Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Burns Night

Tomorrow afternoon at 4.00, England will kick off at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow against Russia and, in case you have been living under a rock for the last few weeks or so, it has an artificial pitch. If you've been reading the mainstream press over the last few days, this pitch will be give Michael Owen third-degree burns and cause John Terry's knee to explode and cover everyone present with (so far unnamed) "fluids". Yum, indeed. The truth of the matter is, however, that most British journalists' experience of artificial turf is limited to the brief fad for ripping up the grass and replacing t with the peculair bouncy carpet which blighted the game in England during the 1980s, and the fact of the matter is that the technology involved has moved on quite a bit since then. It is, therefore, a very apt time to take a review of the history of something that was once heralded as the future of football, and might yet prove to be the "pitch of the future".

Artificial surfaces, you won't be very surprised to hear, came from the USA, and the first Astroturf pitch (that particular name is a brand name, although it has gained a more generic usage since then) was installed at the Houston Astrodome (from whence Astroturf took its name) in 1967. It was a common sense application of science in its first incarnation. The Astrodome had a roof, making it almost impossible to maintain a grass surface, and artificial grass was an ideal solution. As any groundsman will tell you, grass pitches require an awful lot of maintenance and, by the 1970s, artificial pitches were starting to spring up at outdoor stadia as well, fitted by teams that were attracted by the new fad's low maintenance costs and durability.

There was something inevitable about the spread of artificial pitches to football. Anybody that has watched a match from the middle of winter in Britain in the 1970s would be able to tell you that the vast majority of pitches lost their grass by the middle of October and became little more than mud baths. They weren't helped by the clubs themselves, who appointed groundsmen whose idea of groundskeeping seemed to be to sprinkle some grass seed every once in a while and hope for the best, whilst coping with frost by shaking salt or grit over the grass to make it defrost, and who treated waterlogged pitches by applying liberal amounts of sand to them. Wembley stadium's once-fine pitch was converted into a pretty accurate recreation of Southend beach every spring in the late 1960s, with tonnes of sand being poured onto it every March after "The Horse Of The Year Show", rendering it close to unplayable. Other clubs such as Fulham suffered from their location - the desire to have a flat, green pitch hadn't been very high on the list of priorities of those who chose Craven Cottage as the location for their stadium, and the ground's close location to the Thames gave it terrible drainage, meaning that it usually resembled the Fields Of The Somme (circa December 1915) by the end of September. Clubs simply didn't seem (as with, with the benefit of hindsight, so many other things) care. I remember one edition of "Match Of The Day" in the early 1980s when the whole show was taken up with very extended highlights of a drab match between Manchester City and Stoke City, because City had under-soil heating, and everyone else was either frozen or rained off.

The first club in Britain to take the plunge was, of course, QPR, who dug up the pitch at Loftus Road in 1981 and replaced it with a green carpet made by a company called Omniturf. Almost immediately, it was heavily criticised, and not just by what one might describe as "traditionalists". Managers and players queued up to criticise the stress that it put on potentially fragile joints like the knees and ankles, and there were numerous reports of players picking up serious burns after being hauled to the ground and/or skidding across it. Coupled with this, the football played on it was absolutely rotten. The ball's bounce was too true and too high, and high bouncing balls would more often than not pick up speed off the surface, fooling even the most experienced of defenders and goalkeepers. QPR, perhaps unsurprisingly, adapted to it very quickly (as this thrashing of Middlesbrough from 1982 demonstrates neatly), and they won promotion to the First Division in 1983. Several other clubs (from memory, Luton Town, Oldham Athletic and Preston North End) also installed them, but they were banned by the Football League in 1988.

Artificial pitches started their revival in 2003, when SPL club Dunfermline Athletic had one installed at their East End Park stadium. Dunfermline's pitch had been fitted by a company called XL, and was light years ahead of the pitches used in England during the 1980s. There were, however, still considerable complaints from other SPL clubs (most notably Dundee United, Rangers and Celtic) and, in 2005, they were banned in Scotland. Most notably (and this was quite possibly a significant factor in the decision), Dunfermline's defence seemed largely one of self-interest - they cited savings made on training and maintenance, as well as the reduction in postponed matches as being the biggest single reason why they should be allowed to keep it. This wasn't the sort of argument that was going to bring the chairmen of other SPL clubs round to their point of view.

FIFA and UEFA, who both initially banned artificial pitches just after the FA did, have started to allow matches played on recommended artificial pitches again. Borussia Monchengladbach, in Germany, have one and, most notably of all, there is now one in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Considering the harsh climate in Moscow during the winter, it's understandable that they should have one. However, the decision to allow them to use an artificial pitch for the match between Russia and England is a controversial one. More notably still, all this talk of the 2008 European Cup final being played on plastic is nonsense. For one thing, UEFA are still concerned that the Luzhniki doesn't have the electronic turnstiles that would have prevented much of the chaos at last year's final in Athens, and have said that they might yet reverse the decision to play it there. For another thing, the UEFA website confirms that a grass pitch will be laid for this match.

So, do England have anything to worry about? I have myself played on both types of artificial pitch, and there is no question that the new generation of pitches are a massive improvement on the pitches of the 1980s. The blades of "grass" are longer, and the pitches have a sub-layer of sand and rubber which lessens the bounce of the ball. If you didn't think about it, you'd almost imagine that you were playing on grass. And here lies the rub - if England are beaten by the pitch tomorrow night, it won't so much be the pitch itself that does the damage as the players' psychological reaction to playing on it. Will a couple of players pause for a second before making that vital tackle? Such reticence could cost them the match. Theoretically, a better pitch (and the majority of Russian players don't have much more experience of it than England's players) should suit better footballers. In this respect, it's down to England's players to prove that they can overcome their concerns over the pitch and demonstrate that they are "better footballers". Their multi-million pound contracts would seem to indicate that, in theory, they should be. I wouldn't wish to be drawn on whether they actually are or not.

Ballhype: hype it up!


Duffman said...

An excellent and interesting piece.

I think that the media's interest in the artificial pitch says more about the media than it does about the pitch.

Either the hacks don't know what they are talking about when it comes to "plastic pitches" or they do know what they are talking about and have decided to talk and write about this in the absence of anything else meaningful to say.

If the pitch in Moscow is England's biggest problem, then they have no problems.

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