Monday, 17 December 2012

My 3G tantrum

Oliver Ash

It was a day of frustration for all at Maidstone United when our FA Trophy Second Round match against FC Halifax Town was called off on Saturday due to an unplayable pitch.

Several other fixtures were also called off around the country but Maidstone United’s magnificent new 3G artificial grass pitch was playable and hosted a match between the Stones and Folkestone’s deaf teams. 

Last Tuesday, in freezing evening conditions, 1120 spectators watched Maidstone’s home game in the Ryman League, while all but one other league game was called off due to frozen pitches. At the end of the game the referee praised the pitch, saying it had felt like a good quality grass pitch throughout the game despite the chill. 

A few weeks prior, when the rains came down and several more games were called off with waterlogged pitches (with others taking place on mud baths) Maidstone’s home game was played on a perfectly drained pitch in front of an enthusiastic crowd of 1400. 

We became the first club in England to purpose-build a 3G pitch stadium. Recent weeks have vindicated our decision. Our opponents and ourselves have enjoyed a perfect playing surface in heavy rain and freezing temperatures alike. 

It is frustrating that 3G is not yet authorised at Conference and above. As a result, clubs below that level are reluctant to put in 3G, when they otherwise might. Therefore, football often has to be played on knackered grass and mud pitches at non-league or junior football league level.

Let’s face it, a number of non-league grass pitches are poor quality, particularly at this time of the year. They are virtually unplayable for a quarter of the season due to bad weather, causing fixture backlogs, supporters’ frustration and revenue losses. They aren’t conducive to playing good football either because they are in a dreadful condition, therefore long-ball football is often the main tactic. 

Meanwhile, there is research evidence now available after 10 years play on the new 3G surfaces, to show they perform as well as decent grass pitches in terms of ball bounce and roll and likelihood of sustaining injuries. The only real difference therefore is that 3G plays like a top quality pitch in most weathers while grass and mud is often unplayable in extreme weather conditions.

I am not saying all clubs have to follow our example and put in 3G. It should be a simple choice where the club has the resources and believes the business plan on 3G would work. For the time being the FA, the Conference and the Football League are all refusing to open the door fully to 3G. All we want is for clubs to have complete freedom to be able to choose to put in perfect playing surfaces which are weather proof. The more such pitches the better for players and spectators alike. Sounds like a no-brainer doesn't it?

Most 3G pitch business plans would indeed work due to the potential pitch hire income, as long as capital or credit can be raised for installation. The costs are around £250-300k depending on soil conditions and pitch specification. Also the regular gate income from weekend matches uninterrupted by postponements is vital and can be life-saving for cash-strapped lower league clubs.

Figure this out – the world football governing body Fifa allows international matches on 3G; several leading UK clubs and national bodies, like Arsenal and the FA itself at Wembley, are already allowed to use plastic grass strands to knit their grass pitches together better. Some 3G is good, some 3G is bad... it doesn't make sense.

And after this weekend, as the players, officials and supporters of FC Halifax Town and Maidstone United sat twiddling their thumbs I wonder if it's not time to change tack. Perhaps it's actually the poor quality grass and mud pitches which shouldn't be allowed by the football authorities, and not 3G pitches?!