Picture the scene. It’s early Saturday morning, and I log onto Twitter for the first time. My Timeline makes a depressing read, as up and down the country clubs’ Twitter accounts relay the bad news…..Game Off, Waterlogged pitch. Game Off, Frozen pitch. This isn’t time or month specific these days, as it seems to have been a recurring post for the last 2 month’s or so. I dare say in some parts of the country, such posting’s will be commonplace for another month. So what’s the answer ? Well we can’t change the weather that’s for sure. Change the times in which we play ? Never happen, football has been a Winter sport for 150 years, certainly at Professional and semi-Professional level. There have been calls to move Junior football, and for the life of me I can’t see why we didn’t do that years ago. Too many other distractions for kids on a cold, wet December morning to be running around a freezing field. But that’s a debate for another day. So if we can’t change the weather, or the time of year we play, what about the type of surface we play the game on ?
Step forward the “plastic pitch” debate again. I’m old enough to remember going to Oldham in the late 80’s, possibly early 90’s, when Boundary Park had one of the first synthetic pitches. This had more sand on it than Blackpool beach, predominantly to equal out the bounce of the ball, such was the rigidity in the surface. 30 years on and technology has seen a marked improvement in surfaces, to the point that these day’s it’s just like playing on grass, minus all the bad points. This stuff doesn’t cut up, cause divots, or hold water ( If the correct drainage is implemented ). The end result of all this is a perfect surface, that won’t freeze, and won’t degrade with use. No wonder so many clubs in Non-league football have looked at the possibility of installing one. At present only a handful do, all through the pyramid. However, in Scotland almost a third of SPFL club’s play on an artificial 3 or 4G pitch.
This week saw a meeting held by all National League clubs ( Non-leagues top 2 tiers, or Step 1 & 2 as it is often referred to ) that resulted in a vote being passed to allow the use of artificial pitches at that level. It will fall into line with the rest of the pyramid, where synthetic surfaces are welcome. FA approval is a mere formality, the governing body is a driving force behind the idea. However, and this is a big however, it’s not all as simple as it would appear.
At this moment in time, club’s from Steps 3 to 7 can play on any 3G surface. Many clubs offset the initial cost of the plastic pitch by hiring it out for community use, bringing in vital revenue streams. These pitches can take an infinite amount of use, making them ideal for clubs to use, from 1st team to juniors, 365 days of the year. However, and this is the big fork in the road, the surfaces that the National League clubs ( Steps 1 & 2 ) have voted to use will have to be a FIFA Quality Pro approved synthetic surface, and at present this type of surface has only a 45/50 hour shelf life. In other words it will take roughly a season of constant use, taking into factor friendlies and cup games. As if that isn’t a big enough factor in a clubs decision to install one in place of grass, the news that later came out from the FA might be. There will be no assisted funding to help clubs buy the necessary “Quality Pro” surface. In other words, if you wanna play at Step 1 or 2, you’re gunna have to pay for the pitch to do it on ! Yes that’s right, the governing body in charge of football in this country, trusted with over-seeing the game at all levels, won’t actually help out it’s highest placed non-league sides ! It will happily assist you in paying for a pitch all the way up the ladder from step 7 to step 3. However, upon promotion to Step 2 ( National North or South ) you will have to come up with something in the region of £250K / 300K to have a plastic pitch fit for that standard. Talk about a wake-up call….
So this is the quandry the game, and many clubs in Non-league football currently find themselves in. Lets remember that at present this only affects the top 68 clubs in Non-league football. And nobody is forcing clubs at any level to play on an artificial surface. But surely we are edging towards a future where more and more clubs revert to plastic, as both technology improves, and the bite of Winter and postponed fixtures puts a huge dent in a clubs time and resources. You only have to look at any Step 5 table ( the biggest in terms of clubs and leagues ) to see some teams operating 10 to 12 games behind others, and being forced to play Saturday and midweek from now until the end of April just to fulfil fixtures in time. And what about future generations ? How many times do you pass a junior game, either at club or school level, and the kids are ankle deep in mud ? And that’s if they’ve managed to get the game on at all. Then we wonder where all the skill players have gone. You reap what you sow, pardon the grass-based pun. It’s time for the FA to assist in sowing the seeds of the future.