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Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The Bigger Pitchure

This plastic pitch stuff is a right old bru-ha-ha, isn’t it? ‘It’s not an excuse’, harrumphed Harry Redknapp, before going on the claim that at least four of his elite, highly-paid, professional sportsmen ‘couldn’t handle’ playing on what was essentially a soft flat carpet. I’ve heard all about the ramifications of artificial pitches for the knees of Ledley King and Tom Huddlestone, but then I’ve also been hearing about how hard and unforgiving ‘these new grass pitches’ are for the last five years. Surely spraying gallons of water over any pitch before kick-off makes them reasonably dangerous too?

The bounce is higher? Lift your leg a bit higher then. The ball skids off it? Then keep your eye on it. If last night’s match at the Stade de Suisse had been played on a total pudding of a pitch, would Spurs have won comfortably? If it had been played on pristine grass for that matter, would they have looked any more capable in that first half-hour?

Artificial pitches were quite rightly discarded in England in the late 80s for being even more horrific than the potato patches that football was played on at all levels. These days though, they’re much better. Indeed, Sepp Blatter – never one to make a point just for the headlines – once declared somewhat ominously that: "This is not only a point to make headlines, it is the truth… Football on artificial turf is the future.”

Could it be? The general argument against ‘plastic’ pitches is that they harm the players and put undue stresses and strains on their bodies. The old artificial pitches, used at QPR, Oldham, Preston and Luton were said to shorten careers by at least a year, consisting as they did of no shock-absorbing faculties whatsoever, as well a bit of sand and fibres, and no doubt some chipped green wooden boards and fences that you could play a one-two off around the outside, like at my old school.

The new artificial pitches are significantly different, with a shock absorbing base and skin-friendly fibres. FIFA operates a two-star ratings system for artificial turf standards and 130 artificial pitch installations around the world hold the top-rated certificate, making them eligible for international tournaments and friendlies, domestic leagues and the Champions League – the latter following UEFA’s sanctioning of FIFA-recommended surfaces in 2005. Pitches of this standard are also a considerable improvement on Dunfermline’s ill-fated artificial surface (whose implementation was half-funded by UEFA as part of an experiment ahead of their 2005/06 season ruling), which was pulled up and discarded after two seasons of criticism, though few (if any) high-profile injuries.

So with the standard of all FIFA-approved pitches said to be up to that of regular grass, but easier and cheaper to maintain (though expensive to implement) AND with the potential for all-year-round use and additional revenue streams, what’s the problem? Isn’t Wembley part artificial now anyway?

From a footballing point of view alone, playing on a different surface to that which you earn your living on is unsettling. Of course it is, especially when you get one training session to prepare for 90 minutes. It’s like coming into work and finding your chair has been replaced by a space hopper. But, in the same way that not falling off a space hopper would be good for your balance and leg strength and save you from just flopping down in your chair every day, is a different surface – which is guaranteed to be flat, by the way – really a bad thing?

What if players grew up playing on artificial surfaces. Wouldn’t it be good for skills development if the ball moves quicker and truer? In terms of the criticisms levelled at the game in England, artificial surfaces don’t allow you to start hoofing long balls over the top – they just run out of play. It certainly didn’t let Spurs, despite Jermaine Defoe’s best attempt to run the channels. We also saw another English centre-back done for pace and by sharper reactions over a few yards. Artificial pitches give better traction and grip, and presumably then, speed off the mark.

Spurs’ flat 4-4-2 struggled to keep possession in the first half, isolated its strikers with said long balls and was harried and pressed by Young Boys throughout. But they enjoyed more possession when Niko Kranjcar came on to fill a playmaker role ahead of Wilson Palacios and Huddlestone, keeping the ball on the ground and moving it with a bit more composure. In short, when they could play short, sharp passes, which the surface suits, they looked a lot more comfortable.

I’m not saying, of course, that pitches up and down the country and across Europe should be torn up and replaced with FIFA-recommended artificial turf. I agree that the surface is difficult to play on when you are used to playing on grass. But I don’t think it’s dangerous. The risk of injury isn’t something a little extra conditioning won’t fix – pot-holes in the centre circle are worse. I think it’s probably, ultimately, a truer surface and it suits an intricate game played by those with good technical skills. What I would dearly love, though, is for Vladimir Petkovic to turn up at White Hart Lane, sniffily dismiss the pitch as an ‘unreliable cabbage patch’ and blame bobbles and divets for injuries and anything else that happens to go wrong. Rob MacDonald

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