Saturday 22 July 2017

Banishing the myths of turf war

Our study gets beneath the surface of the plastic-pitch issue

Neil Ahern

Do you accept plastic?

It is a debate which rears its head almost fortnightly in the Airtricity League and one which inevitably arose after just two weeks of the 2010 season, following the Louth derby at Oriel Park.

While many down the years have been critical of Dundalk's synthetic home pitch, with former Cork City manager Damien Richardson and Bohemians boss Pat Fenlon having voiced clear reservations about it, very rarely has that disquiet emanated from their own camp.

Lilywhites' player/assistant manager Wayne Hatswell spoke publicly in negative terms about the surface after the 2-2 draw, saying: "It is our own worst enemy at times."

Yet it seems the whole football world is turning synthetic.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter suggested two years ago the possibility of the 2010 World Cup being played entirely on artificial turf, while competitive internationals and games in the world's most prestigious and lucrative club competition, the Champions League, are now permitted to take place on '3G Generation pitches'.

Dundalk, meanwhile, believe it would provide the answer to League of Ireland clubs' financial woes.

So as Oriel Park hosts league leaders St Patrick's Athletic on the controversial surface this evening, we address the myths surrounding the 'plastic pitch'.

Myth: The significant up-front cost of synthetic surfaces is too much for a League of Ireland club to justify any medium or long-term gain.

Fact: It is estimated that Dundalk paid between €550,000-€600,000 when, in 2005, they became the first Irish senior club to install a FIFA-recommended artificial surface.

However, the presence of the plastic pitch has less than halved annual maintenance costs from roughly €25,000 on their previous grass pitch to around €12,000.

On top of that, rental to the public creates close to €35,000 worth of extra revenue per year, according to the club.

A study conducted in Australia entitled 'Synthetic Sports Surface Feasibility' confirms that yearly maintenance costs for a plastic pitch are generally half that of a grass pitch. That particular study does conclude, however, that over a period of 25 years those costs even out to being almost equal (artificial turf is slightly cheaper) in light of the costs of replacing synthetic surfaces.

But Dundalk owner and chairman Gerry Matthews insists that there is another crucial financial element which cannot be specifically quantified on any balance sheets.

"There are huge benefits in terms of promoting the club. With hundreds of kids coming to play here every week, it restores a lot of credibility and creates a community base.

"You can't put a value on kids coming to Oriel Park every week to play here and having a feel that they are part of the club, it does a lot to get people through the gates on a Friday night."

Myth: Synthetic surfaces are more dangerous to play on and increase the likelihood of injury.

Fact: In 2007, FIFA's Medical Assessment and Research Centre (F-MARC) conducted a study comparing any injuries sustained at FIFA U-17 championships in Peru, played entirely on all-weather surfaces, with injuries sustained at the previous tournament which was held on grass.

The research showed that there was very little difference in the incidence, nature and causes of injuries observed during games played on artificial turf (79 injuries in all) compared with those on grass (77).

Myth: Teams with synthetic surfaces have a clear advantage when playing at home.

Fact: If Dundalk's home and away form since their first match on Oriel Park's synthetic surface is anything to go by, the pitch doesn't appear to add any extra benefit to the given advantage of playing in one's own stadium.

The Louth club have played 89 competitive home games on the surface since their first against Drogheda United on August 26, 2005, winning 48 (53.9pc), while in the same time they have played 90 away matches on grass pitches, winning 37 (41.1pc).

Further afield, Alex Ferguson this year stated that Russian side CSKA Moscow have a clear advantage on their plastic pitch, but the stats would suggest otherwise as their home and away form in the Champions League this season is identical (two wins, a draw and a defeat).

The Muscovites also lost as many home games as away games in their last full domestic campaign, putting paid to that particular myth.

Irish Independent

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