Football growing up
As we grew up, we played football on many different surfaces. Depending on where you lived decided your choice of surface. I was lucky as I lived about 100 metres from our school field. I’m not talking any ordinary school field but one the size of epic proportions. Numerous full-sized football pitches took up less than half its surface area. The added bonus was that its lack of fencing meant it was the ultimate playground for the youth of its time.
The biggest issue we had to face was the long dry summers (really!) of the 1970s that meant you had to be careful with your tackling. Sadly, that school field is a mere shadow of its former self. More than half filled with houses, the rest is the old school revamped and closed off to outsiders.
Once school was a thing of the past it was off to eleven a side on grass or the various hotch-potch of artificial five-a-side pitches available. The variety of surfaces that the short form of the game provided varied from the satisfactory down to the downright dangerous. Stone, plastic, rubber, tartan, and the indoor wooden versions all had their issues.
Pride of place went to the local sports centre whose small pitches were made of gravel. Of course, any thoughts of tackling went straight out of your mind as soon as you set foot on the pitch. Unfortunately, you couldn’t account for bodily contact and the inevitable hard landing.
It was like coming off your racing bicycle at great speed, wearing only a t-shirt and landing skin first. Plastic, concrete, wood; but nothing could compete with gravel as you walked away after a game, wondering how so much of it ever got into your socks.
Artificial pitches though, meant you could play almost anytime and didn’t seem too bad at first. The odd carpet burn when you forgot you shouldn’t slide tackle aside, it meant you could play in mid-winter without too many side-effects. The thought of professional footballers plying their trade on such surfaces? Oh please! They did in the USA, but then we didn’t take their ‘soccer’ seriously did we? But arrive they did.
The British winter
Alongside creating revenue for cash-strapped clubs, artificial pitches were the simple answer to the problem of muddy pitches and matches called off in a typical British winter. What could possibly go wrong? Undersoil heating was in its infancy, and certainly not an exact science. Despite some horrifically muddy pitches, most matches would get played.
Pitches were so muddy that on many occasions the pitch markings couldn’t be seen. On one occasion marked by the visiting TV cameras, Derby County were awarded a late penalty against Manchester City at the Baseball Ground, one of the more notoriously muddy pitches. The groundsman, complete with a paint pot, tape measure and brush, had to paint the penalty spot before Gerry Daly slotted the kick home.
During the winter months, players would endure much icier conditions than they do today. Despite this, a great many matches would be called off due to ice and snow. Clubs lower down the league hierarchy, in search of extra income, began to consider the possibilities of a pitch that could be used all year round.
Queens Park Rangers were first
QPR were the first to succumb in 1981, choosing to lay Omni-turf over a two-foot layer of concrete. The result was an artificial, bouncing nightmare. Keepers would kick the ball, and with one bounce it would sail over the opposing keeper. It led to goalkeepers wearing leggings due to concerns about diving and players often on the receiving end of carpet burns.
Ironically their first game was against future artificial pitch layers, Luton Town, and they lost 2-1. The laying of the pitch did, however, result in an upturn in the team’s results. Managed by Terry Venables, then in Division 2, they went all the way to the 1982 FA cup final after being drawn at home in every round.
They had to play at neutral Highbury in the semi-final, beating West Bromwich Albion but it was widely suspected their sudden upsurge in performance was down to their home environment. It had been rumoured that Terry Venables would happily accept team’s requests to train on their pitch but would then have the dry pitch watered prior to the match.
Promotion as champions the next season was followed by a fifth-place finish in 1984/85 and UEFA Cup qualification. A poor season ensued. Unable to play their UEFA Cup home games because of the artificial pitch, they played their European ties at Highbury. Poor league form left them in 19th place, just one point from relegation.
The following season they reached the final of the League Cup and finished mid-table. Ultimately though, the experiment was prone to failure and the surface was taken up at the end of the 1987/88 season. The detractors and the Football League had eventually won their battle.
Luton followed suit, laying their Sporturf international pitch. This was a much kinder pitch than their QPR counterparts. The various layers included a shock absorbing base and easy drainage system with sand supporting grass. This didn’t stop the derision and it was labelled the ‘plastic’ pitch.
As with QPR though, their results improved. They enjoyed comfortable top half finishes, although they did reach an FA Cup semi-final in 1985, prior to the pitch being laid. Ray Harford, manager between 1987-1990, liked the surface, ultimately leading them to League cup glory, beating Arsenal in the 1988 final. They returned to Wembley the following year but lost to Nottingham Forest. Despite relaying the pitch following complaints in 1989, the pitch was finally laid to rest in 1991.
Oldham and Preston make it four…
Both laid their pitches with help from council funding in 1986. In fact, it could be argued that Oldham’s most successive period started with their artificial pitch. Joe Royle, their manager at the time, felt his team had a psychological edge over others. He would often see it in the body language of the players. Digging their heels in and shaking their heads disapprovingly would mean Royle’s side would have the upper hand.
Oldham went from mid-Division Two plodders to the top flight via a League Cup Final and an unlucky replayed FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester United in 1990. They missed out narrowly on the Second Division playoffs probably due to fixture overload. They played a massive 65 games that season with seven players appearing in 60 or more of them. To credit the pitch for their good results seems harsh as they enjoyed deserved victories at Everton and Southampton before their double-header with Manchester United at Maine Road.
The following season they went up as champions. To add to the complaints of the growing anti-artificial pitch faction, they went 32 home games unbeaten. In fairness, they played good football against the artificial pitch stereotype. They relentlessly attacked, imbued by an infectious team spirit led by Captain Mike Milligan and striker Frankie Bunn. It was difficult not to be impressed by their style and results. In effect, they became most people’s second team.
Surviving in the First Division and the newly formed Premier League was probably the best Oldham could hope for and even though their pitch appeared to give them a significant home advantage according to detractors, it was dug up in the summer of 1991 without too much effect on performances. Eventually, however, they would succumb to relegation in 1994.
Preston’s remarkable rise
Preston’s rise came from the lowly depths of 91st in the Football League in the 1985/86 season – the first time they had to apply for re-election in their history. Following the laying of their own Sporturf pitch that summer they were promoted the following season. For a couple of years their form fared well but in 1992/93 they were relegated. The season after they made the Third Division playoffs only to lose in the semi-final to Torquay. Their home leg was the last game to be played on an artificial surface.
The detractors of artificial pitches weren’t happy citing improved results for all four teams that had them. This was debated by the clubs involved but it certainly coincided with significantly successful periods for both Luton Town and Oldham Athletic. Others argued that Luton’s results, although good, were down to their team and home results were no better or worse than before. Ultimately pressure from detractors won out and the artificial surfaces were banned in 1995.
It could be argued that teams enjoyed an advantage over others due to their pitch. It could also be argued that psychologically, teams had an inferiority complex regarding the surface and were sometimes beaten before they took to the pitch. If there is an advantage having an artificial surface, then shouldn’t they be at a disadvantage when playing on grass? Maybe, as in Oldham’s and Luton’s case, they just had one of the best teams in their clubs’ histories.
Artificial surfaces rise again
Others have since tried artificial pitches and with improving technology it could be argued that it’s a worthwhile change to make. Hyde United and Sterling Albion in Scotland were two of the first. Sterling though had to give opposing clubs the option of now playing on the surface for cup games. As a result, they didn’t play at home in the cup for a number of seasons.
Closer to home, Maidstone United laid their pitch in 2012 and Sutton United in 2015. An anomaly is that neither would be allowed in the Football League should they gain promotion yet they are allowed to play in the FA Cup. When they play each other, their game is amusingly labelled ‘El Plastico’. As matters stand, nearly a third of Scotland’s League clubs play on artificial surfaces, two of whom, Kilmarnock and Hamilton, are in the top flight.
Internationally, Russia played England in 2007 at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium in a Euro 2008 qualifier. It is one of the few major football stadia in Europe to use an artificial pitch. UEFA approved its FieldTurf surface at its inception in 2002. In 2016 a permanent hybrid turf was laid, which is 95% natural grass, reinforced by plastic. It hosted the 2008 Champions League Final but had to install a temporary grass pitch for this match. England also played on Lithuania’s artificial surface in a Euro 2016 qualifier.
Controversy over artificial pitches was never too far away, however. Newcastle keeper Tim Krul sustained a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) that was blamed by some on Astana Arena’s artificial surface whilst playing for the Netherlands against Kazakhstan in 2015. It’s difficult to blame the pitch however when there was a spate of ACL injuries around the same time. Many also blamed hard grass pitches.
The Women’s World Cup 2015 was the first senior international football tournament to be played on artificial surfaces. Canada hosted the World Cup and due to the climate, all six venues had artificial pitches. A gender discrimination lawsuit was threatened as it was thought a men’s tournament would never be allowed under the same circumstances. The legal challenge was pulled prior to the tournament commencing.
Artificial turf pitches aren’t going anywhere any time soon. There have been 3,437 FIFA-certified artificial football surfaces in 149 countries laid since 2006. The number increases year on year and offers flexibility for the owners and users. Traditional grass pitches still rule the game but technology offers better results as we go forward. The average artificial pitch lasts approximately eight years and there have been concerns over the waste of old pitches from an environmental point of view. These pitches have come a long way since Loftus Road in 1981. Whether we like it or not, it appears they are here to stay. Can we halt progress? Watch this space…