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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