3G Stadium Pitches? No Comment.

9th Jun 2016
England C in action against Slovakia U21
The pitch encourages a competitive game

England C played Slovakia U21 last Sunday in an International Challenge Trophy match at Sutton United's Borough Sports Ground. Paul Warren of S&C Slatter shares some thoughts.

An England football team playing a home international match on a 3G football turf pitch doesn’t now attract the kind of media comment and coverage it might have done a couple of years ago. Even allowing for the increasing excitement and juggernaut effect of the impending Euro 2016 Championship; even though it was an England C v Slovakia U21 International Challenge Trophy fixture; despite it being at the end of school half term, surely one would have expected some examination of why such a game was being played on 3G?

Actually the post-game reports quite rightly focused on what was a really exciting football match decided in the favour of the visitors with literally the last kick. The 3 – 4 scoreline was testament to an enthralling game in which the England team played very well and certainly didn’t deserve to lose. But absolutely no mention of how the pitch played. Did the players seem comfortable on it? Did it inhibit or encourage creative play? Nothing. Oh sorry, except for a Tweet to the Sutton United groundsman congratulating him on how brilliant the surface looked.

The lack of reference to the pitch is, I feel, because at long last, there is a growing understanding and acceptance that you can and indeed should now expect to play a genuinely good game on a top of the range 3G football turf system. Sure some pitch specifications are better than others, as with all things, but the days of ‘ping pong’ football on a synthetic surface tend very much to be a thing of the past.

The FieldTurf 3G pitch at Sutton United which hosted the International is certified to the FIFA 2 Star Performance Standard and was installed by S&C Slatter. It has just completed its first season of National League South fixtures, in addition of course to the many hours of hired out community use it delivers. It has consistently received praise all year from players, officials, spectators, visiting teams, and yes the media. So it’s no longer a surprise that it plays to such a high standard – replicating, I would suggest, that of a well-maintained natural turf surface.

So the result is that one forgets that its ‘artificial’. It’s no longer at the forefront of the mind. It’s no longer news. Certainly not for those at level 5 and below, and probably not for those at 4 either.

You just view and enjoy (or otherwise) what you see before you on its own merits. Is that defender holding his line under pressure? Is the playmaker passing into the channels? Why didn’t the ref pick up that tackle which was about 30 minutes late? This is because what you’re seeing most importantly is that the players now have sufficient confidence in 3G football turf to forget about it. They just focus on playing their game. And that’s just how it should be.

I spoke with one first teamer in the National League South and asked ‘Was he happy to play on 3G?’ And he looked at me as if I asked something really strange. He then said ‘Look it plays as I want it to. I really don’t think about it. I guess though the one thing which does stand out is that when someone passes the ball out to me (he plays on the wing) I know it’s going to reach me and when. So I can start my run earlier. See - no mud and or no bumpy grass pitch to stop the ball. Grip underfoot is good and it’s a lot better to fall on.’

As someone who works within the sports facility sector – as a Project Manager for sports construction specialists, S&C Slatter – I know that this new confidence and indeed trust in artificial pitch systems, has not just suddenly happened nor is it accidental. It is the result of a phenomenal amount of work on one hand by such as our manufacturing partners, FieldTurf, in researching and identifying improved designs and manufacturing techniques, by construction specialists like my own company in developing, enhancing and investing in high performance build technology and delivery, and by football clubs themselves in engaging with all of us, working as a stakeholder in the commitment to secure better quality, more consistent, more sustainable Stadium pitches.

The ball pace, bounce and general ‘behaviour’ that players have come to expect on 3G football turf is of standard that many clubs would realistically struggle to reach, week after week, throughout our long league programmes, with natural grass and the resources at their disposal for turf care.

So many are now seeing 3G football turf as the only logical way to provide a sustainable and consistent competitive playing surface of high performance quality.

However, this new ‘uptake’ on 3G pitches is also, critically, being driven by commercial demand. More than ever the financial disparity between the upper echelon clubs in the Premiership and Championship with the lower pyramid has and is continuing to grow to the extent that in practical terms there is very little commonality between their respective football worlds. We all know the reasons why.

For many if not most clubs in ‘Non-league football’ the overriding objective is survival as a going concern. ‘Normal’ revenue is insufficient and despite support from local sponsors and business, and the invaluable services of an army of volunteers, it is difficult, if not impossible task. So the need to source and tap in to new revenue streams is paramount and potentially the only answer.

Converting your stadium pitch to 3G football turf can therefore be a club ‘Lifesaver’. Those who have converted have found that on one side the pitch can be hired out to the local community to develop a new and vital source of income, and on the other hand, expenditure can be reduced by eliminating the significant cost of weather-related cancellations and fixture congestion. Plus all club sides including academy and junior teams can be moved to train and play their games on the one pitch – no more hiring of other facilities.

There is even evidence coming from clubs such as Sutton United that the increase of footfall into the ground of spectators, players, officials, parents and so on, maximises the uptake of catering, merchandise and function hire – again resulting in the creation of further funds.

When S&C Slatter, in conjunction with FieldTurf, held a seminar on 3G Stadium Pitches for football clubs in March, I saw first-hand that the demand and intention among clubs to move to 3G football turf is very strong. And that the reasons for doing so tend to be the same from club to club. However clubs and their management are generally ‘time poor’ and usually only have cursory technical knowledge of 3G pitches and the necessary process you really should go through when looking to acquire one. They need help in identifying the key questions and how to get the right answers.

For that reason, my company, which offers a complete service package from feasibility and planning through design and construction to project management and maintenance has found that we’ve never been busier in advising new clients and actively making the change to 3G stadium pitches actually happen.

In just the last couple of months alone we’ve been appointed to design and build six stadium pitches – all needing to be ready for the 2016/7 season of course. Fortunately we have substantial in-house expertise and resources and are geared to delivering an outstanding and inclusive service to our clients; very often working to a fast-track programme. This has been enabled, and is only possible, by a significant and continuous investment in people, technology and equipment.

Eastbourne Borough of the National League South, Tamworth and Harrogate Town of National League North and Haringey Borough of Isthmian League North will all be playing next season on 3G football turf pitches built by S&C Slatter. And we’ll be starting work in the late summer for a 3G pitch for a team in the Combined Counties Premier Division.

And there’s a lot of other clubs we’re currently talking to throughout the Country, who are at various points along the path that will ultimately lead to 3G football turf.

Interestingly, it’s not just football where the technological developments and progress with 3G turf is now making significant in-roads. Most are aware of the artificial pitches used by rugby clubs such as Saracens and Cardiff Blues. However it would probably be a surprise just how many rugby-specific or shared football and rugby pitches are now regularly being installed for Senior as well as Academy and Junior play.

The advantages of artificial turf for rugby in terms of maximising frequency of use, weather-resistance, consistency, player comfort, impact absorption and so on will be known and understood. But again it’s the quality of play performance which is now available with the leading pitch systems which is a major driver. This is vital as we see increasing pressure on natural turf facilities and the sport looks to increase active participation and develop and improve better technique through progressive and holistic training programmes.

Certainly at S&C Slatter our rugby pitches are delivered to World Rugby Regulation 22 Performance Standard giving the client and players the confidence that they are getting a facility which will perform to high quality levels.

For the University of Kent, we recently finished a 10160m2 3G pitch which is designed for Football, Rugby and American Football. It’s certified to FIFA 1 star, World Rugby Regulation 22 and IATS Performance Standards and according to the University “We have already had a plethora of internal and external groups using the facilities, including sport groups from American universities/academies who said ‘it was the best pitch they had ever played on’.”

I just think that artificial turf technology linked to the latest construction science and techniques really can now tick virtually all the boxes for lower league and community football. It many respects it can help some clubs just to continue to be. Many more to progress and maybe even thrive, but certainly all to be a genuine sporting and social hub for the community.

Right now when it comes to 3G stadium pitches, ‘No comment’ actually says it all. And it’s great news for local football, and rugby.

Paul Warren, Project Manager, S&C Slatter Limited
Paul Warren of S&C Slatter
Sutton United's 3G Stadium Pitch