• Angus McGregor

A Defence of Plastic Pitches

Ah, plastic pitches. Three-quarters of the Scottish Premiership hate them, the quarter left see no issue which brings one of Scottish football's most controversial talking points. With Livingston vs Aberdeen being postponed twice due to weather conditions, the discussion has been brought up yet again by fans and pundits alike leading to arguments both valid and absurd.

For a number of fans, this discussion is a quick one as they look for a sort of mic drop moment as they'll scoff at these pitches, saying they're rubbish with no merit. But the decisions and reasoning for having these pitches are more than valid within the Scottish game with a number of factors that won't see them go away anytime soon, in fact, there will probably be an increase in years to come. Whether you like them or not, many seem to miss out very reasonable points with arguments that hold little weight. This article is never going to change the minds of many punters but hopefully can shed light on why these surfaces are used, even if you still wind up being largely against them.

First things first, a massive misconception has to be set straight immediately and that is the use of the term 'all-weather" pitches. In the last few weeks, these pitches have been ridiculed with many scoffing about an "all-weather" pitch succumbing to weather conditions but those who do so have been misled. The term "all-weather" is an outdated marketing term for these pitches, stretching the definition as an easy way to try advertise these surfaces as more durable in tougher conditions. It's the same as what is used when companies advertise the likes of car tires or shoes, they're designed to cope better with harsher conditions but aren't impervious to falling to them at the same time.

Due to this, it is probably the reason why "all-weather" is not a term used at all in the FIFA Quality Programme For Football Turf, the official guideline for these types of surfaces that Livingston, Kilmarnock and Hamilton have all had to adhere to. Furthermore, the term is also not used in the SFA's or the National Agency for Sport's guidelines based on these pitches, links can be found at the bottom for the full breakdown. What is mentioned in these pieces is "weather resistance", meaning these pitched can cope better with all types of weather, meaning they shouldn't carry as much water as grass parks and that the pitch won't cut up due to these circumstances.

With that in mind, you can point a fault with the Livingston pitch as it failed to handle the heavy rainfall on Wednesday night, with the game being postponed 10 minutes after the game was supposed to kickoff. Unfortunately for Livingston, the location of the Tony Macaroni Arena and how low the stadium is situated makes it suspect to the pitch carrying extra water due to it having no way to properly flow. This was the exact same when Livingston's pitch was grass, meaning there are extra circumstances that contribute to this game being called off. As this is the council's stadium opposed to being Livingston's, the club's hands are tied here in providing a solution that goes much deeper than the type of surface that has been laid. Livingston manager David Martindale provided good insight as to how these pitches work and how the previous sub-zero conditions have been the issue for these games being postponed. To some, they'll hear this and lambast it as not being foolproof but at the same time, grass with undersoil heating isn't either as Dundee United's game against St Johnstone last weekend showed.

Other than these 2 instances, the artificial surface has been a benefit to the club in ensuring games stay on, with these games being the first ones postponed for the club since laying the surface down. The first was due to temperatures of -8 degrees as well as an abundance of snow with the second succumbing due to great amount of rainfall during an amber weather warning in West Lothian, hardly conditions you can really blame the club for, just as Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes has stated. If this was a consistent issue for a while now for the club then sure, there would be an argument about how the pitches are handled but it just simply isn't.

Kilmarnock and Hamilton haven't suffered any call-offs for these reasons whilst many other clubs have in recent seasons, including the 5 star Ibrox Stadium that fell victim to heavy rain last season. The point is that this is something that unfortunately happens in our country due to our climate and it will only continue this way as our weather grows increasingly worse each year. The weekend of the 11th of January saw a number of Scottish Cup games postponed as well as Dundee United's home game against St Johnstone being delayed due to a frozen pitch. The number of games called off on grass heavily outweighs those on artificial surfaces, meaning that progress merits their use, even despite two games being called off. It makes no sense to say one isn't fit for purpose whilst there is an even bigger culprit in this circumstance that isn't talked about because of its 'normality'.

The biggest reason by far to why certain teams have plastic pitches is purely to do with finances. It should come as no surprise that money is scarce in Scottish football at all levels and having an artificial surface is a way for teams to stretch their budgets. For one, having a plastic pitch opens the door for external revenues, with the pitch able to be rented out during the hours club officials aren't using it, of course, that has been minimal so far this season. Another aspect that benefits the surface is that it costs significantly less to maintain than a grass park. We've seen countless times how an awful wet day can have a catastrophic effect on a club's park for the rest of the season which is a massive factor as to why clubs have gone down the artificial route. The pitch at Ibrox really struggled before the pandemic and if that is how the ground at one of the world's elite clubs is coping, then you can't have a go at much smaller teams with minuscule finances for looking to alternatives.

As long as clubs can maintain the standards set by the SFA and FIFA then there should be no issue here. Perhaps these terms should be revamped and looked at again to help improve on any areas missed but I doubt that would satisfy fans. The pitches are monitored heavily with annual testing as well as random spot check tests in which the pitch has to be in good condition. As long as this is followed they must be good to go. I will sacrifice the point that the pellets are a negative and do look bad flailing up on the pitch with improvements needed to this on fresh pitches. Is that really a criteria worth banning a surface as a whole tho?

In an ideal world, yes, every team would have a grass pitch that is always in pristine condition but let's be real, that is far from feasible in the Scottish game. Wear and tear is a part of our game that effects every team with the past few weeks showing the effects of usage starting to appear in a number of stadiums. This is only going to get worse, especially with the volume of games on the horizon and as the weeks go by, the quality of our grass pitches are going to deteriorate. For the plastic pitches, they will stay the same. Scottish teams have trouble with finances as it is, never mind having to reach near impossible standards that not even our bigger sides can maintain for the season.

If the response to teams not having an up to standard grass pitch is to say they shouldn't be in the league, well that is just an absolute load of elitist nonsense. Performances are why teams should be where they are, nothing else. It's absolutely ridiculous for anyone to claim that any team shouldn't be in a league based on their pitch and those claims should be ridiculed for producing such tosh. If you want to question why teams don't have the appropriate funds to maintain such a pitch, you could maybe start by questioning the SFA or the SPFL who haven't found a league sponsor for this season which could provide valuable money for many clubs. Or the fact that the Chief Executive earns a massive salary of over £300k p/a, again funds that could go a long way to helping many teams. Many sides will also be reeling from the effects of the COVID outbreak for many years and will be looking for ways to stretch their money which laying a FIFA standard artificial surface would allow them to do so.

The criticisms of plastic pitches that would appear to carry the most weight would be how the surface impacts the game and injuries. Regarding how the pitch impacts the game, many claim that the ball will have an unnatural bounce when it has first been laid and that the ball can get caught up in the turf. I do agree that these pitches need time to settle and be bedded in to get it up to standard but this usually does happen through the teams pre-season and constant training. What is odd though is that these criticisms also apply to grass. If you play on a bumpy grass pitch, the ball will bounce in unnatural directions. If you're playing on a thick park, the ball can get stuck in the grass too. If anything, these types of situations are more likely to happen on a grass park, especially in rainy conditions or when the parks being to tear up. Due to this, the argument completely loses weight as it can easily happen much more frequently on a grass park.

Home advantage has also popped up due to the recent successes of Livingston and Kilmarnock. There are many fans who claim that these sides successful spells are all to do with the surface they play on and that they get an advantage from doing so. But isn't home advantage a thing that every team has? Doesn't every single team know exactly how to play on their park better than their opponents? And if we're going to talk about unfair advantages, why stop at pitches? Let's get wage and attendance caps in if we're so concerned about the sport not being played on a level playing field. Surely those factors contribute to home teams having advantages too, should they be changed too? The home form guide also only has Kilmarnock in the top half of the table whilst Accies sit second bottom. The Championship has Alloa, one of two sides with a plastic pitch, at the bottom of the home form table too, showing that these claims as Gary Holt put elegantly a few seasons back is just an excuse.

Injuries are a tricky subject as there are constant claims that these surfaces are the reason for a large number of injuries. This claim is largely inconclusive as there have been a number of studies that have gone into this issue but they all produce different results. A Portuguese study found that amateur players did find an increase in injuries whilst a study in the same year in America found there were fewer injuries. The biggest study used in the professional men's game took place in the Swedish Premier League back in 2003/04 which found no significant difference in injuries and no increase of injury severity.

You can point to the likes of Jamie Murphy's injury at Rugby Park as an example of where a player has been injured as his leg was caught in the ground and forced him out for an extended period of time. In the same season, Christophe Berra suffered a nasty injury in a similar situation but on the grass park at Tynecastle. Injuries are a freak thing that happens in every sport but you find that every injury that occurs on a plastic pitch is attributed to the surface. For some reason, this is not the case for grass pitches and nor should they be as injuries are part and parcel of the game and happen on any surface. You just need to take one look at basically every other league without these surfaces and you can see the high volume of injuries that occur every single season.

If plastic pitches are so dangerous and are harming the development of our game, then why are we powering so much money nationwide to laying these surfaces for our next generations? If these pitches are so damaging then they should be scrapped entirely, otherwise, we're going to end up with a generation of players who are completely disadvantaged. If the true concerns are to do with the impact and development of players, then why are we having these surfaces used at the crucial points of development? In years to come, I think the negative opinion of these pitches will start to fade as a lot more fans will have grown up with them and not see too much of an issue with the surface, something I believe is already happening today.

The biggest point that seems to be in favour of getting rid of plastic pitches is the opinion of the professionals themselves. In the 2018/19 season, PFA Scotland had a survey for the players of clubs who voted in favour of getting rid of the artificial surfaces. As pros, their opinions definitely matter as they are the ones playing on them. However, these opinions always seem to be based on whether or not they play on them regularly as the players from the teams who use them see no issue. As players opinions are valued, those who play and train on them so consistently will know the truths of these pitches but their opinions are simply dismissed. There seems to be a psychological issue in our game where many think they're being asked to play on molten lava. There is so much hype around these pitches that completely over-exaggerate any issues and when a team fails at one of these grounds, it is an easy thing to point to.

There are many people who will read this and it won't change their mind at all and sure, that's fine. There's a good core who believe that football should solely be played on grass and to that opinion there's no real argument that can be made against it. I also agree that football is best on grass but for the listed points I've been rambling on about for some time now, it isn't always feasible. Many people will look at these arguments and will probably have some very valid responses to certain issues regarding these pitches. The issue here though is that for basically every excuse to do with artificial surfaces, you can point right back at grass pitches. The apparent standard of grass pitches in this country is a complete myth which in most cases is what makes most of the arguments against artificial surfaces lose impact. If you think football should be played on grass just simply because that is how it always was meant to be then fair enough but many of these issues cannot be ignored.

As Celtic travel to the Tony Macaroni Arena, this debate will be going nowhere anytime soon and these previously mentioned points will be brought up. It is part and parcel of our game now which won't ever get resolved in total honesty as these pitches aren't going anywhere. It's strange that this is such a major talking point in our game when there is so much more that can be delved into and other much bigger problems within Scottish football that need to be dealt with but it is always easy to go for the little guys.

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