Belfast Telegraph

Fantastic plastic or pain in the grass?

By Graham Luney

it may be an artificial issue but it gets plenty of players and managers hot under the collar.

You can call it anything you like – a synthetic surface, 3G, 4G, plastic pitch or simply artificial turf – there are plenty in the Irish League who would like to see them disappear.

North Belfast giants Cliftonville and Crusaders have one. Coleraine would like one and Ards and Bangor will soon be playing on one when it's completed at Clandeboye Park next month.

Championship 2 sides Armagh City, Moyola Park and Killymoon Rangers also play on artificial surfaces.

Among its fierce opponents are managers Ronnie McFall, David Jeffrey and Gary Hamilton.

Earlier this season Jeffrey described the pitch at the Shore Road venue as "not conducive to playing good football".

I've spoken to players who can tolerate it but I've also spoken to a number of players who dislike it.

They say the 3G pitch is too firm, tough on the joints and can lead to injuries.

The 4G surface at Solitude comes in for less criticism but it still wouldn't be a favoured destination for those who believe football should be played on grass.

In fairness to both clubs, I haven't seen Crusaders and Cliftonville players drop like flies in recent seasons.

Most of us could have predicted the Reds' starting 11 last season week in, week out – a feature of their consistency.

It's in both clubs' interests for the surface not to increase the injury count.

The Crues did some research in this area and were encouraged by the findings.

A British Journal of Sports Medicine study into the risk of injury in elite football played on artificial turf versus natural grass produced some interesting results.

It found there was no evidence of a greater risk of injury when football was played on artificial turf compared with natural grass.

It did state, though that the higher incidence of ankle sprain on artificial turf warrants further attention... "although this result should be interpreted with caution as the number of ankle sprains was low".

Another study, conducted by the Journal of Sports Sciences, found that the running activities and technical standard were similar during games on artificial turf and natural grass. However, fewer sliding tackles and more short passes were performed during the games studied on artificial turf.

The observed change in playing style could partly explain players' negative impression of artificial turf.

There is also a significant community and financial aspect to these pitches.

While dismissed as being money-making schemes, the additional income is certainly welcome in this harsh economic climate.

Crusaders' annual maintenance costs are in the region of £25,000 to £30,000 a year and that represents a significant financial challenge.

The club receives bookings from across the community, even for rugby training from schools such as Belfast Royal Academy.

The pitch means Crusaders are open for business every day – not simply once a fortnight.

Crues director Mark Langhammer said: "The aim was to make Seaview as important to the community as the local school, library, or health centre.

"We think that we are at least on the way to achieving that."

The game's governing body Fifa are happy for these surfaces to spring up in countries across the world. On their website, Fifa state that: "Durability, weather independence, playing characteristics and low maintenance costs are just some of the reasons that explain why the installation of artificial turf pitches is becoming more and more common."

Fifa also recognise that the pitches also boost development work at youth and school level and are invaluable to sporting educational programmes.

Since 2004 artificial surfaces were included in football's laws by the International Football Association Board.

Nations that are often subjected to extreme weather conditions go for the artificial option. Frozen pitches are a familiar sight in Northern Ireland ... the snow even came down in March this year forcing the postponement of the Northern Ireland-Russia game.

Most players prefer to play on grass but they will have to get used to artificial pitches as more of these surfaces are going to emerge as clubs look to replicate the success of the north Belfast sides.

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