El Plastico: The emergence of artificial pitches

One if the first things I notice when I walk into most football grounds is the smell of freshly cut and watered grass. It’s one of the integral parts of the experience. It evokes innocent, youthful memories of ‘kick abouts’ in the local park, mud and grass stains. A stark contrast to recollections of burns and grazes dished out by 90s sandy ‘astro turf’ surfaces. Thankfully artificial pitches have moved and more and more non-league clubs are embracing them.

The Football League recently confirmed that it was still mulling over whether or not to update its rules on 3G surfaces. Currently, any team that uses an artificial pitch and wins promotion into the league would need to rip up their pitch and return to grass, or face an effective double relegation. Sutton, Maidstone United and Bromley are all in the promotion mix in the National League and use 3G pitches. So, why are they, and other non-league clubs, taking the risk and turning to plastic.

The simple answer is money. The 3G pitch business model that is being increasingly adopted in non-league football is helping clubs, that have previously struggled financially, become sustainable and even turn a profit. National League promotion hopefuls Maidstone United recently announced their fifth consecutive year as a profitable outfit. Their 3G pitch is a major factor. The pitch can be played on seven days a week allowing the club to offer attractive hire packages for the local community. The Stones moved into their new home in 2012, when they were playing in the Isthmian South Division. they’ve turned a profit every year since. Revenue from their prized artificial pitch has helped them spend to increase capacity, and income, as they’ve risen to the top tier of non-league football.

Another benefit of artificial surfaces is particularly apparent at this time of year. Weather induced postponements are a major problem in non-league football. Leagues and clubs alike are caused regular headaches during the coldest and wettest months of winter. 3G pitches dramatically reduce the amount of postponed games. This means that clubs have less of a rush to fulfil fixtures in the spring, and they can also cash in with increased attendances when other local teams have had to call-off games.

Sutton United, who installed their artificial surface in 2015, made headlines last season after a dramatic FA Cup run that eventually saw them knocked out by Arsenal in the fifth round. Arsene Wenger was keen to focus on the pitch before the cup tie at Gander Green Lane. His concerns were very much directed at the speed of the ball on the surface and the potential damaging effects on players joints. He’s not the first to question plastic surfaces. His former player Thierry Henry often avoided 3G pitches during his spell in the MLS to prevent ‘wear and tear’ on his ageing knees.

Bromley are the third National League club that currently uses a 3G pitch. Artificial surfaces are currently permitted at all non-league levels, but the National League created a rule that states clubs would be relegated into the National League South if they won promotion but failed to convert back to a natural surface. All three clubs have appealed to The FA, Football League and National League to come to an agreement that would bring English football into line with Scotland, Europe and other major sports. Currently, 3G pitches are allowed in the Champions League, Europa League and World Cup Qualifiers. English and European Rugby Champions Saracens also use an artificial surface at their North London home.

When putting the case to football’s governors, the high-profile non-league trio have often stated that recent studies have found little evidence to suggest that artificial pitches increase the risk of player injuries. The same case was put forward in Scotland when artificial pitches were introduced. Supporters of plastic pitches north of the border also suggested the surfaces could be used to improve the standard of developing players, who could now learn their trade on even, consistent surfaces that aren’t so regularly at the mercy of the Scottish Climate.

As things stand Sutton and Bromley are both in the promotion play-off spots, with Maidstone 12 points behind. The deadline of the end of the season is approaching fast and although the Football League has promised further discussions it’s not clear if their stance will change this season. This could leave Sutton and Bromley with a few sleepless nights before the season is out. What is clear is that in the financially unforgiving world of non-league football 3G pitches are providing some clubs with an opportunity to secure their futures and ensure they remain a key part of their local community.