styles of construction and technologies involved in artificial turf are orders of magnitude better than the generic turf we recall.  Few players, if any, would actually express a preference for turf.  But the differences between turf and natural grass are dwindling rapidly.  For some sports, artificial grass is actually – think of it – better.

The arguments against the modern ‘plastic’ surfaces seem very much to be related to the bounce and run of the ball under play.  MLS players are famous for using this excuse (generally after a loss).  Some claim the rubberized fill used to cushion the surface tends to be harder on the legs (sapping energy), and no-one really likes the way the rubber pellets get into ear, nose and elsewhere.  Fans often complain that the turf doesn’t look natural, as the fibres tend not to adopt a random pattern the way grass does.

These criticisms ring quite hollow to many.  A portion of any pre-match warm up is used for judging the run and bounce of the game ball (practice passing) on the surface.  Anyone who has played on a wet or cold pitch, or an overused, under-watered public pitch on a hot August day will understand that grass pitches have tremendous variation in characteristics as well.  Players adapt, in other words.

Perhaps the greatest factor working against artificial pitches today is how good the “natural” grass ones are due to the level of care they receive.  Compare EPL game surfaces today to the 1st division pitches of the 1970’s and 80’s.  Most modern players would categorically refuse to play on such surfaces.

Grass isn’t always better, though.  We’ve all watched games (the 2008 CL final in Moscow comes to mind) where a grass pitch was installed over artificial.  If the weather is good, it can work – though the surface never seems particularly stable.  If conditions are anything but good,  however, playing on the plastic underneath would be better (and often fairer).  Does anyone think the presently embattled Mr. Terry loses his footing in the CL final penalty kicks if he’s standing on the artificial pitch instead of the grass?

While there may be legitimate reasons to prefer pristine grass pitches for elite leagues and competitions, the situation rather changes when we drop down the footballing pyramid. 

For lower league clubs (some of which fight a constant battle with financial ruin), the money invested in trying to maintain an overused grass pitch could be better used elsewhere (one conference club executive told me last year that he had spent more on pitch maintenance in the last 6 months than it would cost to tear it up and install a top quality artificial surface that might last them 10 years). 

As those who may have played on a potholed amateur or low level professional pitch will also know, permanent injury can result from stepping or sliding into an unseen depression on a football pitch (which still exist, even in these enlightened days).

One suspects that the Football League already have in mind what their decision might be about surface materials.  However they choose, modern artificial pitches could well be a significant improvement in some cases.

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7 responses to “Real or Plastic?”

  1. Ed Gomes says:

    I currently play in the Garden State Soccer League, and have had the pleasure and displeasure of seeing the good and bad of both surfaces. Our home turf is artificial, but it’s a very good surface. Soft and forgiving and always true. Yes when it rains or it’s wet, you better adjust to the skip and run of the ball.
    Unfortunately I also play in the old “carpet” at some locations and its painful. I admit at not going all out and being extra cautious. I’ve gone as far as telling our manager that I would be willing to sit.
    What I did find incredible is that most of the grass surfaces that we have played on, are really good. Only one of the grass playing fields was awful.
    For me there’s nothing like the real thing, but after watching CL and Europa matches being played on surfaces that I would have walked away from is a bit disheartening.
    In Portugal Sporting has toyed with the idea of going to turf. The public outcry has been loud. Yes money is a big reason, but people worry about being able to draw young talent to the surface. This is a selling league, so that is a must.

    I have always been against the turf in the professional level. I know that it’s come a long way, and it’s comfortable and cost saving, but countries top leagues (1st & 2nd divisions) should still be played on grass. There is no excuse for the money not to be spent. Like I mentioned I’ve loved the turf fields I’ve played on, but nothing feels like the fresh grass that has morning dew on it. It makes it more real, dare I say more serious, for me.

    Let me add that there are costs with maintaining a turf field. Our club and several others have had to go to the town to get them to replenish the turf and fluff it up. I have also noticed some other towns begin to let their nice turf fields deteriorate. Everyone and every sport wants to play on them, so the wear and dare is much greater than expected.
    On the local levels I get it, but when you get to the “money leagues” no excuse for no grass.

  2. Tom H says:

    You can get some pretty nice burns from slidetackling on turf. I love the turf just because the run and bounce of the ball is so true, it gives you more confidence when dribbling and controlling the ball. But I am an amateur, and as they seem to have such spectacular grass fields now, I think they should stick with them. A turf field takes away from the atmosphere of the game… watching on TV and in person.

  3. Roberto Senyera says:

    Don’t mean to be flippant but a real league plays on the real stuff. End of story. This isn’t rocket surgery after all 😉

  4. Roberto Senyera says:

    And as for John Terry losing his footing, the better question to have asked would have been, “Did anyone else in that penalty shoot-out lose their footing?”

  5. John Bladen says:

    Ed, there are certainly costs associated with turf fields. They require fairly regular ‘levelling’ (sometimes even the addition of more rubber) and brushing as well. If you are talking about community fields, only a modest amount of money is spent on either artificial or natural surface maintenance in most cities.

    When it comes to professional surfaces (even lower level ones), it isn’t unusual for sections to have to be resodded several times a season. The cost can easily reach $3-400k p/a, not including the wages of the groundskeeper(s) if relaying the pitch is necessary.

    Tom: I prefer natural surfaces too. I could sum up with “grass if possible, but not grass at any cost”

  6. John Bladen says:

    Roberto:

    I’m not sure what rocket surgery is… but I think that elite games/leagues will always play on grass pitches. That isn’t going to change anytime soon.

    The issue is going to come to a head, though, as more and more high level leagues are playing the winter season in climates where grass can’t survive (think Russia, Asia, even MLS). Would you say that last week’s CL R16 game in Russia was better because it was played on grass?

    It didn’t look good on TV. The surface was awful for the players (I thought they might have been playing a neutral site, perhaps at Doncaster, for a minute…) and it’s hard to argue it didn’t have a major effect on the game.

    If more games will be scheduled in Russia during February, something is going to have to give. Perhaps Russian billionaire owners will build new enclosed facilities with natural grass that are heated (and have UV lighting) year round, but that doesn’t sound like a sustainable model either.

    BTW, why would “did anyone else slip” be a better question? The field was a mess, players were tearing up turf in clumps (Terry didn’t fall, by the way, his plant foot ankle rolled as the outside of his foot when through the turf, pushing the PK off target right). It was an appalling spectacle for a championship game, is the point. Two of the last four PK takers were left footed (Anderson, Giggs), and the other two (Kanu, Anelka) did not plant firmly after seeing Terry’s fiasco effort. In fact, the Anelka saved shot that ended the game looked as much like a firm pass as a PK.

  7. Alberta Gooner says:

    When Bobby promoted this piece on his Twitter feed, I thought John was writing about supporters rather than surfaces. Still, I’m glad I took the time to read this.

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