"The UK has the world's most successful professional football league and natural turf surfaces, combined with advances in technology, contribute greatly to its success as well as to the experience for both players and supporters alike."

Institute of Groundsmanship’s Webb stands up for natural turf

Geoff Webb, chief executive officer of the UK Institute of Groundsmanship, recently commented at length on the possible move to introduce artificial turf pitches at UK Football League grounds:

The IOG stands by the standards of natural turf pitches at a professional level and the skill of the groundsmen in producing top class playing surfaces, which are clear to see every week in professional football.

The UK has the world’s most successful professional football league and natural turf surfaces, combined with advances in technology, contribute greatly to its success – as well as to the experience for both players and supporters alike.

When it comes to the marketing, selling and promotion of synthetic turf, what the IOG openly questions is the view that these products are maintenance-free. It is very important when taking a view to install synthetic, or as FIFA would call it “football turf”, rather than natural turf, that a detailed financial audit is undertaken. As with natural turf, the less you invest in it, the worse it will become.

Should the rule change be agreed there is an inherent danger that such a move would ultimately demoralise the many dedicated ground staff who have looked after football’s interests so well over many years. If redundancies come as a result of a rule change, the skill of the groundsman will be lost to football and ultimately standards will fall.

You only have to look at the landscape of community facilities in grass roots football and witness the cut backs to public sector facilities over decades of under-investment to understand why standards have dropped. There is a need to re-invest in the basics. While artificial turf facilities have a place in community sport, the bigger problem is what do you do with the 20,000 plus grass pitch sites where football is played week in, week out. Even with the tremendous investment from the likes of the Football Foundation and the sports lotteries, there remains a huge task in simply keeping these facilities open for play.If anything, professional football should embrace and engage with the turf care industry to raise standards. Just as it would appear it has done, and continues to do so, with artificial turf companies and suppliers.

Every groundsman knows that synthetic turf has come a long way with significant investment and backing from FIFA, the world governing body of football which, since the late 1990s, has promoted this product as an alternative to grass. There is no doubt that the marketing and sales approach of the artificial turf sector has been effective and indeed seductive. The comparisons with the artificial pitches installed in the ‘80s are unfair – as the quality and research behind artificial turf have improved considerably – as is a comparison of a modern day natural turf playing surface to the pitches played on in the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

But, no matter how much you spend on a synthetic surface, it will wear from the first day it is used until the day comes when it needs to be replaced. From initial installation to replacement, the costs are significant. Where clubs are considering turning the stadium pitch into a “community facility”, there will be additional considerations and costs to take into account. Is it practical to turn a stadium from a match day facility to a year-round, seven days a week open-to-all facility? This will involve seeking planning permission to have floodlights on through the winter months. What about changing facilities? Will the clubs simply turn over the changing rooms used on a match day?

The Football Foundation has very clear guidelines on male and female changing facilities, and for facilities for male and female referees. They also take account of child protection when designing facilities. Are the stadiums geared up for this? Will additional investment be required? What about security and reception. Who will train on it and when? Who takes priority, the first team or the community? Should the pitches have to conform to FIFA 2 rating, how regularly will they be tested and at what cost?Will the constant usage undermine the ability of a club to meet the standards?How will this affect player safety? There are lots of questions that need answers.

A synthetic pitch also takes a lot more looking after than many may think – it is certainly not a case of putting down a synthetic pitch and leaving it. There is a need for the correct capital equipment, and a daily, weekly and monthly maintenance programme. There are costs associated with the maintenance of an artificial pitch and the pitch will fail without a dedicated groundsman or skilled contractor to expertly maintain it.

Groundsmanship is at the heart of the game and the way in which pitches are now maintained is changing – and the key factor is the adaptability of the groundsman to prevailing conditions, technology and innovation, combined with investment in training and education. We no longer have the mud baths of the 1970s, and where a surface fails there is usually a trail that leads back to a lack of investment as the root of the problem. Groundsmanship itself supports professional football as does the industry that sits behind it. Yet somehow we appear to now be facing a similar challenge to that faced in the 1980s.

If this discussion about 3G synthetic pitches was being had 30 years ago, the argument may have been different. However, the technology behind turf is now so far in advance of what clubs faced in the 1970s and early ’80s. Natural turf pitches were often hard and dry in the early parts of the season and they became mud baths in the depths of winter. Not any more. Games are called off now usually because of health and safety concerns for spectators outside the ground rather than because of the pitch itself.

Natural turf pitches have improved and progressed rapidly over the years. At the professional level, we do not come across heavy pitches that slow the game down or, indeed, ultra-hard pitches that threaten the health of players. Nevertheless, what we do encounter on natural turf is the element of difference that depends on climatic conditions; this is all part of the game and it adds to the spectacle.

Like natural turf, synthetic turf has its limitations – evidence suggests that in extreme temperatures (both hot and cold) the playing experience alters. Studies in the USA have looked at the effects of heatstroke arising from the temperature of the artificial turf creating a micro climate that can affect players. Where this occurs, watering is required to cool the pitch.. Likewise, in extreme cold conditions, the synthetic pitch does present problems with hardness associated with the rubber crumb infill. And unlike natural turf, synthetic turf does not break down organically, therefore several studies are looking at the potential for harmful bacteria that could affect the health of a player

It is interesting to note that the reason synthetic turf was first introduced at the Houston Astrodome was due to the size of the roof, which is 18 stories high, and this meant that growing turf was like growing a pitch in a shoebox!So, do we need to look at architectural design at a stadium’s planning stage to get the best out of the playing surface? There is increasing evidence of players in the NFL rejecting artificial turf in favour of natural turf and in the American Major Soccer League only one out of 11 pitches is synthetic.

The argument for bringing in artificial turf appears to be based on revenue generation rather than overall quality in comparison to natural turf, which we all know – and can see – that when well maintained, provides world leading playing surfaces.

If the Football League is going to give due consideration to this issue, it should look in parallel at how it encourages clubs to invest in appropriate grounds management. A study conducted by the IOG in 2007 and entitled “Groundsmanship the Hidden Profession”, found a direct correlation with numbers of ground staff employed in professional football, which showed that the further down the pyramid of league football you went then the smaller the investment in groundsmanship – from a high of an average of nine employees maintaining the grounds in the Premier League, serving both the stadium and training facilities, reducing to an average of four in the Championship and down to two in League Two. At this level, some clubs operate with contractors and, when investigating further, roles become part time rather than full time.

The Football League should be setting standards and helping clubs move forward. Within the sport, coaching has specific set standards that must be obtained. Why not establish the same for groundsmanship? Training and education is available, so are the football authorities looking at this? Perhaps they should also look at alternative ways of offering support to clubs? A good example could be the Football Stadia Improvement Fund, which has over many years via the Football Foundation done an excellent job in supporting facilities – but not pitches. So, why not change the criteria? Encourage investment and promote best practice

Natural turf is now performing better than ever, at all levels of the game. The surfaces we now enjoy should be revered not consigned to the dustbin for commercial gain; they are a unique selling point, respected throughout the world for the standards achieved by excellent skilled groundstaff. Pitch reinforcements such as Desso GrassMaster and Fibresand stabilisation have both made tremendous improvements to the quality of playing surfaces, and we are now starting to see the next generation of natural turf pitch reinforcement in the form of Fibrelastic. This demonstrates how technology from both the artificial turf sector and the natural turf sector can work in harmony to producea playing surface that meets the demands of the game today. Why do we need to fix what is patently not broken?

Questions remain on player injuries, and when you look at studies around the world on health and environmental concerns there are questions here that are outstanding. The argument between synthetic and natural has been presented as a “turf war” – a great headline but, in reality,both sectors can work in harmony.

Ultimately, the League will decide but the IOG, for one, retains the view that you can maintain a natural turf pitch well if you invest appropriately. The 2011 IOG Groundsman of the Year came from Chesterfield FC. Here is a groundsman operating on a modest budget but with a dedicated skill and passion for the job he does – and to win the award, he had to beat groundsmen from some of the blue chip clubs. Indeed, standards continue to rise year on year which we know as a body working with the Football League, the PFA ,The Premier League and STRI (which jointly ‘oversee’ the Groundsman of the Year Award through The Playing Surfaces Committee).There are many great surfaces which are a credit to the League and to those who manage them.

The potential to produce a fantastic pitch exists at every level of the game. We have skilled groundsman – the best in the world – and we have a multi-billion pound support industry that ranges from seed suppliers and chemical companies through to machinery suppliers and industry advisors and consultants, all of whom stand ready to assist and help to provide a surface at reasonable cost without the need to resort to a change in the rules. Football just needs to ask.