Plastic pitches set to return after 21 years

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The Football Association is set to lift its 21-year ban on plastic pitches, allowing Premiership and Football League clubs to play on synthetic surfaces for the first time since they were banned for being too dangerous and unsuitable for the professional game.

Following last night's landmark decision by Uefa to permit clubs who qualify for Europe to use artificial surfaces, FA officials will give the green light for similar pitches to be used domestically - with no opposition allowed from the away team.

"The quality has reached a level where artificial turf is comparable to or even better than some of the natural turfs, Uefa chief executive, Lars-Christer Olsson, said. "The need [for artificial pitches] has been big for decades, if you come from countries where you have bad winters for example."

Plastic pitches were outlawed in 1983 after a spate of clubs, including Luton, Oldham, Preston and Queen's Park Rangers, were vilified for ripping up grass fields and replacing them with synthetic surfaces that caused burns and proved inadequate in terms of ball control.

But technology has advanced, putting the new generation of plastic pitches on a level playing field with natural surfaces. "Artificial pitches now bear absolutely no resemblance to the type we used in the 1980s, which people said took a year off a professional's life," the chief executive of QPR, Mark Devlin, said.

"If there are no longer any rules against artificial pitches, we'd be mad not to consider it again. It opens up lots of extra revenue opportunities without the wear and tear. It's expensive to install but the upkeep is more cost-effective than real turf. I'd say all clubs outside the top three in the Premiership should look at getting every piece of value out of the playing surface."

Sheffield Wednesday, with debts of around £27m, say they would consider switching to synthetic in order to increase revenue streams. "It's something we'd investigate," said Cavan Walker, the club's commercial director.

Steve Williams, the FA's national facilities manager, agrees the new generation of artificial pitches could provide a financial lifeline for clubs. "I can see a lot of clubs going down this route," he said. "They could train on it, put youth games on it and attract more commercial income. It is a real watershed."

Artificial Turf: A Short History Of Friction

When was it first used for sporting purposes?

In the mid-1960s, when Astroturf was used in the Houston Astrodome for baseball. It was essentially carpet and unsuitable for football. A decade later, the technology had advanced, leading to sand-filled "turf" pieces, with "grass" fibres on top, holding the sand in place.

When and where?

Queen's Park Rangers were the first British club to install an artificial pitch, in 1981-82. The turf had no "shock pad" underneath, making it hard and increasing the risk of injuries. The ball bounced unnaturally high, tackling was more hazardous and players were in danger of abrasions. Luton, Oldham and Preston later followed QPR's lead. Graeme Le Saux, who played on the artificial turf of Loftus Road and Kenilworth Road as a junior, described them as "a nightmare, no one liked playing on them".

Were they a success?

No. although QPR finished the fifth in the old Second Division in 1981-82, losing only twice at home, and reached the FA Cup final, there were almost weekly complaints. All the clubs with artificial pitches reverted to grass within a few seasons.

So what is new now?

The technology has advanced to produce the most realistic artificial turf yet - a blend of ground rubber, polypropylene fibres and sand. Artificial pitches are commonly used for training at British clubs, and Dunfermline have been using artificial turf since last season.

How have Dunfermline fared?

From their point of view, well - commercially if not in playing terms. They agreed in 2003 to be part of a two-year Uefa experiment. Uefa paid half the cost of their pitch, now in its second season. The debut match was most memorable for a streaker, who performed a swallow dive and was left with friction burns to his nether regions. The team's performance has not been as painful. The club's main gain has been income from hiring out a pitch that doesn't degrade, and being able to use it full-time for training, at all levels. "Pitches in Scotland are usually mud by February, that's not a problem for us," a club spokesman said.

Has it been used internationally?

Yes, 10 matches at last year's Fifa Under-17 World Championships in Helsinki were played on artificial turf.

Nick Harris

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