How We Used To Live, Part One: Bad Pitches

by | Nov 2, 2018

Football has changed considerably over the last few decades and it will continue to do so. This new series for Fridays here on 200% marks the passing of football as it was, kicking off with perhaps the biggest change that the actual game has seen over the course of the last few decades or so… the elimination of the bad pitch. 

It’s five to five on the fourteenth of November 2009, and the FA Vase match between Whitehawk and Fareham Town is just about to go into extra-time. The Enclosed Ground hasn’t exactly been living up to its name this afternoon, with high winds and sheets of rain lacerating anyone foolish enough to be taking in the match from an exposed position, and I need a hot drink. At the food hatch opposite the bar I order a Bovril, but on my way back out to the stand my attention is briefly caught by a flat screen television hanging on the wall by the entrance.

It’s showing the Brazil and England teams standing pensively in what may euphemistically be described as a “tunnel” in Doha, ahead of a magnificently pointless friendly match between the two nations. The camera cuts to the crowd, predictable shots of beautiful women with flags delicately painted on their faces, grinning and waving as they – presumably – appear on the big screens inside the stadium at the same time as in millions of homes. I waver, for a moment. It’s warm in here, and the others will find me at the end of the match. At that moment, however, the door to the bar opens, blowing wind, rain, and the unmistakable smell of Deep Heat into the bar. “I know my place”, I think to myself, walking back out into the inclement conditions, getting mud all over my trainers as I make my way back to the stand.

There are two visions of football, and it can feel as though they inhabit different universes at times. One is scrubbed clean and sanitised. It places the match ball on a plinth, has an anthem, and is played on a pitch like a bowling green. This vision of the game hates mistakes, inconsistencies and blemishes. The other has the cold, wet sting of mud on its face, and it smells of Deep Heat. It’s imperfect, and it knows it. It would like to get rid of most of these inconsistencies, but it can seldom afford to and consoles itself with the knowledge that if it’s possible a sport to have a soul, then it resides right here, in all of its messy, complicated glory. The former of these two visions, as you already know, is in the ascendancy at the moment and this is not going to change.

That set piece from nearly a decade ago still exists, but it’s less common than it used to be and it may even die out completely, over time. Lower division and non-league football are changing, and will continue to do so. The growth in the use of 3g artificial pitches ensures that there are now hundreds of non-league footballers every weekend who do not get muddy of a Saturday afternoon, and a greater understanding of the science of groundsmanship means that there are now scores of non-league clubs with pitches that wouldn’t look out of place in the Premier League. But it wasn’t ever thus, and it wasn’t even ever thus at the very highest echelons of the professional game. Pitches completely covered in grass throughout the whole of the winter are a creation of the last thirty years. Football used to be played on mud.

Ground staff are already fully versed in the reasons behind why football pitches would become mud patches throughout the winter months every year. Tall stands cut off sunlight, while a combination of the heavy use of a standard season and the very fact that football is a winter sport made the ability of a pitch to recover from that heavy use almost impossible. Still, though, some grounds at least seemed to be worse than others. From Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Stan Cullis insisting that the Molineux pitch be as heavy as possible in order to suit his steam’s playing style to Cambridge United’s John Beck having the Abbey Stadium’s grass grown longer in the corners to hold the ball up, there is a lengthy history of clubs gaming the conditions to suit themselves, but these clubs were the exception rather than the rule. Few seemed able to maintain a full field of grass over the winter months.

Sometimes, the damage done was self-inflicted. This season marks the fiftieth anniversary of perhaps the high point of bad pitches. In 1969, the Football League Cup final was played between Swindon Town and Arsenal on a Wembley pitch cut up and sodden by several days of rain having fallen after the Horse Of The Year Show had been held on it. Third Division Swindon won the cup by three goals to two on a pitch probably better suited to the last round of The Krypton Factor, but Wembley didn’t learn its lesson, and the following year Chelsea and Leeds United played out a brutal final under similar conditions. The Horse Of The Year was moved shortly afterwards.

Even when the damage was self-inflicted, though, it was done with the best of intentions. In April 1971, Leicester City installed a polythene balloon which covered the whole playing area, hovering fifteen feet in the air on a cushion of hot air, at a cost of £8,000 in an attempt to stop their pitch, which was surrounded on three sides by tall stands, from freezing throughout the winter months. It was a great idea, in principle. Players could still train on it – after a fashion – and the pitch should be playable every week. It didn’t work out that way, of course. A complete lack of sunlight on the pitch throughout the winter months meant that the grass didn’t grow at all, and by the start of the 1980s the team was frequently playing on a pitch that resembled the surface of Venus.

Just up the road, Derby County’s Baseball Ground had a pitch that was commonly assented to be the worst of all, with the club’s groundsman Bob Smith describing the effect of rainfall on it as being the same as “pouring water in a saucer of flour and it becoming gooey.” Still, though, in the early 1970s Brian Clough decided that he preferred a damp pitch, so the Baseball Ground would be flooded before every home match. “Every big game we would flood the pitch and no one got why it was just wet for first team games and dry for the reserves”, Smith would later tell the BBC. Smith himself would earn a degree of fame in 1977 when, during a match between Derby County and Manchester City, he had to come onto the pitch with a metal pail and a paintbrush to repaint the penalty spot before Derby could complete a four-nil win.

By the end of the 1970s something had to give, and the installation of an artificial pitch at Loftus Road in 1981 seemed to hint at where the future of pitch technology may rest. The blaze of publicity and the familiarity with it for the players were definite advantages for the club, but only a handful of others followed, and in 1994 the FA banned their use. Ironically, the forerunner of the hybrid pitches that we see today was launched to significantly less fanfare, just up the road at Craven Cottage. With the ground’s famously close proximity to the River Thames having contributed to drainage problems for years, Fulham introduced a known as the ‘Cell System’, which comprised a coarse sand based profile, the sides and base of which were enclosed within an impermeable membrane and a pipe system to drain water away from the pitch, an arrangement which could be reversed during the summer in order to irrigate it. It wasn’t perfect – it had to be changed several times throughout the 1990s – but they did get it working properly eventually, and the results were noticeable.

Th Cell System turned out to be a one-off, but the application of science would lead to the eventual death of the bad pitch. Hybrid grass pitches with a small amount of artificial fibres – commonly 3% – have been around since the 1990s and, whilst the specifics of this particular technology have changed several times already, they now commonly combine  sand, which is the main component of the root zone, synthetic fibres, to reinforce the pitch, and an additional element to enable softness. They’re now so commonly used that they pass without comment (the current iteration of the FA’s rules on pitches state that, “The field of play must be wholly natural or, if competition rules permit, a wholly artificial playing surface except where competition rules permit an integrated combination of artificial and natural materials (hybrid system)”), and there is little doubt that they have had a considerable effect on the quality of pitches used by professional clubs. The most commonly found type of hybrid pitch nowadays is Desso Grassmaster, which is used at many larger stadia, including Old Trafford, Anfield, The Emirates Stadium, Goodison Park and – though this may come as a bit of a surprise to Spurs supporters, considering the state of it for their recent match there against Manchester City – Wembley Stadium.

Artificial surfaces have also undergone technological advancements, and the number of senior non-league clubs making use of them has grown considerably over the last few seasons. The reasons for this are obvious. Non-league clubs are highly dependent on match day revenues for their own financial stability, and cancelled matches are expensive, with crowds for midweek fixtures ordinarily being lower than for those played on a Saturday afternoon, and that’s before we even move onto the subject of the terrible end of season fixture congestion that extended spells of bad weather can cause leagues across the board. Clubs don’t just save lost money, either – they generate it, too, with one club who have one, Maidstone United, reporting an additional revenue of £500,000 brought in from having one, as well as an unquantifiable benefit from the community engagement that comes with frequent use by local people.

Across the board, though, pitches are in better condition across the professional and semi-professional games, and this is, by and large, a positive step. There is, however, a low comedy associated with matches played in terrible conditions. Possibly the classic of this particularly niche genre came in 1983, when Leicester City played Southampton at Filbert Street. Monsoon conditions forced the abandonment of the match after twenty-two minutes, but the cameras of Match of the Day were present and what did take place had to be shown on that night’s show regardless. This match features one regular sight at matches played in inclement conditions at the time – men prodding at the pitch with a fork in the hope that this would drain it. There’s a particularly fine example of this from Maine Road at the start of the 1977 FA Cup semi-final replay between Everton and Liverpool, a scene that would be pretty much unimaginable, these days. Prodding the pitch was perhaps only matched as a “solution” to damp pitches by the application of sand, as can be seen from this match between Manchester United and Arsenal from 1983 or this match between Liverpool and Manchester City from 1981.

Elite level football has already crossed the threshold at which a perfect pitch – or as near as possible – is the norm, and this is understandable, given the financial stakes and the way in which the game is played in the twenty-first century. What has been noticeable over the last couple of years, however, has been the way in which improved surfaces have changed the game in the lower divisions and in non-league football. I have only anecdotal evidence to offer on this, but it has certainly felt as though, even deep in the bowels of non-league football, more teams are trying to play the ball on the ground, to play attractive football. Whether you regard this as a good thing or a bad thing is, of course, a matter of taste, but it’s certainly a change. The stereotype of the non-league “clogger” still exists, but they’re nowhere near as commonplace as they used to be.

But when I think back to that couple of minutes in the bar at Whitehawk, almost nine years ago, the feeling that I recall more than anything else is one of being at home. Some of us yearn for the mud, the Deep Heat, the Bovril, and the imperfection. The elite have their place. They always have, and always will. But for some of us, football played in imperfect conditions is as flawed as human beings are, a game that – almost certainly by chance – has captured something fundamental about the human condition, that we all live lives of mundanity which are, if we’re lucky, punctuated on occasion by something sublime. The game will continue to standardise and there’ll be a number of ways in which we’ll all benefit, but there’s also a chance that we might lose something precious too, in its own, idiosyncratic way.