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.