The artificial debate

Date: 3rd July 2015

ARTIFICAL surfaces. The debate has gone on for what seems like forever – should Scotland’s football teams use them? Fans, players, clubs, officials and anyone else with an opinion on footballing matters have been united in their division over the topic, with half the population suggesting that they would be good for our game and the other half saying that it would not.

Here, we are going to take a quick look at the pros and cons of artificial surfaces and try and give some sort of conclusion as to what we think would be most beneficial for our game.

First off, the big pro.

The most obvious benefit of artificial surfaces is the avoidance of game postponement due to bad weather – whether it be a waterlogged pitch or frozen surface. Artificial pitches do not face the problems posed by Scotland’s weather during winter – which opens up the argument for summer football, but let’s not go there – like their natural counterparts. Inches of rain can fall overnight and fans, players and officials do not need to worry about cancelling the game due to the playing conditions. Furthermore, clubs would not need to spend thousands of pounds on electricity for undersoil heating, something which is almost seen as a necessity in Scotland nowadays, but even still there can be some problems with that which means that the heating fails and the surfaces freezes over, making it unplayable. This all means that fans will not face the prospect of travelling hundreds of miles in some cases to get to a stadium and find out that the game is cancelled, so it is sounding really good just now.

Now for the two main cons.

First and foremost, there is a genuine belief among players that artificial surfaces be a higher risk to injuries than a grass playing field. Whether it be the harder surface, football boot studs being unable to grip the astroturf as they can the grass, players do – almost unanimously – feel that injuries will occur on an artifical surface more commonly than a grass one. There does seem to be some support for this theory. Over recent years, a number of players have been playing on artificial surfaces and seen their studs get caught in the ground when they are running or when they have been tackled and it has caused their ligaments to bend in ways that they should not and, in many cases, it has resulted in damage to the ligaments which has caused the players to miss months of their careers. This has been happening in the lower divisions in Scotland as well as the Premiership, with Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park pitch been a cause for criticism among some players.

The other main drawback of artificial surfaces is that it does seem to be a slower/harder surface, even the brand new ones. The women’s World Cup has been played on artificial surfaces and the world has seen the difference in these pitches compared to the traditional grass surface. The ball often seems to be clinging to the pitches in Canada, as well as taking huge bounces and sometimes strange ones, which has meant that the pitches have come under great criticism. People have suggested that the pitches has meant that there have been a lack of goals – plainly absurd considering there have been plenty of goals at the women’s World Cup – but this is still giving people more ammunition to avoid the use of these surfaces.

We have to be careful about how long we go on as there is plenty of material out there regarding the use of plastic surfaces. We have not even looked at how these may be better used at grass-roots level instead of professional level, which a much more in-depth look would be required for.

But we have to make a quick mention of one League One club who play on an artificial surface. At Ochilview, where Stenhousemuir play, the pitch is not only for the club, but the community also benefit from it. The Warriors have an ideal model of how the artificial surface can be used to benefit everyone. They have community teams as well as pro youth sides which use the pitch, and even the local rugby club use it. However, the local council-ran Twilight Leagues are also played on the surface, which is aimed at the younger footballers. Local schools also get the use of the pitch for their PE lessons, in addition to the walking football scheme for over-50s and programme the club runs for fans who are looking to lose weight. So, as you can see, there does seem to be a place for artificial pitches in the community, as long as the community can also get the benefit of them.

Here is a quick summation of our opinions:

Pros – not affected by weather, not as prone to wear and tear damage, can be used more often, easier to maintain.

Cons – more prone to injury (serious ones as well as the unfortunate carpet burns and cramp), playing surface itself, costly.

It is our belief that there is a place for artificial surfaces, but it is not at the top level of our sport. Football is a grass game and although technology is making an impact in sport worldwide, some of the traditional roots should remain forever and we think that the grass surface is one of them.

With more investment in the maintenance of grass pitches, as well as better preparation from clubs and officials, the weather will not impact as much as it currently does.

Sepp Blatter (hate to mention him, but it is relevant) once said that artificial surfaces were the future of football. It may be the future, but it should not be the present. Football has evolved over the decades to the great thing that it is now, but people should not be rushing to change it.

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