Non-League fixture lists are set to face another winter of discontent as the weather ruins grass pitches, but this is changing. From next season the Conference is allowing 3G (“third generation”) pitches for multiple reasons; they provide a better playing surface; they are more financially viable; they give a community benefit.
The Conference will become the highest level to allow 3G surfaces in English league football, which is far behind Europe. There Champions League, Europa League and International matches are often played on artificial pitches – in 2007 England lost 2-1 to Russia in a European Championship qualifier on one in Moscow.
One argument against artificial pitches is that football should be played on grass to respect tradition. However on that basis we would still be using a pig’s bladder and competing only been rival villages, as they did in the Victorian ages!
Plastic pitches where banned from English professional football in 1995 after QPR, Luton Town, Oldham Athletic, Hyde and Preston North End unsuccessfully tried them.
Synthetic surfaces have since improved, evident in other sports – Rugby Union and League sides Saracens and Widnes use them with little complaints. Moreover extensive research indicates that there is no noteworthy difference in injury risk between using 3G and grass surfaces.
Maidstone United have pioneered the renaissance of 3G pitches through their Gallagher Stadium, which testers considered “as good as Wembley”. They are currently in the Isthmian Premier League and can now attain Conference status, after an initial vote on 3G pitches for this season was voted down 21-11.
A second vote saw the opposite result leaving Minister for Sport Helen Grant, who is also a member of parliament for Maidstone and The Weald, “delighted that this sensible step has been taken”. The FA and Football League deserve credit for encouraging the Conference’s U-turn through allowing 3G pitches for all FA Cup from this season onwards.
A primary argument against 3G pitches for Non-League clubs is the vast cost of their installation, approximately £300,000. However, surely a deal could be struck with a funding organisation like The National Lottery to match club funds towards the pitch.
Local councils could then provide a loan and stipulation that the pitch is hired out for a certain number of hours a week at reasonable prices. Enthusiastic amateur footballers would relish the chance to play at the ground of a semi-professional club, whilst enabling the club to pay back towards the cost of the pitch.
Alex Horne noted that 3G pitches can cope with extra use, as they “are a useful asset capable of 50-plus hours per week compared to around five from grass surfaces”. These ‘extra’ hours also allow Non-League clubs to rejuvenate and revive their youth academies, which are currently facing stringent cuts.
Paul Scholes has rightly advocated this benefit of 3G pitches, citing Germany as an excellent example – they have over 4,000 3G pitches, England has fewer than 750.
3G pitches can facilitate improvement in the quality of Non-League football played in the Conference, through rewarding clubs for playing a passing game – as Brian Clough said “. Currently many Conference pitches are difficult to pass and control the ball on due to being undulating services with an uneven covering of grass, if there is any. Cold winters bring rain which exacerbates this problem, but 3G pitches avoid the disruption of fixture cancellations and backlogs.
This brings huge financial benefit which clubs like Braintree Town would die for – The Iron lost 12 successive home games last year! This means sides maintain the sustainable turnover on which they are often reliant, namely match day revenue, whilst pitch maintenance costs largely disappear.
England is unrivalled in the volume of clubs and supporters following the semi-professional game, it seems only fair that all involved have the chance to attain facilities that will provide a dependable fixture list and 3G pitches should be an important part of that.