Pitch, Please


When Saturday Comes (1996)

From the Guardian:

For a long time, English pitches were abominable. When it rained, they would become quagmires. In the colder winter months, the quagmires would turn to ice. Then, a few months later, warm weather would turn them into dry and dusty plains. “People loved coming to Wembley because it was probably the only pitch in England that had grass on it,” said Calderwood.

Bad pitches meant cancelled matches, which meant lost revenue, which led some clubs towards synthetic alternatives. In 1981, Queens Park Rangers installed OmniTurf. A thin layer of synthetic grass set upon tarmac, the new surface was so hard that the former Oldham Athletic manager Joe Royle recalled once seeing a goal kick bounce so high that it went right over the opposite crossbar. But QPR started winning on their new turf, and a handful of other clubs followed suit. Amid unrest that so-called “plastic pitches” were giving home teams an unfair advantage, in 1995 the FA banned them. But by this time, groundskeeping’s new chapter had already begun.

As with most stories about modern football, the rise of elite turfcare is a story about money and television. In the 1990s, as TV revenue poured into the new Premier League, clubs started spending more on transfer fees and player wages. The more valuable the players became, the more essential it was to protect them from injury. One way to reduce injuries is to ensure a high-quality playing surface. And so groundskeepers, long overlooked, acquired a new importance. “Suddenly, the groundsmen were under a lot more pressure,” said Scott Brooks, head groundsman at Nice, who previously worked at Arsenal and Tottenham.

More than just protecting players, there were TV viewers to think about. If the Premier League was to market itself as a slick global brand, it needed a product that looked good on television. Muddy, bobbly, patchy pitches would not do. Broadcasters began to demand “snooker table-like pitches,” said Calderwood. According to Geoff Webb, CEO of the Grounds Management Association, which represents British groundskeepers, some broadcasters even stipulated in contracts that the pitches must be in pristine condition.

As pitches improved, the game itself began to evolve.

“‘The Silicon Valley of turf’: how the UK’s pursuit of the perfect pitch changed football”, William Ralston, Guardian

wkocjan: Wembley, 2008 (CC)

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