Non-League Football

So, you don’t want a winter break? Consider this.

3G pitches all round. That is the future of non-league football. Why? It’s simple. When the subject of a winter break was couched, not many people felt it was a good idea. Above all things, football fans don’t like the idea of a few weeks without football. But that’s what they get by default given the unpredictable weather in Britain.

A case in point was last weekend. Almost total wipe-out of the non-league programme due to rain. Now I have to admit, I have often scratched my head in bewilderment at how easy it is to postpone a match, but then I grew up in the days of the Baseball Ground, Upton Park and countless other mud-patches that passed for football pitches. Mud was great, it still is, but today, we get the “Match off” signs out when the pitch gets even a little squelchy. Mud was part of the English game, it was the “great leveller” and we saw some cracking games on mud-bound pitches.

Not today, though. When you see players tip-toeing on a muddy pitch before a game, you know they don’t fancy it. We don’t see much mud on Premier or Championship pitches these days, but at non-league level, you’re only one cut-up game from an unplayable pitch. With boots like slippers, it’s no wonder players can’t get to grips with a muddy pitch.

We’ve reached a stage where pitches are so precious at some clubs that groundstaff complain when teams warm-up or warm-down on them. I once saw a Stevenage game at Sutton, on a balmy August evening, where the home side had just lost. Their manager, the late John Rains, didn’t want Stevenage to warm-down on the pitch, which was, incidentally, in excellent condition. There was an element of sour grapes in this, but the Stevenage manager, Richard Hill, commented: “We’ve just been playing on it for 90 minutes…10 minutes of gentle exercise is really going to make a difference.” The lights went out so Stevenage ran around in the dark!

Any club that puts money into its pitch deserves some credit, because too many non-league playing surfaces are below standard. As one response on twitter said: “Winter break for non-league? No, just spend some of the money you don’t have on pitches instead of players.” A fair comment.

There’s every chance that the next couple of weeks may see the sort of blank weekend that the non-league game experienced on January 4. It does raise the issue of whether we would all be better off with artificial pitches. Lost games on a Saturday are bad for business: no revenue coming in and the rearranged midweek fixture will never attract as many people. And a few bad weekends and you have a cashflow problem!

A lot of clubs are eager to have a 3G pitch as a sideshow for  training, public hiring and other events. These pitches have come a long way since the days when QPR and Luton pioneered their use. But there are still a lot of inconsistencies around the acceptability of their use. You hear that some leagues allow them, some only outside their Premier Division, and then the FA will allow them in the FA Cup and then they won’t. There needs to be clear guidance.

Personally, I like a bit of mud. But not the sort we saw in that debacle of a game at Luton when they beat Barnet. As the old song goes, “Mud, mud, glorious mud, nothing quite like it for cooling the blood” – or indeed soothing the fevered brow of a non-league bean-counter. Not sure Edgar Davids’ side would appreciate that one, though.

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