It isn’t often that the words of an English League One board member set off the alarm bells on The Journal’s sportsdesk, but Brian Kane, vice-charman at Wycombe Wanderers, managed just that last week with his musings on a return to artificial playing surfaces in football. Discussions are very much at an informal stage, but it is interesting to probe the possibilities were the sport to shift in that direction.
The major reasons behind the suggestion are monetary savings and community benefit. With budgets at breaking point across the lower leagues there is a growing need to reduce costs, while at the same time winning local would-be fans away from gloryhunting from their armchairs.
However, the primary arguments against synthetic pitches have altered little since they last had a significant presence in league football; the players will be injured more often, and the football will be crap.
But what is there really to worry about? Clubs the length and breadth of Europe play their home games on artificial surfaces, with the approval of both FIFA and UEFA. The England national side played (read: lost) a Euro 2008 qualifying game against Russia on artificial turf, whilst English club sides like Tottenham and Stoke have avoided disaster in recent years on their respective trips to Swiss sides Young Boys and FC Thun, both of whom play on astroturf. The technology has progressed greatly from the plastic rubbish last seen at Preston’s Deepdale in the early 1990s.
As a seasoned plodder of all manner of artificial pitches, though, this writer has had plenty of unpleasant experiences, and still pulls his face whenever the prospect of playing on astroturf arises. That is why this will most probably remain an idea for the lower leagues; Premier League clubs can afford to shell out extra for a heated, cushioned surface. No top clubs will be gambling their players’ safety on a potentially unsafe pitch (that just screams ‘bad investment’, doesn’t it), nor will they want to be associated with ‘rubbish football’ in an age when the sport has never been more fashionable. Quite the contrary, grass would prevail with its aesthetic of ‘tradition’ and ‘realism’. And just why would big clubs need to engage with the local community when they could fill the ground with 30,000 tourists each week and have hundreds of millions of people across the world wearing their colours?
However, astroturf would open up another idea that blows in and out of fashion – the ‘winter break’. The merits of a winter break are debatable, but the idea is impracticable no matter which way you look at it. We could have a positively balmy December in which no games are played, then be trying to play full league fixture-programmes through a four-week blizzard in January.
Now, far from rendering a winter break unnecessary, artificial playing surfaces would actually facilitate the idea by excluding that prohibitive weather variable from consideration. But then for a number of weeks mid-season we would be treated to the sight of these artificial pitches, these technological marvels, standing idle at exactly the time of year for which they were designed, while the superstars trot off to play a friendly in the UAE and ’expand the club’s markets’.
The prospect of widespread implementation of synthetic pitches, if at all on the cards, is still years away. Unforeseen factors may still come to bear on a process which would involve a great deal of legislative back-and-forth, but as things stand it is difficult to see the top clubs buying into the idea. We should lament not the possibilty of phasing out grass surfaces, but that the sport is in so sorry a state at grassroots level that artificial pitches may be the only viable option for lower-league clubs in years to come.