Football League gets the heebie-3Gs, but clubs should be free to choose
In a surprising move this week, representatives of all 72 Football League clubs failed to pass a change that would have allowed clubs in Leagues 1 and 2 to dispense with the lawnmowers and have 3G artificial pitches. Supporters were tied with their opponents on 34 votes with four clubs abstaining.
Back in September, all indications pointed to Leagues 1 and 2 being allowed to follow the FA Cup and permit 3G pitches – 29 of them had shown their support. So why did a good number of them go wobbly at the knees when the big moment came?
A large factor is surely the PFA’s unwavering refusal to accept it. Two years ago, the PFA surveyed its membership about their feelings on allowing artificial pitches – though the sample size was conspicuously absent, the PFA stated that 90 per cent were against the move. Concerns ranged from increased injuries (particularly for those hitting their 30s) to the effects on the game. But there is no scientific data to back the suggestion these pitches lead to more injuries.
Assistant Chief Executive of the PFA Simon Barker does accept the arguement for their use in areas of the world with ‘extreme weather conditions’, but when there are improvements in natural turf alternatives (like the hybrid pitches – boosted by, you guessed it, artificial material) he doesn’t accept any need in England. “In these areas of the world, I can appreciate they will benefit with artificial turf pitches but where there is reasonable weather conditions such as England, I don’t believe that artificial pitches are required at the top level of the game.”
Barker’s definition of ‘top level’ extends all the way down to Hartlepool and Tranmere propping up League 2. Should they fail to stay up, both clubs could find themselves playing league games on 3G pitches in the near future due to upcoming changes in the Football Conference leagues. Maidstone United, a torch bearer for the 3G movement after becoming the first club to build a stadium with a 3G pitch, were understandably disappointed by the Football League vote. But they highlighted introduction in the Conference is the next key step – which will take place across all three of their divisions from next season. Ironically, Conference members voted 21-11 at the start of the year against allowing 3G pitches – the Football Conference, however, took matters into their own hands and pressed ahead regardless.
Will the Football League vote lead to another rethink in the Conference? Many of us will recall the three-year period in the 90s where the Conference champions were denied promotion on stadium safety grounds. Since 1997, that hasn’t happened. But if a Conference side with a 3G pitch wins promotion, will the Football League return to a policy of denying teams promotion? It’s a situation that needs urgent clarity – Conference clubs may be hesitant to spend £500,000 on a pitch that denies them a lucrative move up the footballing pyramid.
We now have a situation where clubs across Europe have 3G pitches, with matches in the Champions League and the European Championships taking place on these surfaces. The reality is simple – it’s already happening in some of the highest levels of football. Not to mention at the highest level in some UK leagues – of the 12 clubs in Scotland that have artificial pitches, two (Hamilton Academical and Kilmarnock) are in SPL. Even players that opposed their use in the past, like David James, have been won over – in an interview last year, he highlighted his experience playing regularly on the surface in Iceland changed his views.
3G pitches are clearly not perfect, particularly if they are poorly maintained – see Wales’s recent qualifier at Andorra. And they are certainly getting some tough press lately. Lawyers of concerned players at next year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada have accused FIFA of sex discrimination, with all six venues using artificial pitches – a move they say would be ‘unthinkable’ for the men’s tournament. And where climate and finance aren’t factors, a natural pitch will naturally be the preferred option for teams. But the lower you go in England’s top four divisions, the tighter finances are. For clubs looking at making savings from reduced postponements and reduced maintenance costs, a 3G pitch is an extremely attractive option.
The PFA seems to have its head in the sand on this one – as though any grass surface is preferable. Having seen many pitches in Leagues 1 and 2, a well-maintained 3G pitch will be undoubtedly a significant improvement for some clubs. Clubs should be free to make the choice. The PFA is right on one thing, that there’s a gap in long-term research in this area – this certainly needs to be filled, alongside continuing research to improve on 3G. But with players increasingly training and playing on these surfaces across all levels, including this year’s FA Cup, clubs need to be free to make the choice to expand 3G use further.