Is grass always greener? Over the last few weeks we have seen more and more opinions from players and coaches regarding the use of artificial pitches across our divisions in Scotland. Most of this has been fairly negative with some calls for artificial pitches to be banned in the Scottish top flight. Currently only Hamilton and Kilmarnock have artificial surfaces in the Premiership but a number of other sides in the Scottish league system use 3 or 4G pitches. Last weekend on Sportscene John Rankin (head of the PFA in Scotland) insisted that artificial surfaces should not be used in the top-tier.
This view has since been backed up by St.Johnstone manager Tommy Wright, although rather than out-and-out criticise these surfaces he was more concerned about the deterioration of poorly maintained pitches. Wright conceded that the income gained by smaller teams installing all-weather pitches did give them a big boost but he was supportive of the view that it should be more of a lower league thing and that the SPFL Premiership should not allow any form of artificial pitch.
“A lot of them don’t have sprinklers in it,” Wright said. “It’s how often they are maintained and how much money is spent on the maintenance of them.”
“We played on one that was almost as if it was matted and the ball wasn’t rolling – it was just bobbling along on it.”
Lyle Taylor of Partick Thistle recently slated the surface at Hamilton’s New Douglas Park calling it “embarrassing”, and his teammate Kallum Higginbotham was equally scathing insisting that regular training on these kinds of pitches would “knock a couple of years off your career”.
Looking at the broader picture it has to be said that the concern for artificial pitches has been around since the good old days of plastic carpets covered in sand that first appeared in the 1970s and 80s. Playing surfaces like that were used by many British sides and the NASL in America before common sense prevailed and they were ripped up one by one (however if you have played football at all during the last thirty years you would know that the general public are still often subjected to sand based carpet burns).
Times have changed though. The modern techniques used in producing artificial pitches means that we are now blessed with actual artificial grass that has more give, more depth and a truer bounce. UEFA and FIFA have both been involved heavily in testing and installing surfaces across the world, with many leagues and tournaments now being allowed to use 3G/4G surfaces (the entire 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada is due to be played on ‘plastic’ pitches).
Despite advances in the structure of artificial grass it is true that there remains a largely sceptical view about their long-term use. Criticism is not hard to find, with the same arguments about injuries and the overall quality of these pitches resurfacing time and time again. As of yet there is not enough evidence to definitively say what the long-term usage of these pitches has on the body.
So, what do we do? The surfaces are being talked about almost on a weekly basis right now, so when and where should these pitches be allowed? Should we use them at all? Perennial Underachievers is here to present a (very) one-sided argument regarding the future of 3G, 4G and all the other future Gs here in Scotland.
Firstly, if you are here to read an opinion piece on the terrible world that is artificial grass you are in the wrong place. I am a very vocal supporter and advocate of the use of 3 and 4G pitches. I think they are what we need and that they will help football in Scotland. I am a firm believer that we should be investing time and money on the quality of our game and that we should embrace our plastic future rather than be sceptical of it.
Why? Well here are five reasons in praise of plastic –
SHORT TERM PAIN WITH A LONG TERM GAIN
Finances. That word can strike fear into any fan, player or chairman. As much as we all enjoy the romance of football being all about the game the sad truth is that money dictates what happens both on and off the pitch at every single club in the world. Away from the elite few it is a fact that most clubs are reliant on closely monitoring their yearly comings and goings. The playing surface is one of those financial commitments that can seem much greater than you think.
For grass pitches the money it takes to seed, cut, form and develop a pitch can run into the thousands if not tens of thousands of pounds every year (potentially hundreds if you need to relay your surface). Then you have to think about the constant upkeep during a long and hard season. Not a problem for those flush with cash, but what about the rest? The majority of clubs cannot afford to reinvest every year in their grass pitch so what tends to happen is they try to cut corners and costs by using cheaper ways to maintain. This starts a vicious cycle of grass maintenance that could really eat into finances and ultimately cost the team on the pitch. Want a side to play good, ball-on-the-deck style football? In most cases that simply isn’t possible.
Astroturf is hugely expensive, there is no denying that. The initial expenditure to install and lay a good quality artificial pitch can reach hundreds of thousands of pounds. Unfortunately many clubs simply do not have that cash at hand but the long-term savings you gain by using a pitch like this can be huge. Maintenance still needs to be carried out on these surfaces (more than you might think) but the cost of doing this is a fraction of how much it would take to maintain natural grass. Furthermore there is huge potential for money making opportunities (more on this later).
This might be a pie in the sky type idea but would it be too much to ask for the Government to help subsidise the cost of installing artificial pitches across Scotland? If you managed to reduce that initial cost of installing the pitch even by a little it would undoubtedly save massive sums of money year on year for every club using these surfaces.
As a football fan there is something very satisfying about turning up to the first game of a new season to see a wonderful untouched pitch that has been allowed to grow and mature over the summer. I would guess that 100% of football fans who go to a game at the start of a season will at some point nudge their friends and remark “here, the pitch looks great eh?”. And it does. It always does. It truly is a beautiful sight. Fast forward a matter of weeks though and you will see the beginnings of that turf being ripped up, torn apart and reducing in quality quicker than your side’s footballing ability and European dreams. Half way through the season pitches begin to look like quagmires, unplayable at times. You have fans paying good money to watch (half) decent football and be entertained but you then have to endure balls bobbling about, catching in mud and large bald patches forming around the goalmouth (incidentally I would imagine that the majority of goalkeepers might be in favour of ‘plastic’).
The quality of artificial surfaces has improved dramatically in the last decade or so. I had a discussion about this recently with someone who remembers the old style astro and hadn’t seen any of the new pitches. He was adamant at how horrible it is but I urged him to go and see the new training pitch at Dundee United, or some of the other great surfaces we have in Scotland. These are fantastic quality pitches and anyone who has seen them in the flesh will know that they provide a reliable and true surface to play football on. They hold up to rigorous activity as they can be used over and over and over again without deteriorating in quality (the same cannot be said for grass).There are no bobbles, no divots and no bald patches. With proper maintenance (and that is important) these pitches can last for years without any real drop in the quality of the ‘grass’. It is surely an obvious choice when it comes to the actual quality of football you can watch?
Football and the local community should always go hand in hand. It is the local community that provides the money to keep clubs in business. The better the relationship between the club and the community the more fans you get and the more money you then receive. There is often an accusation aimed towards clubs that they forget their local community but to be fair I think that in the last few years things in Scottish football have been quite good between the clubs and the fans (the relationship between the SPFL/SFA and the fans is another matter). What better way to continue that bond by having an artificial pitch that can be used by the members of the public, schools, local groups and societies? It seems to me to make total sense that if you have a pitch that is available all day, every day that you can then open that facility up for people to use and enjoy (and pay for of course!). Speak to people who live in Falkirk or in Forfar and they will tell you that their stadiums are being used constantly, creating positive and hopefully long-lasting relationships with people in the local area. Schools for example can use them for playing fields (not all schools have the space and money to have their own facilities). The more people you have using your facility the more potential fans you can reach. If a young person is getting to train on a pitch inside a football stadium they become used to going there and they enjoy their experience. That is a potential future fan who will go on to spend their money with that club for many years.
The other beauty of artificial pitches is that they can be used for a whole variety of sports and events. Anything from Rugby tournaments to one-off concerts can take place on these surfaces without any worry about long-lasting damage. There is huge potential here for raising a club’s profile and for massive financial benefits. In theory if a club charges on average £100 per hour over say a 7 hour day you are potentially gathering an extra £3500 a week (based on five days). One-off events would command a bigger fee and you could get contracts with local councils and authorities for schools using the pitch. Scottish football has long been on the lookout for any extra money so this kind of opportunity is something that can’t be ignored (especially when you consider the pennies that each club is receiving from the people who actually sponsor or leagues).
HAVE YOU SEEN THE WEATHER OUTSIDE?
Okay so this is probably a slightly more flimsy argument than the others but it is still very much the case that the weather in Scotland can be atrocious for months on end. This can affect the footballing calendar and result in postponement after postponement. Disruption to football fixtures is something that can cost fans time and money and mean a backlog of games at different times of the year. You cannot predict the weather and it is so changeable here that you cannot guarantee anything but every year we do have issues with our climate damaging our football pitches. Between November and April most stadiums in Scotland have truly awful playing surfaces and the standard of football drops dramatically. How many times do we hear managers and player bemoan the state of the pitch? Almost on a weekly basis during that time of the year. That then goes back to the costing issue of trying (but failing) to maintain these pitches during periods of horrible weather. Artificial pitches do not deteriorate with the weather in the same way as grass. A bad winter or terrible rain can ruin a grass pitch for months.
If you go slightly further north to the Scandinavian leagues you will find that a large percentage of teams based in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland use artificial pitches in order to maintain a level of football throughout the year. Yes their climate is harsher than ours in terms of the cold but we should be in a similar position to protect our own leagues from the elements. Artificial pitches do ironically sometimes succumb to certain weather conditions (sharp frost and ice) but if a proper heating and maintenance system is installed that too is no longer an issue.
Of course this isn’t to say that fans will enjoy that 4 hour drive in the snow to get to their latest fixture! Who hasn’t sometimes been delighted that you don’t have to leave the house on a Saturday afternoon? In the darkest winter months sometimes the sight of a ‘P-P’ on your fixtures screen is a welcome bonus!
DOING IT FOR THE KIDS
This final point is actually something I personally think is very important, but it is one that hasn’t been talked about very much in the recent discussions involving managers and players.
Being a teacher who is involved in school football I can honestly say that one of the main factors in us considering to use artificial pitches more and more in the professional game should be down to how our young people are now learning, training and playing matches. If you ask an ageing professional what percentage of games do they play on 4G they would probably tell you very few. I’m sorry though, the views of players who are in their late twenties and those in their thirties is really not the issue here. We should be looking forward 5, 10, 15 years down the line and the reality is that almost every single young person in Scotland who plays regular football will spend a great deal of time playing on new, good quality artificial pitches. Many schools across the country now have these surfaces and if they don’t have them on site they do still have access to them. Most football centres have astro pitches and they are used year round. This means that as the next generation learn their trade they are doing so on these surfaces meaning their bodies are getting used to them, they know how the pitches run and they can feel comfortable playing on artificial grass. The next generation of footballers in Scotland will be confident playing on both grass and 4G so the excuse of it causing more injuries and being bad for a footballer’s body I think will become obsolete in the next few years.
In all honesty there is a big part of me that sees football as a sport played on grass. I’m not a grass hater, I don’t want grass pitches to disappear but when I think about the game in Scotland and I think about what I watch every single week the sad fact remains that there has never been a year of me watching football when I can truly say that I have been impressed with the quality of surfaces in the Scottish game. The state of some of our pitches is a disgrace, and if people are insisting that 4G shouldn’t be used in the top flight, are they really happy with the patchy, bobbly, mud ridden surfaces we have instead? Surely not.
Clubs do not invest the huge amounts it costs to maintain grass pitches all year round (it can be done. It is just really, really expensive). If there was a way that clubs could instead spend an initial sum on a good quality artificial pitch (maybe subsidised in some way) it would then remove that need for constant reinvestment and allow us to watch football played on good surfaces all year round, with the added benefit of additional income, increased community links and (I believe) a better standard of football with more opportunities to develop our players in a better footballing environment.
Ultimately I think the future of our pitches will be determined by the managers and the players. Right now it seems as though many still want to use grass. Recently, despite the best surface of its kind in Scotland being installed near Tannadice, Jackie McNamara still insisted he would rather use a grass pitch for first team football. If players and managers want grass surfaces to stay, they will, but personally I would like to see more and more artificial pitches in Scottish football.