It’s tight at the top of the Ryman League Premier Division. With a little less than half of the season left to play, just seven points seperate the top six clubs in the table and it remains, for now at least, anybody’s guess who from Kingstonian, Maidstone United, Wealdstone, Dulwich Hamlet, Bognor Regis Town or AFC Hornchurch will be taking a place in the Conference South. Indeed, one of these clubs will not even make the division’s play-offs come the end of the season. Out of that six, though, there is one club that will be furrowing the brows of people at the Football Association and the Football Conference more than their competitors at the moment, because at the moment one of those clubs could yet earn promotion on the pitch, only to be subsequently denied it at a committee meeting.

The club at risk of missing out is Maidstone United, and the reason for it is the 3G artificial pitch that the club has fitted at The Gallagher Stadium, the new ground into which it moved in the summer of 2012. The game’s authorities, however, have not yet granted permission for 3G pitches to be used above Level Six – the level at which Maidstone United currently play – of the English National League System. As the rules stand today, the club would be refused promotion should it win the Ryman League title or the play-offs at the end of this season. Football Association rules preclude the use of artificial pitches in competitions featuring Premier League, Football League or Conference clubs and beyond the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, although they are permitted below this level and in the FA Trophy and FA Vase, and it is this fudge of an arrangement that threatens to cause issues for Maidstone United at the end of this season.

Artificial pitches first reached English football in the 1981 when Queens Park Rangers installed one at their newly-renovated Loftus Road. Four clubs – QPR plus Luton Town, Oldham Athletic and Preston North End – ended up with one, but they were never used without controversy, being unpopular with supporters on account of the unnatural bounce of the ball on an extremely hard surface and the perception of the unfair competitive advantage that their use allowed those clubs that had them because their players could train on them more regularly and acclimatise to them, and with players, who added concerns over the possibility of long-term injuries from playing regularly on such hard surfaces and short-term burns injuries from coming into too much contact with them.

There were practical advantages to them, of course. The clubs that installed them were able to make greater economies from having fewer postponed matches on account of the weather and from renting out their stadium facilities, but by the end of the decade the tide of public opinion had turned decisively against them. In May 1989, a Football League committee investigating their use recommended a total ban of artificial surfaces in the First Division from 1990, no matches to be played in the Second Division from 1990 apart from those involving those clubs with existing permission and that all new artificial surfaces should conform to new quality standards. Eventually Football League clubs voted against the use of artificial surfaces across the League in 1995, shortly after the last of the four of the clubs that had used them reverted to a grass surface.

Technology, however, has moved on a long way since then and the artifical pitches being used day are considerably more advanced than the “plastic pitches” of the 1980s and, whilst there are still some who are unhappy with their use, there can be little question that this is a different debate to the one being held at the end of the 1980s. Indeed, the extent to which the tide maybe turning can perhaps best be expressed through the matter of where support for reform of the existing rules is coming from. Last autumn, Alan Turvey, the long-serving stalwart chair of the Ryman League, wrote an open letter to Brian Lee, the chair of the Football Conference, in which he stated that, “I would ask if the Conference will give serious consideration to this type of proven surface and allow promotion to your competitions without further delay.” Significantly, Turvey also stated that, “I have witnessed matches at both of these clubs [Maidstone United and Harlow Town, the other Ryman League club in possession of one] and their acceptance is well known, no complaints received from either players or match officials.”

There seems to be even more considerably weighty support for reform from FIFA, who have carried out consierable research into artificial surfaces and in 2001 launched the “Quality Concept for Football Turf”, a licensing programme which sets out standards for those looking to invest in artificial surfaces with the intention of ensure that artificial surfaces have similar playing characteristics to natural grass. FIFA’s support for artificial surfaces should, however, be tempered by the understanding that their role in the game is a global one which includes countries in which the maintenance of natural surfaces is more troublesome than it is in England. The FA’s support for 3G pitches, however, is a different matter. In its document “Third Generation Football Turf Guidance”, it confirms its position statement as being as follows:

The Football Association is fully supportive of the use of the Football Turf (3G) artificial pitches in the national game. The FA recognises the value and benefit of Football Turf facilities to all involved in the game and the positive impact these facilities have had and will have in the future.

In view of such a contradiction between the stated positions of the authorities on the matter of 3G pitches and the reality of the rules of competitions, that there should be considerable confusion regarding their efficacy is understandable. Do, for example, 3G pitches give a competitive advantage to clubs that use them? In the case of Maidstone United, it is tempting to answer in the affirmative. After all, since moving to the Gallagher Stadium, the club has won promotion from the Ryman League Division One South and is now challenging for promotion from its Premier Division. The pitch there, however, may not tell us much about the story of the club’s recent success. Maidstone’s average home league attendance this season has been more than 1,800 people, almost three times the next highest in the division, and this gives the club the resources to be able to pay high wages should they wish to.

So, even pointing at Maidstone’s success over the last season and a half might be something of a straw man – and their supporters may well point to the fact Maidstone have won seven and drawn eight of their fifteen home league matches so far this season – and the benefits of having a pitch are obvious. Match postponements on account of the weather are expensive for clubs, and anything that minimises this can only be positive. In addition to this, for non-league clubs the ability to raise money through hiring out a pitch that can be used all day, every day should be obvious at a level of the game in which maintaining solvency is a perpetual challenge. Maidstone United state that rental of their pitch during the 2012/13 season brought in £110,000 of direct income, and the club estimates a further £50,000-£100,000 worth of additional revenue having been raised as an indirect effect of it. The club states that around 1,000 players a week used the pitch at the Gallagher Stadium during this period. What better a way could a non-league football club find of connecting with its local community than this? And that, surely, is what all leagues and governing bodies should be wanting smaller clubs to do.

So, the idea that clubs with 3G pitches get an unfair playing advantage is probably overstated, the pitches get few complaints from supporters or the officials of other clubs and they could be significant revenue generators. What’s not to like? Why aren’t they just approved for use, even if only at first for all non-league matches? Well, there is the possibility that some people haven’t quite yet got past the idea that modern artficial surfaces are a completely different beast to the Omniturf and Astroturf pitches of the 1980s, and it is also possible that, in the case of the Football Conference, there is an element of self-preservation about reluctance to let Maidstone United in. All leagues are ultimately little more than the clubs that members of them. Maidstone United would, in the event of promotion, be better financially resourced than many of the clubs currently playing in the Conference South, and the natural impulse of some clubs may be to vote against a rule that would allow a possible title challenger into their league, all the more so when clubs could arguably hide behind the argument that the Football League doesn’t allow them and that they don’t want to jeopardise automatic promotion and relegation agreements with them.

It seems likely that it will be a matter of if rather than when the rules on the use of 3G pitches is sanctioned on a wider scale. Indeed, one Conference South club, Sutton United, has already tabled a proposal for a relaxation of these rules in their league, with the team’s manager Paul Doswell stating that, “Not permitting 3G surfaces is a ridiculous notion, and is just a case of self-serving by the Skrill Football Conference. They battled for years to get two teams promoted to the Football League, and they don’t want egg on their face if one of those teams happened to have a 3G pitch and cannot be promoted.” This isn’t a matter of tryng to argue that artificial pitches are “better” than grass pitches, and it’s certainly not a matter of allowing clubs to get unfair advantages over others. This is a matter of understanding that this is a technology that has changed radically over the last two decades, and that it is one for which the potential benefits to smaller clubs surely now comfortably outweigh any perceived costs. The Football Conference meets at the end of this month to discuss the matter further. Times are changing, and it’s time football’s authorities to get fully behind this particular change.

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