A step in the digital world of the football programme


Over the past few months, the future of the humble football programme has been front and centre after a decision was taken by the EFL clubs that it was no longer mandatory to produce one for each and every game. There can be no doubt that the original purpose of the programme to educate and inform fans about what was going on at the club, who the opposition were and a vehicle to promote commercial partners (there were more reasons than this but at its core, this was the purpose).

Today, our instant-on digital world means most of the content in the programme is out of date as soon as it is printed, with most fans attending a game having access to significantly more up-to-date information in the palm of their hands. Football fans want more today than just a memento of a game attended. On the most part they want content that is up to date and informative, adding value to their match day experience.

Further down the leagues, the question of “to publish or not” comes down to money, or more than often, the lack of it. Few clubs can say that they make money on producing and selling a programme today, unless they are simply creating the bare minimum, printing in-house on a black and white photocopier. The programme is a conundrum for clubs at the Non-League level. On one hand, it is a valuable tool to get information over to the fans, whilst on the other it is a commercial vehicle for the club to sell advertising space. Unfortunately, whilst the commercial manager may be happy at selling 20 pages of ads, the reader wants to see editorial and content not ads. So, they won’t buy it and because they don’t buy it, the appeal to the advertiser falls over time. An inverse catch 22.

From experience, we have taken great pride in our match day programme, inviting a wide breadth of writers to produce unique and varied content coupled with some excellent match images. Our style and quality of content hasn’t changed much over the past few years, yet the number of copies we sell per game has slowly reduced despite attendances rising by nearly 25% over the last three seasons.

We have traditionally sold 1 programme for every 4 attendees. On an average match-day we print 200 copies, 50 of which are used for players, management, guests and officials. The other 150, in most instances sell, at £2 a copy. Multiply that by 21 league games and the £6,300 is a very useful revenue stream. In addition, we have produced an online version, made available to anyone, 24 hours after the game. With over 700 owners living outside of the East Sussex catchment area, we have seen on average an additional 150 views of this. Of course, some of those who previously bought a programme could be now viewing the free online version, thus cannibalising our own sales but likewise, one of the appeals of the online programme is allowing those fans who cannot get to games to access the content.

In most instances a programme for a Saturday game goes to print after a thorough edit on a Thursday at the very latest, which means that two whole days of footballing news, views and scandal can break before the programme is printed. We all want to consume our news now – this is the prime reason why traditional hard-copy newspaper circulation has fallen so dramatically and a match programme often contains nothing new to the reader.

To many fans, buying a programme is seen as an essential part of going to a game. But like every other element of the game, it needs to get with the times. This is why from the start of the 2018/19 season, Lewes FC will not be publishing a match-day programme. Instead, we will be producing a ground-breaking matchday publication in the form of an e-programme. As soon as fans enter The Dripping Pan on a match-day they will be able to access the digital content, which will include the traditional elements such as a preview of our opponents, match reviews, details of forthcoming away trips and information on what is going on at the club. However, we will be mixing this text-based content with video interviews from our management team, players and the Chairman, previews recorded by visiting fans, and much more.

We know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but Lewes have always been about innovation and pushing the envelope for football clubs everywhere. We believe we will be the only club to do this in England and whilst we will be reducing some of our operational costs, we will hopefully be setting the standard for the future of the football programme.

The e-programme opens up a whole new world of opportunities, not only for the club but also for the reader. The ability to be able to add dynamic content is a huge opportunity – putting video into the programme, having a live scores feed, making adverts interact with the user (and thus making space more valuable to the advertiser), the opportunity to sponsor players whilst the game is going on and being able to access it from the palm of your hand in real time. Oh, and of course it is free of charge.

I’m not a traditionalist but likewise I understand the place for the humble football programme and those who will rally against embracing the digital age. Technology can deliver reduce costs, increased revenues and a wider readership for every club, big or small. But are we ready and brave enough to embrace it? We think so but don’t just take my word for it, have a look yourself.

Postscript – some people complained but by 8pm the e-programme had been viewed by 750 people. For our last home game in the 2017/18 season we sold 223 programmes. Just saying

Advertisements

Premier League football German-style


It’s 5pm on a beautiful Wednesday evening in early August and the FC Kaiserslautern team bus is slowly maneuvering itself down a lane not really wide enough of a Smart car in the heart of Saarland, South-West Germany.  Die Roten Tuefel, or the Red Devils, may have arrived in style but a few hours later they will leave with their forked tails between their legs.  Whilst the team who took the 3G surface in Wiesbach may not have been the Red Devils first XI, this was a competitive game and one that would still embarrass the management of one of Germany’s founding members of the Bundesliga.

Shaun Harvey and the management of the EFL must look longingly at Germany (and Spain) and see how the top flight teams are allowed to enter their reserve sides into the competitive league structure.  Of course there are rules around who they can and cannot field, as well as a rule that means they can never be in the same division, but it is accepted here in a way that I doubt it could never be back in England.

FC Kaiserslautern’s reserve side play in the fifth tier of German football, the Oberliga.  Those of you with O-Level German will know that ‘Ober’ in German means ‘upper’, so Oberliga literally means ‘the top league’ or as we would call it The Premier League (well, until the marketing men took their millions for coming up with EPL).  Confused?  Yep, me too.

Werder Bremen had the highest placed reserve team, last season playing in the Bundesliga III but relegation back in May meant they will be in the Regionalliga along with the stiffs from 18 other Bundesliga I and II clubs.  Step down one more level and you will find a host of others including Kaisersluatern II, now playing in the Oberliga Rheinland-Pfalz/Saar along with clubs such as BFV Hassia Bingen, TSV Schott Mainz and today’s hosts, Hertha Wiesbach.

One way to look at the similarities between the respective step 5 leagues in the English and German footballing pyramids is average attendances.  The Conference Premier/National League in England has some clubs who have certainly had better days such as Leyton Orient, Chesterfield and Wrexham but their core support hasn’t disappeared as they’ve headed down the pyramid.  Last season the National League had an average attendance of 2,048 with three clubs (the aforementioned Leyton Orient and Wrexham, plus promoted Tranmere Rovers) averaging over 4,000. Compare that to the Oberliga, which had an average of just 289, with only two clubs out of the 14 leagues with average attendances over 1,000 (FC 08 Homburg and SC Borussia 04 Fulda in case you wanted to know).

Facilities at this level are probably on a par with England’s Step 5 or 6.  Hertha Wiesbach’s ProWin Stadion was situated in a small valley, with steep hills rising behind the club house and the main stand – perfect on a hot, summer’s night but treacherous I would imagine come the winter.  Their 3G pitch provides a facility for the local community, whilst the club-house was advertising a number of events over the coming weeks. Oh, and being Germany, you could have a beer whilst standing on the hill watching the game, trusted that you wouldn’t start a Mexican Wave or some Icelandic Clap.

On the pitch it is a different matter – the Step 5 teams here in Germany certainly looked technically as good as our National League, if not better.  The home side blew the famous visitors aside, scoring three second-half goals as Kaiserslautern wilted in the sunshine (and bizarrely only arrived with two on the bench).  The win, lifted the home side to top of the table, with a 100% record after three league games and no goals conceded.

There can be few better ways to spend a hot Summer’s evening than watching football, beer and sausage in hand and Wiesbach delivered on every level.  I wasn’t the only one who left with a spring in my step, with the knowledge that David had sort of got one over on Goliath, albeit Goliath’s little brother, Bob.

Thankfully the 6.30pm kick-off meant that as I headed south-wards towards my hotel for the night, I drove right past (OK, so there was a 2.5km detour) the Sportplatz Papiermühle (or Paper Mill Sportsfield), where the second half between SPV Dillingen and SV Engers 07, also in the Oberliga Rheinland-Pfalz/Saar was just kicking off.  The ground wasn’t too dissimilar to the ProWin Stadion, with one low-level clubhouse with standing in front.  A similar demographic of fan was watching this one, albeit with contrasting fortunes to the first match as unbeaten Engers ran out 4-0 winners.

Not a bad evening all being told.  Just like there’s some real gems in and around the Non-League scene in England, seek and you shall find beauty in the most unlikely of places in Germany too.

What is Non-League?


A decade ago this would have been a relatively easy question to answer but today the lines are now so blurred perhaps it is time we dropped the phrase all together. Non-League used to refer to any team that was not part of the Football League but with the creation of the Premier League in 1992, the situation started to change.

It would have been unheard of to find a full-time side below the Football League but today, certainly at Step 5 or National League, most sides will be full-time and thus classed as professional players. So, another loose definition of the “amateur game” is out of date. In fact, there are teams at Step 6 who are now full-time, such has the game changed.

What brought this question to a head was the “debate” over Social Media last week between Gary Neville, one of the co-owners of Salford City and Accrington Stanley’s Chairman, Andy Holt, over the signing of Aberdeen’s Adam Rooney by Neville’s club.

Salford City’s rise through the leagues has been impressive – just over a decade ago they were playing in the North-West Counties League (Step 9). Then came the “Class of ‘92” and their billionaire friend, Peter Lim, and invested heavily into the squad and the infrastructure and the club hasn’t looked back, taking their place in the National League this season for the first time. There’s nothing new in a club getting significant investment and rising through the leagues, although in most cases it does end in tears. I’m not sure the risks of the owners walking away is anywhere near as high at Salford City, but it has caused some bitterness and rivalry from other clubs.

Salford’s signing of Rooney has certainly set a new bar though for the “Non-League” game. The Irishman swapped the promise of Europa League football with Aberdeen for the chance to play in the FA Trophy with Salford City, oh and the small matter of a reputed £4,000 per week – or in Lewes FC speak, 150% of our weekly playing budget.

Ah yes, the playing budget. Rooney’s transfer set up a war of words between Neville and Holt, with the Accrington Stanley chairman happy to reveal his annual playing budget, but when pushed, Neville wouldn’t reveal the Salford City one, saying “You think I’m going to disclose my wages on here?” (Twitter). Why not? Why can’t clubs all be transparent with their wages?

Last season we saw significant amounts of “investment” at Step 7, with Billericay Town signing players such as Jamie O’Hara, Jermaine Pennant and Paul Konchesky. Whilst the owner/manager (until he sacked himself, then re-appointed himself) claimed his wage bill was nothing like the amounts being bandied around the media, they were still eye-watering in terms of the level Billericay Town were playing at, and probably on a par with the amounts Holt claimed Accrington Stanley, now an EFL One club, paid.

This season Step 5 of the English Football Pyramid, the National League, contains 11 clubs who have played in the English Football League, plus two (Salford City and Ebbsfleet United) with significantly wealthy owners. It would be an insult to call this Non-League anymore as many of these clubs have facilities and resources that some EFL clubs could only dream of.

Money does not always buy success, but it certainly gives you a big head-start and this season few would bet against Salford City being one of the main challengers for promotion to the Football League. They will face some still opposition from the likes of Chesterfield, Barnet and Leyton Orient, all who are desperate to regain their Football League status.

Two leagues below Salford City, the Rooks will take their place back in Step 7, the Isthmian League Premier Division, after two seasons at Step 8. We led the Isthmian South division for three-quarters of the season on a budget per week of half an Adam Rooney, winning promotion with four games to spare. We’ve managed to find a modest increase in the playing budget for manager Darren Freeman and we believe we have a squad that can compete rather than struggle. But the gulf between Step 7 and Step 6 is huge in terms of finances and if we were to gain promotion, we would be ill-equipped at the moment to match any of the clubs at the National League South level. Of course, that wouldn’t stop us giving it a go!

So, should we stop referring to our game as Non-League? Whilst we all understand what we mean when we say it, we are in a structure, the ‘pyramid’, that gives us a path to promotion all the way to the Premier League (we can but dream). We aren’t grass-roots either. The recent debate about the sale of Wembley and the plan to invest millions in ‘grass-roots football’ may have got us excited that some of that cash could come our way, but grass-roots means just that – the amateur game in its purest sense where facilities today in many instances are an embarrassment to our National Game.

For now, I don’t think we have any option but to refer to ourselves as being part of the Non-League game. We all know where we stand, and even if clubs like Salford City want to think and act as if they are already in the Football League, then let them. We will still stand on the Terry Parris Terrace next season, beer in hand and marvel at the part-time players, the volunteers and the beauty of the game we call Non-League.

National League set for fierce promotion battle in 2018/19


With the National League season complete we now know the line-up of teams for the 2018/19 season.

Macclesfield Town and Tranmere Rovers both secured promotion to the Football League, while Chester, Guiseley, Torquay United and Woking have all been relegated.

Chesterfield have dropped into non-league football after spending 97 years as a league club, while Barnet return to the National League after a three-year stay in the EFL.

Salford City and Harrogate Town won promotion from National League North, with Havant & Waterlooville and Braintree Town matching the feat from the southern division.

Read on as we take a look at four clubs who could challenge for honours in the National League next season.

Chesterfield

Relegation was never on the agenda when Chesterfield moved from Saltergate in 2010 and targeted the Championship in their new 10,000-seat stadium.

That dream has quickly collapsed as budget problems with the stadium, a boardroom walkout and a string of unsuccessful managerial appointments took their toll.

Promoted to League One in 2014, Chesterfield reached the play-off semi-final for another rise to the Championship as recently as three years ago but lost to Preston North End.

Manager Paul Cook left for Portsmouth, key players were sold and the collapse since then has been spectacular.

The club has already made five new signings as it bids to bounce back at the first time of asking. If you think they can achieve the feat use this promo from 10bet to wager on the outcome.

Wrexham

Wrexham have appointed the former Wales international Sam Ricketts on a three-year contract, his first managerial job.

The 36-year-old left his role with Wolverhampton Wanderers’ youth set-up to succeed Dean Keates at the Racecourse Ground.

The Dragons, owned by Wrexham Supporters Trust, missed out on this season’s play-offs by three points having been top of the table as recently as February.

Ricketts won 52 caps for Wales between 2005 and 2014 and played in the Premier League for Hull City and Bolton Wanderers as well as spells with Swansea City, Wolves and Coventry.

His main objective in North Wales will be to gain promotion to the Football League after an 11-year absence and his leadership skills should see Wrexham mount a serious challenge for success next season.

Barnet

Barnet have re-appointed John Still as their new manager following their relegation to the National League.

The 68-year-old replaces Martin Allen, who left the Bees after failing to keep them in League Two.

Barnet were seven points adrift of safety when Allen was appointed on March 19 but they were relegated on goal difference on the final day, despite the former Brentford, Cheltenham and Gillingham manager winning five of his eight games in charge.

Still has agreed a two-year deal at The Hive and returns to Barnet for his third spell in charge of the club.

He has previously guided Maidstone, Dagenham and Luton Town to the title in what is now the National League.

Salford City

Salford City, the club co-owned by Manchester United’s ‘Class of ’92’, have continued their rise up the ranks by securing their third promotion in four years.

Joint managers Bernard Morley and Anthony Johnson celebrated promotion to National League for the first time in the club’s history last month, but ‘irreconcilable differences’ over personal terms have seen them depart.

The duo have been replaced by former Scunthorpe and Fleetwood boss Graham Alexander and he has been tasked with taking the club into the EFL.

Alexander made 981 appearances in a 23-year club career that included spells at Scunthorpe, Luton, Preston and Burnley. He was sacked by the Iron in March following a winless run of eight games.

The 46-year-old has already added Fleetwood captain Nathan Pond to his squad and it would be a major surprise if they are not challenging for another promotion next term.

Let them hate so long as they fear


It all started with Peter Withe.  The bearded, sweat-band wearing centre forward who went on to score the winner in the 1982 European Cup Final for Aston Villa scored the Timbers first ever goal against Seattle Sounders in Portland Timber’s 2-1 victory back in 1975.  Withe was a hit with the Portland fans who referred to him as the “Wizard of Nod”.  A year later when the sides met again, Seattle could boast the legendary skills of Harry Redknapp and Geoff Hurst up top.  Today, the English contingent consists solely of Liam Ridgewell, former West Ham trainee and now campaign of the Timbers.

Forty three years later and the two sides were meeting for the 100th competitive time on a beautiful sunny day in mid-May (there’s a couple of great videos commemorating the occasion here and here from both sides of the state line).  The intense rivalry between the two sides has never let up and noise coming from both sides had been at an intense level since an hour before the game started.  Due to the huge distances in the US, there’s few games where supporters travel in numbers.  Even in New York where the two clubs are less than 20 miles (although technically in different states), the rivalry is muted to say the least.  However, on the Pacific North-West Coast, 175 miles is nothing and so the games have always been played out in front of both sets of fans.  Add in Vancouver Whitecaps and you have a hot-bed of football.  The Cascadia Cup was introduced in 2004 by the fans of the three clubs and awarded annually to the club with the best record during the season against each other, with the current holders being Portland after three wins and a draw from the six games they played.

I’ve been to some pretty insipid MLS games before, where atmosphere was non-existent.  The best I had come across was a New York Red Bulls versus DC United game a few years ago, although just a few weeks later when I returned to Harrison, New Jersey for the RB game against KC Sporting there was no more than a thousand in the stadium (due to the Yankees being at home some 20 miles away apparently).  So I was looking forward to sampling some European-style atmosphere.

Distance makes rivalries hard in the US.  There’s no love lost between the Yankees and the Red Sox in baseball, nor between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL but in reality it is a rivalry played out in and by the media, as few hardcore away fans make the respective trips.  And for those that do, they seem to be able to sit among the home fans albeit with some gentle ribbing.

For The Timber Army and the Emerald City Army, the performance off the pitch of the fans is almost as important as the result on it.  Both sets of fans were in fine voice as the kick-off approached, although they both seemed keen to ‘build a bonfire’ and put each other on the top.  Poor old Vancouver were stuck in the middle of both versions, a rare thing that both sets of fans could agree on!

Providence Park is still a work-in progress with construction underway to make it an even more atmospheric stadium than it is today.  The curve behind the goal, home to the Timbers Army, is being extended around to mean 3/4 of the ground will be covered, just leaving the final end, a very low terrace area, currently with ‘bleacher’-like seats.

At the appointed kick-off time (1pm) there as no sign of any players.  I’m used to this now with US Sports but still have no idea why.  At 1:03pm the players emerged (from very separate tunnels), sang the national anthem, the crowd waved their scarves and finally the game kicked off at 1:09pm.  The Timber Army, led by a couple of Capo’s at the front of the stand kept the beat up during the opening period as the sun beat down on them.  Above the entrance to the tunnel and below the Timber Army was a flag in the colours of the state of Oregon with the latin phrase Oderint Dum Metuant – “let them hate so long as they fear”.  Who could hate such a passionate display of support? OK – apart from the Sounders fans who were doing a pretty impressive job themselves of making themselves heard.

 

The first half was a tense affair.  Portland looked to stretch the play and tried to get their two wide men behind the Seattle defence, whilst the Sounders seemed happy to play on the break.  Timber’s star man, Argentine Diego Valeri was singled out for some “special” treatment from the away side before he had the best chance of the game when he pulled the ball wide after a swift break.  At the other end Clint Dempsey fluffed his lined in front of goal after Nouhou Tolo’s shot had flashed across the area.

Half-time and all square.

Seattle started the second period the brighter of the two sides and Tolo was played in within the first minute but his shot was easily saved by Timbers keeper Attinella.  At the other end Valeri looked odds-on to score before a last-gasp intervention from Marshall ten yards out.  Andy Polo, who I know is Peruvian from my Panini collection (the most un-Peruvian name you ever come across) and he came close to scoring, curling an effort from just inside the box but it was beaten away from Stefan Frei in the Sounders goal.

Once again the howls of disapproval were reserved for another foul on Valeri as he broke at speed and was wrestled to the floor by Norwegian Magnus Wolff-Eikrem, who got a yellow card for his impudence.  By this stage the heat seemed to have drained the effort and energy out of both sides, seemingly happy to settle for a draw.  With ten minutes to go Swede Samuel Armenteros was played in and found himself clear on goal. He took one stride into the area but then fell, slightly theatrically, under a challenge. Looked a clear penalty to me but the referee was having none of it, although didn’t feel the tumble warranted a card for simulation.

And then finally we had a goal. Armenteros robbed a Seattle defender in midfield and played a neat ball behind the centre-back for Blanco to run onto and he slide the ball past Frei and into the net.  Unsurprisingly the reaction from the home fans was deafening, although the Seattle fans certainly weren’t silent. A chorus of a Portland remix of Anarchy in the UK broke out with the Timber Army bouncing around the stand as the game went into six minutes of injury time.

Ninety-five minutes gone and the referee was alerted to something that had happened in the build-up to a Seattle attack with Leerdam laying prostrate on the floor.  He ran over to the monitor behind the goal line, ran back to the middle of the pitch and gave a drop-ball.  Not quite sure what that was all about.  And then it was all over.  A hard-fought victory for the home and the party would go on into the afternoon in the sunshine.  The Sounders went over to thank their fans for playing their part but it was the green flares that belched out into the air from the Timbers fans to celebrate their victory and bragging rights until the two sides met again next month.

New National League play-off format already adding to end-of-season drama


The battle to reach the play-off finals across three National League divisions is underway, with clubs across the country striving to secure promotion to the next level in the pyramid.

There is a new format this season, with the champions going up automatically and the next six clubs in each division taking part in an extended play-off format.

Two eliminator matches take place before the semi-finals and the set-up is sure to add even more drama to the end-of-season showdowns in each section.

Read on as we take a look at the National League play-offs.

Vanarama National League

Ebbsfleet United finished a point behind Aldershot Town during the regular season, but it was the Kent side who progressed to the semi-finals after a dramatic penalty shoot-out.

United were awarded a penalty during the second-half, but top scorer Danny Kedwell was superbly denied by Lewis Ward.

The game eventually went to extra-time, it was Aldershot who finally managed to break the deadlock in the 109th minute when Nicke Kabamba headed home.

It looked as though that goal would be enough to take the Shots through, but in the last minute of extra-time, Dave Winfield headed United level to take the game to a shoot-out.

Ward saved two penalties to leave Aldershot with two chances to win it, but Lewis Kinsella and Fabien Robert fluffed their lines.

Dean Rance fired home the decisive spot kick to book United’s place in Saturday’s semi-final against Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park.

Boreham Wood face AFC Fylde in the second elimination game on Thursday, with the winners going on to meet Sutton United in Sunday’s second semi-final.

If you’re inclined towards betting check out these football betting predictions before wagering on the outcome of the play-offs.

Vanarama National League North

League positions went out of the window in the National League North play-off elimination games on Wednesday, as Bradford Park Avenue and Chorley defeated Kidderminster Harriers and Stockport County respectively.

Kidderminster, who were beaten by Chorley in the play-off semi-finals last season, suffered more heartbreak against Park Avenue at Aggborough.

Adam Boyes bagged an early goal for the visitors after 10 minutes and although Harriers dominated for long periods they could not find an equaliser.

Oli Johnson’s goal 12 minutes from time sealed the victory and sent Bradford through to Sunday’s semi-final at Brackley Town.

Wednesday’s other eliminator between Stockport and Chorley attracted a bumper crowd of 6,230 to Edgeley Park and fans were treated to an excellent advertisement for non-league football.

Jason Walker settled the game with a fine header after 68 minutes to book Chorley’s place in the last four. Matt Jansen’s side now visit Harrogate Town on Sunday in the other semi-final.

Vanarama National League South

Sunday’s National League South play-off semi-finals will be between Chelmsford City and Hampton & Richmond Borough and Dartford and Braintree Town following Wednesday’s elimination matches.

Hampton had failed to beat Truro City in three attempts season, drawing 1-1 in both league games and losing 2-0 in the FA Cup.

Rocky Neal gave Truro an early lead, but Jack Cook’s 34th minute effort tied things up. City’s Connor Riley-Lowe had a penalty saved in the second-half, and Bradley Hudson-Odoi took full advantage in extra-time with a pair of goals to send Hampton through.

Hemel had won both of the games against Braintree during the regular season and with home advantage they began as favourites to reach the last four.

They had the better of the game in terms of possession and chances, but neither side were able to break the deadlock during 120 minutes of play.

Scott Shulton, David Moyo and Sanchez Watt all failed to convert their penalties for Hemel, while Marcel Barrington, Luke Allen and Dan Thompson scored theirs for Braintree to secure victory.

Artificial Intelligence or Pitch Perfect?


The calls for more clubs to install 3G pitches reaches fever pitch every time there is a spell of bad weather in this country but having an artificial surface is not necessarily the answer.

During the first few days of March, the ‘Beast from the East’ delivered snow and freezing temperatures to many parts of the United Kingdom that we had not seen for many years.  Public transport ground to a halt, many major roads became unpassable and unsurprisingly, sporting fixtures suffered.  At the time of writing three Championship games have already been cancelled, including Sky Sports Live game at Wolverhampton Wanderers as overnight temperatures have dropped as low as -11 in some parts.

The Non-League programme has been decimated with just four games surviving from steps 1 to 4 from a total of 140 games due to be played this Saturday.  Two of those four (Dover Athletic and Folkestone Invicta) have benefited from their coastal location whilst the other two (Grays Athletic and Worthing) both play their home games on a 3G surface.  So you could put an argument forward that 3G’s have proved their worth in this instance, with both Grays Athletic and Worthing likely to get bumper crowds due to the lack of other games in the area (many Lewes fans are heading to Worthing for instance rather than sitting at home, whilst I myself am heading to Aveley FC, where Grays Athletic play).  But that isn’t strictly true.

Many other clubs have 3G pitches and have seen their games cancelled.  Cray Wanderers, Horsham, Walton Casuals, Merthyr Town, Redditch Town and Romulus among others who use an artificial pitch have seen their games today cancelled whilst in Scotland, every professional side who uses a 3G pitch including Clyde, Alloa Athletic, Montrose and Airdrieonians has seen their games postponed too. Unfortunately, just because you replace grass with a synthetic material, you do not avoid all of the side-effects of the bad weather.

An artificial pitch is not simply a big roll of fake grass that is laid like a carpet.  There’s significant amounts of preparation work that has to happen to the ground itself before you get to that stage.  The shock-pad is like an underlay for a carpet.  That is the bit that does the hard work and like any underlay, the quality and therefore the longevity of the pitch itself is based on cost – the better shock pad used, the more expensive it is but the more wear the pitch will handle.  Once the “grass” is laid then the filler is used – in most instances rubber crumb – which keeps the blades of grass upright and also adds as an additional layer of absorption.

The issue at the moment is when snow falls and settles on a 3G you can’t simply sweep it off as you will remove the rubber crumb in the process.  No rubber crumb means you damage the top layer of the pitch when you play on it.  If the snow compacts and freezes and isn’t allowed to thaw or be removed, then playing on it will increase the pressure on the shock pad and could damage that.  Replacing that would involve completely removing the pitch first – a very expensive job.

Whilst some 3G playing surfaces may have been fit for football, the surrounding areas such as terraces, stands, walkways and car parks may not.  In the case of Cray Wanderers’s game today, at Bromley FC, this was the issue that saw their game postponed.  There’s very little a club can do to protect these areas from the freezing temperatures – again something that few people factor into their argument as to why clubs should have a 3G pitch.  I saw this first hand in December when I visited Airdrieonians for their game with Raith Rovers.  The temperatures fell well below zero and whilst the game went ahead on their frosty 3G, the car park was akin to a curling rink and was incredibly dangerous for spectators leaving the ground.

The costs in installing a 3G are prohibitive to many clubs.  Whilst there are huge benefits aside from being able to use it in bad weather, such as the opportunity to create a community facility and one that produces a regular revenue stream (and allows clubs to save costs on renting external training facilities), they have to find the initial cash to build one.  Like many things, costs can be reduced, but a decent 3G pitch will set a club back in excess of £500,000 – hardly small change.  There are some grants available from the Football Foundation and Sport England, but not every club is able to qualify for those.

And then, of course, there is the issue of the Football League rules.  Any clubs that have ambitions of moving up to the professional game in England is thwarted if they have a 3G by the rule, set by the Football League clubs themselves, that does not allow for 3G pitches to be used.  No such rule exists for the FA Cup, the Champions League, UEFA and FIFA competitions – in fact every professional league in Europe allows them (including Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) but England doesn’t.  So for clubs like Sutton United, Bromley and Maidstone United, challenging currently for the National League Play-offs, they face a dilemma of either dropping out of contention or ripping their 3G pitch up (which in part is the revenue generator that has allowed them to rise up the leagues).  Should they do neither and qualify for the Play-offs they face demotion down to the National League South.  How is that fair in a sporting sense?

Artificial surfaces have their benefits but let’s all just remember that they aren’t always the answer to the curve-balls that Mother Nature throws at us.