ON A bone-numbing afternoon, the only game that survived in some areas of non-league football appeared to be those at clubs with artificial pitches. One of those was the match at Dales Lane Arena between Rushall Olympic and Hitchin Town.
Rushall claim to be the most senior non-league club in Walsall and with the League Two team on their doorstep, it must be a struggle to get support. Rushall, in 2021-22, finished fourth in the Southern League Premier Central and averaged 371 at their home games. This season, gates have dropped to 304 and for the visit of Hitchin, admittedly on a freezing day, there were just 258 people who braved the conditions.
But at least Rushall were able to open their gates and stage a game, thanks to their excellent artificial pitch. Although some folk are against the installation of these artificial surfaces, they surely represent the future of non-league football. They are expensive, often costing a quarter of a million pounds, but the financial return can be impressive, especially if the facility is well marketed, appropriately maintained and the club has the foresight to provision for its replacement on an annual basis.
These pitches have come a long way since their introduction, so much so that you can barely notice the pitch is artificial in terms of the quality of play. The crazy thing is that the Football League do not permit their use for competitive fixtures as evidenced when Sutton United were promoted to the league and had to remove their pitch, which had contributed so much to their success on and off the field. As a commercial facility, a pitch can be in full use seven days a week and generate substantial revenues. FIFA and UEFA both allow their use, but not the Football League. Seems bizarre, doesn’t it? For a non-league club, an artificial surface can be a life-saver, especially when many clubs’ business models are largely unsustainable.
The pitch played well for the game between Rushall and Hitchin. The home side won 3-1 and the standard of football provided a good advertisement for Step three non-league. Now we just need to do something about standing around in the icy weather watching football.