The Future of Non League Football – Plastic Fantastic

It seems that every winter we are caught out with inclement weather. We have the wrong type of snow, wind, rain and sunshine in this country and that has an impact on the Non Leagues more so than our professional cousins. Postponed games have to replayed and without any willingness to extend the season, fixture pile ups ruin the competitiveness of the league. But there is a solution, as the guru of Non League cup competitions Damon Threadgold explains.

In the last few seasons a number of leagues have gone to the very edge of ‘the FA sanctioned summer’ thanks to fixture pile ups caused by frozen or waterlogged pitches in the winter months. It’s ridiculous when you get teams having to cram those postponed games into one month at the end of the season [more on that later]. We sit back and think ‘why don’t the FA just sanction league extensions?’ But, as they won’t eat into their valuable cricket-watching time down at their local village green, we have to think of another way.

Synthetic pitches. Hmmm … OK, we all remember the horrors of the 80s, Luton and QPR playing on fruit shop grass where the ball bounced higher than the average space hopper. You want that! No, you don’t, pipe down at the back. Synthetic pitches have moved on a tad since those heady days of big hair and tight shorts, now they are less burn-inducing industrial rugs and more dry-weave-top-sheet and luxury spa resort, threaded with real grass and bedded on a synthetic earth of rubberised peas to get that regular bounce and feel. FIFA sanction their use and England have even played qualifiers on the stuff so what the hell is the problem?

In fairness, the FA have taken some tentative steps in the right direction by allowing the use of One Star FIFA sanctioned pitches in some tournaments. However, for some unfathomable reason they refuse to allow the FA Cup and FA Youth Cup to be played on plastic pitches. So, if, as a club, you see FA Youth competition as a valuable learning asset, you can’t install a synthetic pitch because you will have to retain or borrow a grass one to enter. The FA Cup is a potentially lucrative competition to a number of non-league clubs, particularly those at Step 2, 3 and 4, so installing a plastic pitch is an unwise move because it bars your entry to the Old Jug.

Is there a reason for this? It’s difficult to tell, there is nothing public and the FA’s synthetic pitch ‘guidance’ is so tentatively conceived it comes with: a caveat about it not being ‘approval’; a whacking great legal statement; and is riddled with spelling mistakes.

A third or fourth generation synthetic pitch with a FIFA one or two star rating is a durable sort of thing. Its’ synthetic nature means, unlike earth and grass, it has zero water content, which means it does not freeze. No frozen pitches means ‘GAME ON’. They are easier to clear of snow and do not cut up when doing so. They are specially designed to wick away water and drain the playing area so when it hurls it down, as it often does in old Blighty, the game can still go ahead, because you won’t need armbands to play nor some water skis for a slide tackle.

An added bonus of this durability is that clubs will not have to insist on the pitch being out of bounds for all but 90 minutes of a footballing week. The synthetic pitch can be used regularly with significantly less wear and generate extra revenue by being hired out when the first team isn’t playing. A synthetic pitch might also allow the reserves or youth teams to play on it as well, which might mean the practice land can be sold or utilised in a different manner. Alternatively, it might mean some teams won’t need to hire that extra bit of land on which to train and would also ensure the youngsters played on the surface to which they hoped to progress.

I’ve tried to go to Hillheads, around Christmas time, to see Whitley Bay, on three occasions. I’ve yet to see them play thanks to a frozen pitch. OK, I could go at a different time of year but that’s not the point, these games had to be rearranged for later in the season. It’s a wonder Whitley managed to win the FA Vase (an FA tournament in which you can play on a synthetic pitch) in 2010 given they had to play, on average, a game nearly every other day for the whole month leading up to the final. Imagine Sir Alex’s fury if that … [you get the picture]

Dear The FA,

That Whitley triumph over adversity is not an excuse to keep the status quo, good football association bigwigs, it’s an illustration of what clubs have to endure and you could alleviate it. You already accept the FIFA star gradings for some competitions, so why not the FA Cup and FA Youth Cup? It makes no sense. And while you’re at it, it might be a good idea to offer grants for these pitches to be installed in the non leagues. Given the likely increased revenues they might generate, the very least you could do is offer interest free loans?

End of season fixture pile ups = Solved. Possibly.


1 Comment

  1. It’s not football as we know it for sure, but where grounds are prone to flooding I think it the sensible option. I came across a plastic pitch at Keynsham Town ( where it’s been installed due to the frequent flooding of crown field. Ironically Keynsham Ladies are the predominant team at the club, and since the FA saction womens football on the rubber balls they club have gone ahead and invested in a 3G pitch. The men, should they be drawn at home in the FA Cup will have to go play elsewhere.

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