19 January ~ Artificial or "plastic" pitches have taken some bad press in recent years. Before the 2008 Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea, UEFA ordered that the hosting Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow have its artificial pitch replaced with grass for the match. Harry Redknapp blamed the pitch when Spurs lost their opening Champions League qualifier to Young Boys 3-2 on an artificial surface last season. Redknapp was so concerned about the plastic terrain, he refused to let four of his players start, for fear of them aggravating previous injuries. But there have been murmurings in recent months that suggest Football League clubs might try and change this negative view.
Accrington and Wycombe have stated they would be very interested in installing an artificial pitch at their grounds should they be given the opportunity.
The production of artificial pitches was banned outright by FIFA in 1988, with fear of them provoking injuries being a key reason. At the time QPR, Luton, Oldham and Preston all had Astroturf pitches, the last to go being Preston's in 1994.
Coaches believed the harder surface was terrible for players' joints. The rough texture meant performing a Klinsmann dive would result in a short trip to casualty. The synthetic consistency of the pitch also gave the ball a much higher bounce than grass, giving home sides an unfair advantage over unadjusted teams – it also meant for some terrible football for the spectator.
So why, with all this in mind, would teams ever want to consider bringing the pitches back? Well first off, a lot has changed since the late 1980s. Technology has advanced significantly, leading to a number of top-flight clubs in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Russia adopting artificial surfaces. FIFA and UEFA have relaxed their attitudes to artificial surfaces, even allowing England's qualifier for Euro 2008 with Russia to be played on the Luzhniki Stadium's plastic pitch in 2007.
Technicians are now able to create synthetic turf that holds the same qualities as grass pitches and creates the same natural conditions underfoot, which has led to the FIFA approval of this new brand of pitch internationally, as well as at clubs in the Scotish lower leagues and the Women's Premier League.
The benefits that the pitches could bring to lower League clubs are hard to ignore. The heavy snowfall in the UK last winter led to an unprecedented amount of frozen pitches and postponed matches in League One and League Two. Installing the "all weather" terrain would help clubs avoid a hefty backlog of matches.
The potential financial implications for clubs are also a huge draw. Although the initial laying of the turf is said to cost around £500,000, clubs could cut their ground maintenance costs. The durability of the surface would also allow for the pitch to be used for more than just home matches. Clubs wouldn't need to have a separate training facility and the pitch could also be rented to outside community organisations without concern about damage.
Purists need not worry for the time being, these are just early rumblings. A return to artificial pitches could only be brought about through a proposal and vote at the annual Football League meeting, which takes place in February. For the vote to pass, it would require the support of the majority of the 72 Football League clubs, including a majority of Championship clubs (who would have to rip up any artificial turf should they be promoted to the Premier League).
There will also be plenty of complaints from Premier League sides not wanting to play on plastic pitches during cup competitions. But in a climate where smaller clubs desperately need to save cash in order to survive, ignoring the potentially lucrative option of artificial pitches could be a missed opportunity. Tom Shepherd