ASK most non-league clubs if they have regretted installing an artificial pitch and you’ll struggle to find one that rues the day they rolled out the green carpet.
They’ve come a long way since Luton Town and QPR’s omniturf mats and the fabled 3G is now 4G and is of such a high quality that you often have to be reminded the game is taking place on a non-grass surface.
In recent weeks, Game of the People has seen games on four artificial pitches and we’ve been impressed. But it is more than just a place to play your home games, it is also a revenue generating asset, albeit one that does require a significant initial outlay.
Redditch United had an artificial pitch installed in 2016, so they’re in their second season since taking up a football field that cost them up to nine postponements per season. But the contribution that an artificial pitch can make could include bringing the club closer to the community.
Explains Chairman Chris Swan: “Sustainability was the main reason we took this decision, we had to have something that was being used more than once a fortnight – that’s not a good business model. We now have 1,000 people a week using our pitch, and another 750 playing on our training area.”
Redditch have used their pitch to build a community programme that involves 47 teams of youngsters. “The traditional demographic of our support is quite old, as it is with a lot of non-league clubs, so we had to better engage with young people, they are tomorrow’s supporters after all,” says Swan.
Redditch are also pursuing academic and social welfare initiatives, with NVQs and HND courses on the agenda. But there’s also an important element that Swan is eager to emphasise. “Our neighbourhood has problems such as youngsters involved in substance abuse, so we were keen to work with the community and help less fortunate people. We’re also working with the local NHS on issues like obesity. Being part of the community is the only way a club like Redditch can exist in the long term,” Swan insists.
With the new pitch is constant use, Redditch have been able to open their club for more daytime use. Furthermore, the club now has five full-time staff and 15 part-time employees. Swan is optimistic that Redditch will actually make a small profit in 2017-18 for the first time in years because of all the activities. “I’m very proud to say that we now only rely on gate money for 5% of our income, even though we have seen a 20% year-on-year increase in attendances,” he says.
With good news stories about new pitch installations quite commonplace, surely the future for non-league clubs is in these surfaces? Swan agrees, but points out that the cash outlay needed, regardless of grants and any help from the football authorities, is still significant. The Redditch project cost around £900,000 but did include new floodlights – a lot of clubs could not possibly raise that level of funding.
Equally important as far as Swan is concerned is provisioning for maintenance and, ultimately, replacement of the facility. “We are contributing a fixed sum every month to a sinking fund for the eventual replacement of the pitch. They last seven to nine years, so at some point, you’ve got another big cost coming. It’s vital you do this and we are very dogmatic about it at Redditch.”
Artificial pitches are springing up all over non-league football, and they’ve become valuable to the clubs that had had the foresight – and of course, resources – to use the pitch as the catalyst for change. And as for the quality of football, it’s every bit as good as grass.
Thanks to Chris Swan for his time.