Artificial Enhancement: The Solution for Grass-Roots Football?

Every Saturday during the autumn, winter and spring seasons (injury preventing), I hope to be gracing the turf of various local football teams’ home grounds with the intention of playing football. As will millions of other keen amateur footballers.

However, as we have seen in the last couple of months particularly, it is widely known and expected that many games will be called off due to waterlogged and snow-covered pitches during the darker months of the year. If pitches are judged to be playable, it is likely they will be incredibly muddy, sticky, and overall a pretty horrible surface to play football on. This can also be the case through autumn and spring as well, yet it is accepted as one of football’s various imperfections that will be eternally present in the amateur game.

At the best of times, the surface we accept as our pitch is bobbly, and goal areas seem to always be grass-less. The football that is therefore played on these pitches is substandard, as players either have to over-concentrate on controlling and moving the ball, or they miscontrol the ball and invariably lose possession. It is also therefore less enjoyable than it should be, players don’t want to have to spend extra time controlling the ball due to an unpredictable bounce. Furthermore, bobbly pitches with various holes in can only lead to a higher chance of injury, especially regarding the knee and ankle – the most ‘popular’ in football.

You might argue that such conditions could lead to better control in the long term. However, professional academies do not seem to agree. They remove children from such pitches as soon as possible, onto perfectly kept (and incredibly expensive) grass pitches, suggesting the best way to learn and improve at football, is by playing on perfect pitches. Of course, it would be impossible to expect amateur clubs to start funding such pitches. Yet there is another option, which would provide a much more efficient, enjoyable, safe playing surface, and you possibly already play 5-a-side on it. Rubber Crumb. Rubber crumb technology has become the norm for 5-a-side pitches in recent years, and its invention is no doubt central to the success of companies such as Goals or Powerleague.

Rubber Crumb

The technology consists of a combination of fake grass blades and rubber crumbs to provide a surface that will perform consistently throughout the year in all conditions. It provides a superb roll and bounce of the ball, much like a well-maintained natural pitch and also reduces abrasions. Importantly, studded footwear can be worn. (From Total Football Leagues)

Let me tell you a short story about how and why I came to write about this topic as a blog subject. At university, I played for the History Society football team in the Intramural league (basically a league for keen footballers who weren’t good enough to represent the university itself). We played on the typical amateur grass pitches for a whole season, with the standard of football being extremely volatile, to put it nicely. However, we traveled to Prague for an end of season tour where we played two matches on two full-sized rubber crumb pitches. The Czech weather had been deemed bad enough to ditch amateur grass pitches forever, and these are what replaced them. The level of our football shot up. The passing was quicker and more accurate, more shots were on target, and confidence quickly improved. Also various players, especially the more technically gifted ones, were able to use their skills in a way that had been completely unseen on the grass pitches back home. We played a lot better than we could’ve imagined, and personally, they were perhaps the most enjoyable football matches of my life. I put this all solely down to the pitch condition

There are other non-playing advantages, admittedly the implementation of a full sized rubber crumb pitch would be expensive in the short term. Yet the upkeep of the pitch would be minimised, with ground staff needed for few jobs, namely replacing the rubber crumb, which would be very cheap and rare, meaning the investment would quickly become money saving. Also, when it snows or rains sufficiently to waterlog grass pitches, grounds men could simply sweep off the water/snow before play can start!

What are the downsides to rubber crumb football you may be asking. People say it is harder to slide on these pitches, as the pitches are normally dry meaning friction levels are up. Sliding on the pitches can also cause friction burns on the side of the legs, yet this can be completely remedied by buying anti-friction under shorts for a price of about £25. This also goes some way to rectify the hardness of sliding on the pitch.

Another downside is that football pitches are often adapted to cricket pitches or athletics tracks in the summer. This may mean it would be impossible to change some football pitches, yet surely the same argument could be said for athletics and cricket, rubber crumb certainly wouldn’t make it harder to field or run on.

Perhaps the biggest anti-artificial argument is that of in-authenticity. ‘It doesn’t seem right to not play on grass, after all it is named grass roots football!’ Fair enough, yet professional pitches are generally made up with surfaces that are barely what you and I would call ‘grass’, and I feel it is not acceptable to ignore innovation and technological advances purely on the basis of authenticity.

Whether it is realistic to imagine full sized football pitches consisting of rubber crumb technology (or something better) during my playing years, I don’t know. However, I feel it is important to try to utilise realistic technology as much as possible in order to enhance all levels of football. I certainly believe it would be an enhancement, and could help future generations to become better and better at an earlier age, eventually giving the home nations a better chance of competing with and surpassing technical giants like Spain or Brazil.

For me, however distant and improbable, it is a dream to one day be playing week in, week out, nonstop through the winter, on perfect pitches. At the moment, rubber crumb seems the best option, and I believe it would be a fantastic investment for amateur football clubs in the UK, for the business, and for football itself.

(Image courtesy of Samjuk)

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  • Roberto

    I have issues too with authenticity. But what the heck! Why not try it for the love of the game, right?

    • Andrew

      Eh Roberto, pass the Pringles.

  • Froyo

    As long as it allows the game to be played more often and appreciated by a lot of people, why not? I just hope the installation isn’t expensive. And the cost of maintenance too should be considered.

  • Bob

    But isn’t it like manipulating the game? It’s grassroots football. I know of one group of streetkids who
    live near the dump and they were able to improvise a place where they could play regularly. It was once a garbage site but bulldozed and made into a football field. To think that they were able to won a place in the international level just recently.

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