Pitching Up & Pitching Out In Durham

8 By Ian  |   The Ball  |   August 27, 2009  |     13

It has been a difficult start to the new season for Durham City AFC. Newly promoted into the Unibond League Premier Division – their second successive promotion – they may have been expecting the start of a brave new world and a push for Conference football, but the dream has started to unwind after just a couple of weeks and the club may be heading back to the Northern League, from whence they came. One of the biggest problems for Durham has been financial, but the train of events that has – rapidly – led to the club starting to slide began with an edict from the Football Conference over their pitch.

Durham’s New Ferens Park was fitted with a 3G pitch a couple of years ago. The pitch is at the upper end of the market, with realistic, silicon-coated blades of grass and a rubber crumb base. Compared with the sand covered artificial monstrosities of years gone by, it is almost like playing on grass. Indeed, FIFA and Sepp Blatter are fans of the pitches, and they are approved for use in UEFA competitions. In England, though, there are mixed messages over which pitches are acceptable and which aren’t. The 3G pitches are banned in the FA Cup, but allowed in the FA Trophy, for example. They’re allowed in the Unibond League, but not in the Football Conference.

This, as it turned out, was the problem for Durham City AFC. At the start of the season, they were informed by the Unibond League that they would not be considered for a place in the Blue Square North or even allowed to compete in the play-offs if they were to use a 3G pitch. The problems came in the immediate aftermath of the decision, when the club’s sponsors and backers decided to pull the plug on any further funding for the club. With the squad rapidly disbanded, local youngsters were drafted in and the club confirmed that it will play out this season in the Unibond League before, most likely, dropping back to the Northern League.

The issue of whether these pitches should be used is one that can be debated endlessly. The pitch at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, for example, was deemed good enough for the European Championship qualifier between Russia and England in 2007, but wasn’t considered up to the task of the 2008 Champions League final, for which it was replaced by grass. Modern artificial pitches are designed to be as close as possible to grass, while also being as durable as possible. For non-league clubs they can be an absolute godsend, as they can be used over and over, hired out as much as they’re wanted and require relatively little maintenance.

The cost of installation, however, is high – between four and five times the size of installing a grass pitch and, even taking into account the lower cost of maintenance, they work out twice as expensive to run per year all told. There is also still a question mark over their quality. 3G artificial pitches, critics say, are better than the earlier generations of artificial pitches that ruined so many hours of football at the likes of Kenilworth Road and Loftus Road in the 1980s, but also that this isn’t a fair comparison. They should be compared with grass, and critics argue that even the best artificial pitches still aren’t as good as grass pitches. Critics also argue that there are still question marks over the potential for injuries to players and that the pitches may not be as “all-weather” as they could be. They still freeze in the winter if the temperature drops and they’re not covered, for one thing.

Issues of whether they should be used or not become irrelevant, however, when we consider that there are rules in place over whether they can be used and that the game’s authorities cannot even decide a uniform policy on whether they can be used or not. Bearing this in mind, it is not entirely reasonable to argue that the Football Conference’s rule on artificial pitches of any sort has been in place for some time and that Durham City should have been prepared for this eventuality. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the byzantine structure of non-league football would be more than aware that if you have something as out of the ordinary as an artificial playing surface, it’s best to check well in advance of looking to get into a league which occasionally makes cranky decisions.

The club’s backers, of course, don’t come out of this terribly well either. Anyone that pulls all funding as soon as their club hits a glass ceiling is, frankly, showing its true colours in making such a decision. The club, however, has to bear a certain degree of responsibility here. They seem to have grown a little too quickly for their own good, but they do at least now seem to be making the sensible decision. It’s a stark choice: dropping two divisions and keeping their fingers crossed that the Football Conference will (as it has been rumoured that they may do in the future)  change their minds, move elsewhere or accept that the Unibond League Premier Division is as good as they can ever get. At least they can take some solace from the fact that they still have a club to support.



Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.

  • August 28, 2009 at 12:18 am

    David Howell

    I still can’t see the name ‘3G artificial pitch’ and not think of mobile phones. :)

  • August 28, 2009 at 9:54 am


    Surely the Northern League has some degree of responsibility in all this too. Had they accepted inclusion into the national pyramid, rather than standing aloof, then the fast-tracking of both Durham and Newcastle Blue Star may not have been required, and we would not be looking at a season in which, realistically, there is only one relegation slot available.

    This has been a torrid summer for clubs of all sizes, from Chester downwards. At some point, the authorities must surely take action to ensure that they are actually governing the sport, rather than serving their own interests.

  • August 28, 2009 at 12:03 pm


    I’ve played five-a-side on a what seems to match the description of a 3G artificial pitch for the past couple of years.

    Whilst it is much better than traditional astro, no astro burns being the biggest bonus, it is definately not as good as grass.

    The surface is just not as good a shock absorber as grass. The main issue resulting from this is the impact on your joints, particularly your knees. I certainly wouldn’t want to use the surface long term or more than once a week.

  • August 30, 2009 at 2:42 am


    the thing i find amazing is the arrogance of durham thinking they would walk the unibond league and progress to the conference north this season arrogant fools serves them right and good riddance to you when you take your laughing stock of a club back to the tinpot northern league. DONT BOTHER COMING BACK!

  • August 31, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    Albert Ross

    It looks like Durham’s problems are as much to do with their backers as their pitch…

    The whole 3G thing aside, the position of the Northern League and its teams is a strange one. They suffered from staying outside the pyramid for too long, and instead of being on a par with the Northern Premier which they could have been, they effectively began to stagnate which did the cause of North-Eastern Football no good at all. The more ambitious clubs that wanted to climb the pyramid went elsewhere, and now you have a league that is still in many ways strangely insular… on a number of occasions (probably more years than not) the champions have not taken promotion to the Unibond, whether because of ground grading or because of other reasons. I know from talking to a couple of fans of NWCL teams that they found this highly frustrating – there were teams with serious ambitions there with only one promotion place to aim at, while the likes of Bedlington Terriers were winning the Northern League and staying there. The implication was that they didn’t see why the other place couldn’t be played off for between the NWCL and NCEL runners up, and the Northern League wasn’t exactly well thought-of.

    While ultimately it is down to the clubs themselves, I get the impression that live in the NL is not exactly great preparation for the step up to the Unibond, and Durham and Blue Star don’t exactly dispel that impression. NL is in many ways something of a footballing backwater, a comfortable place for a lot of its teams while anyone with serious ambitions passes through….

  • November 11, 2009 at 9:40 am

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    […] And all because of a plastic pitch. […]

  • February 13, 2010 at 7:30 pm

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    […] were told that their artificial pitch would mean they were unable to go any higher up the leagues: Two Hundred Percent: Durham’s New Ferens Park was fitted with a 3G pitch a couple of years ago. The pitch is at the […]

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