They used to play football on plastic

They used to play football on plastic

“PERRY BUCKLAND IS INNOCENT.” Well, at least someone with a tin of whitewash and a few hours to spare on Christmas Day 1981 thought so. It was a proclamation that was daubed onto Queens Park Rangers’ pitch prior to their Boxing Day Division Two derby encounter with Chelsea, a game that took place on QPR’s recently installed, groundbreaking and often derided artificial pitch. It was a bold move by the West London club, to dig up their grass pitch and replace it with what became witheringly known as a ‘plastic pitch’. The motives behind the switch of surface were also very reasonable.

QPR’s grass pitch of the late 1970s and early-80s didn’t always have grass growing on it. The harsh winters and arid summers of the mid to late-70s had had an adverse effect on the Loftus Road surface. In milder early winter, the surface would slowly but surely become something of a quagmire. This percolating mud bath would then freeze over in the plummeting temperatures of January and February. As the seasons moved through to spring and early summer it would transform into a dry and dusty plain, with patches of grass here and there. Sort of like a more dishevelled version of the Wimbledon Centre Court on finals weekend after a fortnight of wear and tear.

Astro-Turf and big-time sport had initially joined together in 1966 at the Houston Astro-Dome. After a year of trying to make grass grow indoors, the owners of the stadium opted for an alternative. While the Astro-Turf surface didn’t meet with universal approval, it was very effective and of a lower maintenance level when it came to its upkeep. New artificial pitches popped up all across North America in no time at all, and in a number of different sports. Some people loved the new surfaces, while others were far from impressed. Baseball star Dick Allen declared: “If a horse won’t eat it, I don’t want to play on it.”

A decade and a half later the artificial surface phenomenon reached English club football. QPR had sent a delegation on a fact-finding mission to the USA, in their growing exasperation with a pitch that was conspiring against their hopes of a return to Division One. QPR had succumbed to relegation in 1979, just three years after coming to within 16 minutes of being crowned league champions. By the end of the 1980/81 season, they were starting to fall back, finishing in eighth position and seven points away from the promotion places. In the final season of two points for a win, this amounted to being three and a half wins off the pace.

QPR shunned Astro-Turf and chose a rival surface: Omni-Turf. It was installed in time for the beginning of the 1981/82 campaign. It was basically a carpet, rolled out on top of a thick layer of concrete with not much more than sand to act as a cushion. Ironically it was Luton Town who were the first visitors; they left with a 2-1 win and notes taken on artificial surfaces for future reference. Promotion was missed by just two points, but Terry Venables and his team were steadily mastering their new surface.

QPR reached the 1982 FA Cup final, having been drawn at home in every round prior to their Highbury semi-final with West Bromwich Albion. Within a year they had returned to Division One and in their first season back in the top flight they’d claimed a fifth-place finish and UEFA Cup football for the following campaign.

Escalating accusations of QPR having an unfair advantage were hard to ignore. Venables’ part in QPR’s rise saw Barcelona come in for his services. The club struggled in 1984/85, surviving the drop by just one point and finding that UEFA wouldn’t permit them to play home UEFA Cup ties on their artificial surface. They instead took themselves off to Highbury on European nights.

The resentment of many rival teams and supporters towards QPR’s artificial pitch was gaining momentum. One disgruntled visiting Aston Villa fan took such an exception that he marched down the terraces to the perimeter wall, and then threw a sizeable square of real turf on top of the artificial surface in protest.

Not everyone was against the concept, however. Despite QPR’s travails of 1984/85, it didn’t stop Luton Town installing an artificial pitch that summer. Luton shunned the Omni-Turf option and went for the more state of the art version on offer from a Leicestershire company by the name of En-tout-cas. It was Sporturf International, a multi-layered surface that consisted base levels of broken stones and bitumen macadam – with a novel drainage friendly texture – topped with sand and then finally the artificial surface itself.

While kinder to the joints of players than the Loftus Road pitch was, it still offered the most horrendous carpet burns and that all too familiar wild bounce of the ball. What it also did was force the clubs with artificial pitches to play the ball on the ground more than they might have done so on grass. While Luton’s Ray Harford liked his surface at Kenilworth Road when he became manager, once cracking a one-liner about Coventry City’s grass pitch never being able to replace plastic, QPR’s Jim Smith couldn’t stand the Loftus Road version. He claimed it produced “fake football” and that he knew when his team would score. Either way, several visiting teams were beaten by QPR and Luton Town as soon as the fixture lists were released.

By 1986 QPR were back at Wembley for the League Cup final and Luton Town were enjoying comfortable top half of the table finishes. Artificial turf’s detractors continued to make their voices heard and many campaigned to see the pitches banned. Yet, in the summer of 1986 both Oldham Athletic and Preston North End, with financial assistance from their respective town councils, had joined the ‘plastic fantastic’ revolution, taking on versions of the same Sporturf International pitch that Luton had bought into.

Joe Royle’s Oldham would travel the distance from mid-ranging Division Two water-treaders to Division One, via a League Cup final, an FA Cup semi-final, a 32-game unbeaten run on the surface and a number of big-name teams beaten at Boundary Park over the course of just five years. It was an Oldham side that could certainly pass the ball – and they didn’t struggle in the same way Luton did once they returned to grass, at least not initially. On the grass of Maine Road in the 1990 FA Cup semi-final, they outplayed Manchester United for large swathes of the two games it took to separate the two sides, to the soundtrack of Oldham fans singing, “We can play on grass as well”.

Further down the divisions, Preston North End had been drifting close to extinction when they embraced their artificial turf. Ninety-first in the Football League at the end of the 1985/86 season and forced to seek re-election for the very first time, by the end of the following season – their first season on an artificial pitch – they had won promotion back to Division Three.

They went on to reach the Division Three playoffs before falling into regression under the management of John Beck, when his direct and often aerial approach to the game – an approach that took Cambridge United to the brink of the top flight in the early-90s – failed to translate to the vagaries of the bounce of the ball on an artificial pitch. In retrospect, it was a union doomed to failure from the start and relegation back to the fourth tier eventually came. Beck even tried to deaden to bounce by lacing areas of the pitch with vast quantities of sand.

Beck did finally master the surface for a short while. In Preston’s last season on their artificial pitch they reached the playoffs, in a bid to bounce straight back up to the third tier at the first time of asking. Preston made it to Wembley for the final, only to miss out at the last hurdle. The semi-final first leg against Torquay United provided a bit of history, being the very last game to be played on an artificial pitch in the Football League.

There were other instances away from the Football League. Hyde United in the non-league pyramid prospered for a while, and it was them in 1995 that kicked the last competitive ball in anger on an artificial pitch in the UK. In Scotland, Stirling Albion were permitted a temporary span of time on an artificial pitch. The club was promoted during that era, but opposing clubs in cup competitions were given the option of not having to play on the surface. Stirling Albion would not play a home cup tie for several years.

In many respects, of all four Football League clubs to have embraced the original era of the artificial pitch, Preston – the club that operated as the lowest placed of the four on the Football League ladder between 1981 and 1994 – are the one to have gone on to the smoothest post-plastic existence. Within two years of grass being re-laid at Deepdale the club was back in the third tier. By the start of the 2000/01 season, they had returned to the second tier for the first time since 1981. Apart from a period of regression at the start of this decade, Preston have been moving forward as a club consistently over the last two decades.

The same, however, can’t be said of QPR, Luton and Oldham, as a variety of relegations, boardroom power-struggles, financial difficulties, and even a spell outside the Football League in Luton’s case, have beset those three clubs that used artificial pitches in the higher divisions to propel themselves to views of their own personal Promised Lands.

While no correlation can realistically be drawn to link their various sliding-scale demises with relinquishing their artificial surfaces, it is fair to say those surfaces assisted heavily in making QPR, Luton and Oldham’s golden eras come to fruition. Arguably, Luton’s surface helped them delay their eventual 1992 relegation from the top flight by a couple of seasons.

Not much more than a decade after the final whistle blew on that Preston versus Torquay playoff semi-final, the shadow of artificial pitches had crept across the game once more. 3G technology began to make a name for itself, a surface that went on to gain UEFA and FIFA blessings. By 2007 England were facing Russia in a crucial Euro 2008 qualifier at the Luzhniki Stadium on an approved artificial pitch, just two years after UEFA had begun to allow the use of some approved surfaces in their club competitions.

Again, fear and scepticism arose from many quarters – and still does to this day. The Lithuanian fire brigade had to water the artificial pitch at the LFF Stadium prior to England’s visit during the last round of qualifiers for Euro 2016, amidst reported fears from players and coaches alike. It was compounded all the more after Newcastle United’s Tim Krul ruptured his cruciate ligament on the Astana Arena’s artificial pitch while playing for the Netherlands in Kazakhstan.

The artificial pitch issue has almost gone full-circle once more. Questionmarks over injuries sustained and psychological fears from visiting teams are the same ones today that were regularly aired three decades ago. The second coming of artificial pitches seems set to be a longer lasting occurrence this time, however.

The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup was entirely played out on artificial surfaces, a proposition that initially led to a group of players lodging a complaint of gender discrimination to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, naming FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association. Complaints were eventually withdrawn and the tournament was deemed a massive success, but for many this was in spite of the artificial pitches rather than because of them. Controversy, it appears, will forever go hand-in-hand with artificial football pitches.

In 1972 Terry Venables co-wrote a novel with the author Gordon Williams entitled ‘They Used to Play on Grass’ which predicted the end of grass being used as football’s playing surface. While grass may never fall completely out of fashion there will always be those who strive to create the perfect alternative to it, just as much as there will always be those who view that alternative surface with fear and suspicion. In a sport of defined winners and losers, when it comes to artificial pitches, there appears to be no final result due anytime soon.

As for Perry Buckland, still to this day no-one seems to be able to shed any light on whether he indeed was innocent or not. Neither can anyone come up with the identity of the person who protested so emphatically, in tall whitewash lettering on the Loftus Road Omni-Turf pitch, on Christmas Day 1981.

By Steven Scragg

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