Turf war: how the FA tripped up over Wembley's 'dangerous' pitch

Experts say governing body must start again after uneven and slippery surface ruins semi-finals
Click to follow
The Independent Football

It is the most embarrassing sward of football turf since Pele threatened to quit New York Cosmos at half-time on his debut because a "fungus" had developed on his legs. He was assured this was green paint, sprayed on the Randall's Island pitch to make a dirt surface appear a grass one on television. The Cosmos, however, had an excuse: their home, Yankee Stadium, was being redeveloped. But the situation surrounding the Wembley turf is different: the Football Association has no mitigating circumstances.

English football's new Jerusalem, the stadium cost £757m, but while the surface may look green it is far from pleasant. Michael Dawson's slip, which gifted Frederic Piquonne Portsmouth's first goal in Sunday's FA Cup semi-final was an accident waiting to happening. The only consolation is that no one was injured due to a surface which Harry Redknapp, a student of the turf in more ways than one, said would be regarded as unsafe for horses.

The Tottenham manager branded the pitch "farcial" and "a disgrace", adding: "It's rock-hard and wet on the top, like a skating rink. They don't run race horses when it's like that because it's dangerous."

After watching two semi-finals which looked as if they were a footballing edition of Dancing on Ice the danger is what will worry Fabio Capello. Before England's World Cup warm-up against Mexico at Wembley on 24 May, there are five football matches scheduled, including the FA Cup final on 15 May, and, incredibly, a rugby union match, this Saturday.

The FA was largely keeping its own counsel yesterday but it is understood it is considering relaying the turf following this weekend's Guinness Premiership match between Saracens and Harlequins in the hope a new one will be bedded down in time for the FA Cup final. If it does, it will be the 11th new pitch since the stadium opened three years ago; relaying costs £100,000 a time.

As well as rugby matches the stadium also hosts corporate football matches, an annual NFL game, regular summer rock concerts, and even a motor racing event as it seeks to reduce the massive debt incurred by its construction, and significant running costs.

Trevor Brooking, the FA's director of football development, appeared to admit there was something of a catch-22 problem when he admitted Wembley "has to have other events to pay its way, but if you do have those how frequently can you change the pitch?"

However, Brooking said he did not believe the problem was over-use: "I don't think the number of events are the particular issue. We put a pitch down which worked pretty well the latter part of last year, this one didn't, so what was different on this one?

"It's something we want to get right but some of the bigger league clubs have had their problems earlier on [with new stadiums] and it's something we have to hope the technical people will get right."

One expert, David Saltman, former head groundsman at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, admitted the pitch fiasco was "a national embarrassment for our industry and the turf trade in general".

Saltman, founder of pitchcare.com, added: "They have had various experts in there and followed a direction in terms of the original construction of the pitch. It clearly wasn't the right way to go. Bear in mind this pitch was only laid four or five weeks ago. Essentially this is virtually a new pitch so you've got to look at why it's so hard and people are describing it like an ice rink."

Redknapp said the only solution was to "dig it up and put another one down". Saltman went even further, arguing the FA needed to start again, excavating the pitch foundations and providing a base which could cope with the mix of events, and regular re-turfing (which is to an extent inevitable because of the difficulty of getting enough sunlight and wind on to the surface in such a steep-sided stadium). That would cost around £350,000, he estimated.

Speaking for the players Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, said: "The pitch is a big concern. It is becoming an embarrassment for the FA. You would have thought this is the one area they would have concentrated on, knowing it was going to get a great deal of use. There is no point having the stadium if we don't have a pitch that is worthy of staging big games." As one of those will be next year's Champions League final, and another could be the 2018 World Cup final, the possibility of further embarrassment is high.

In the meantime the ground staff at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus in Rustenberg, who were told by the FA that the pitch they had created for England's World Cup training base was inadequate, must be enjoying a sense of schadenfreude.

Remaining Wembley fixtures this season 17 April Saracens v Harlequins; 8 May FA Vase final; 9 May FA Trophy final; 15 May FA Cup final; 16 May Blue Square Premier play-off final; 22 May Coca-Cola Championship play-off final; 24 May England v Mexico; 29 May League Two play-off final; 30 May League One play-off final.

Pitching in: 'Farcical, disgraceful, disastrous'

"It was ridiculous. Everyone was slipping all over the place and it proved more costly for us because it caused Michael Dawson to slip for their goal. No one could stand up – there is no getting away from it" Peter Crouch

"The pitch is a disgrace. You wouldn't race dogs on that. I said before the game that anyone can slip over on that, so they had to be very careful. It's rock hard and wet on top, like a skating rink. I'm not using it as an excuse, but for any professional team to have to play on that is farcical. It was unreal. I saw goalkeepers trying to kick on it in the first semi-final and falling over." Harry Redknapp

"You work as hard as you can to get to a final and it's one of the worst pitches you play on all year. It was worse than the couple of lower-league teams' pitches we have played on. Wembley's the home of England. You want the best surface possible and, at the moment, it is not quite there." James Milner (after the Carling Cup Final)

"The quality of the pitch is disastrous. Everybody wanted to play at Wembley before because the pitch was so special; now, nobody wants to play there. When you build a new stadium, the first priority is that the pitch is good. If that's not right the whole stadium is bad, it doesn't matter how much money you spend." Arsène Wenger (after FA Cup semi-final defeat by Chelsea last season)

"The big issue for the FA is that it is used for so many different things. I was told they have motorcycles on it and everything. When they've had certain events there they tear it up and then put it down again. That must make it difficult for the pitch to be true. It makes it heavy and slow. The FA will just have to accept that this is the way that it's going to be as it's all part of the cost of running Wembley and paying for it." Sir Alex Ferguson

"£800m and the one thing you'd think they'd get right would be the playing surface." Martin O'Neill (after the Carling Cup final)