Thursday, June 14, 2018

Making Scottish football pitch perfect

It came as no surprise to anyone who watches Scottish football that New Douglas Park was voted as the worst pitch in Scotland by players.

Whenever Hamilton home games were on TV last season, the playing surface resembled an old pool table in a seedy Glasgow bar, wrecked by years of drunken cueing and the odd fag burn, and only still used because there is no alternative. It was a safe bet that the ball would turn into a Screwball Scramble marble that bounced erratically in some areas and sticking in invisible treacle in others.  Even cosmetically it looked awful with the different hues of green in different parts of the park. Damningly, one of their own players, Kenny Van Der Weg, called it "a very old, hard mat".

Just to add insult to injury, Accies' local rivals at Motherwell got the plaudits for the best pitch in the top flight. Only a decade ago, a groundshare with Gretna helped make Fir Park suitable only for reinactments of the Battle Of The Somme, with several matches postponed as a result. Now it's the Premiership's best, even ahead of clubs such as Rangers and Celtic who have far greater budgets for their groundstaff. So kudos to head groundsman Paul Matthew and his team.

Along the A723, Accies were not happy campers. Opponents of artificial pitches are "dinosaurs", raged vice-chairman Les Gray. The club are actually replacing the surface this summer at the cost of £750,000, claiming the new pitch will be equivalent to the one at the SFA's Oriam facility. That may be true, but we'll see what difference it makes on matchday. There have long been suspicions that the lack of quality of the New Douglas Park surface was a deliberate ploy to hinder talented opponents, for example by failing to water the pitch sufficiently before kickoff to allow the ball to run smoothly.

I used to share Les Gray's "dinosaur" viewpoint, and wrote a blog about it several years ago to that effect. That was triggered by a major medical study that exposed as myth the belief that cruciate knee ligament damage and other serious injuries were more likely on artificial pitches. The technology was bound to continue to improve, while the surfaces could be used for training and hired out to the community to bring in much needed income. Meanwhile the Scottish climate and lack of finance made maintaining grass pitches to a suitable level far too difficult, as shown by the Fir Park fiasco of the time. It seemed a no-brainer.

A few years later I was asked by the SPFL themselves to contribute the occasional article to their website. The second one I did was on plastic pitches, and given that I was writing for an esteemed organization (stop laughing at the back there) I felt obliged to put extra thought into much so that I sought out a player's opinion.  David Farrell, formerly of Hibernian, was happy to oblige. His views were not positive.

"From a player’s point of view, grass is always preferable. At first team level it hinders passing football due to the speed of the game.  The unnaturally high bounce means that many passes are difficult to control, meaning play continually breaks down.  Also the speed of the pitch means many passes being misplaced even if they are only a fraction out.
“Ultimately a form of "percentage" football is played by the home team who are more used to the bounce and feel.  Long balls into channels clipped to force teams into playing in their own half as they don’t want to risk losing possession in their own half.

As for the injury side of things, he also provided valuable insight:

“It certainly seems to take more out of the body with backs, calves and hamstrings in particular taking the brunt.

The SPFL declined the article, as they were concerned about offending teams with artificial surfaces - yes, really. It was subsequently published on The Terrace, though it seems to have long since disappeared. But Farrell's views are consistent with the feedback players normally give. The increased recovery time also puts paid to the idea of full-time training on such a surface.

It would, in truth, be far more productive if the conversation was not about grass vs. artificial, but about good vs. bad.  After all, Hamilton are not the only club in the SPFL to use artificial turf. The other top-flight team with it, Kilmarnock, were also slaughtered in the poll. But in the lower divisions there were favourable results for Alloa in League One and Montrose in League Two. It is not as simple as grass good, plastic bad - it's about good pitches and bad pitches.

And plenty of top flight grass pitches were rotten for long periods of last season - I'm looking at you, Pittodrie and Tynecastle.  A lot of the time there is a limited amount clubs can do to prevent this, though Hearts are spending nearly a million quid putting in a hybrid surface; other clubs can only dream of such a move.

But there's no question that the quality of the pitch has a big effect on the quality of the football, and on the quality of the spectacle; the latter is a particularly big deal given the need for extra TV money. 

Could top flight clubs be forced to ring-fence some of their prize money for their groundsman's budget, for example? Or should the SPFL or SFA subsidize higher-quality turf such as the hybrid grass? Is there a need for a set of stringent standards for artificial pitches so Hamilton fans can finally be introduced to passing football?

What is certain is that more needs to be done; Scottish footballers shouldn't have to play around potholes and slide-tackle on sand. Nor should they be unable to trust the bounce of the ball. Twenty-first century football deserves twenty-first century pitches.

Lawrie Spence has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.