PITCHES, and what they have had to put up with........
would argue that one of the great improvements over the years has been in
the area of pitch and turf technology. Even at the end of a season
nowadays pitches look more like the surface of a snooker table than the
mudbaths of old. Derek Hales, probably best known in his days as a
Charlton player, recollected some of the pitches played on -
'I also played for Derby
and West Ham and they had the two worst pitches in the country in
the 70's when mudbaths really were mudbaths. It was like playing on
a beach at Derby. The ball would be hoofed up in the air and just
land with a 'plop' - it would never roll anywhere. A lot of the time
there was so much sand on that Derby pitch it was like Margate
beach. I was in the stand the day Gerry Daly was about to take a
penalty and the pitch was so muddy and sandy that the groundsman had
to come on and paint the penalty spot.'
Frozen and waterlogged pitches have
been the biggest cause of postponements over the years. The traditional
cure for both was the cover the pitch in a thick layer of straw. Straw
absorbed the excess water from a waterlogged pitch and protected the pitch
from frost during freezing weather. The strategy was not always
successful. Once Newcastle covered a frozen St James' Park pitch with
straw and then set fire to it to try to melt the frost. It then started
raining and to add to the mess a layer of sand was added. Probably not the
best surface to play the beautiful game on!
Technology progressed and in May
1958 Everton's Goodison Park became the first League ground to have
undersoil heating installed when some 20 miles of electric wire was buried
beneath the pitch. It worked - in fact in worked too well! The extra water
from the melted ice and frost was too much for the drains and waterlogged
the pitch. In 1960 the pitch had to be dug up again to install extra
drainage. Since then the wires have been replaced a more standard form of
'central heating ' - warm water pipes.
Leicester City pioneered an
innovation in the 1970s which perhaps surprisingly didn't catch on. They
inflated a giant balloon over the Filbert Street pitch which kept the
playing surface frost-free and protected it from the snow and rain. The
polythene balloon - or tent as it was
sometimes called - was the largest of its kind in the world and was
inflated to over 720,000 cubic feet by four propeller fans, weighed over a
ton and could be erected by 15 men in two hours. The cost was £8000 but it
paid for itself. Not only did it cut down on postponements (no system
protected the terraces and approaches to the ground) but it also brought
revenue from extra matches being played at the ground. In one week in
January 1979 alone Filbert Street attracted over 70,000 fans to the
Second, Third and Fourth replays of the FA Cup Third Round tie between
Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday while the rest of the country was
bury Charlton in the sand' and 'Chelsea coast it'
were some of the headlines that described Chelsea's 4-1 Premier league
Charlton at Stamford Bridge on Saturday January 11th 2003. The match was
played on sand. Charlton manager Alan Curbishley said 'It reminded me
of a piece of land about to have a patio laid on it'. And he wasn't far
wrong. Chelsea had decided to re-lay their pitch immediately after the
match and had removed the old grass surface leaving only the sand base on
which the new pitch would be laid. After the match Charlton demanded a
rematch stating that the rules banned matches being played on an
'artificial surface' although the rules do not state that the playing
surface should be grass only that it is of 'adequate standard'.
The Premier League let the result stand although they fined Chelsea £5,000
for not keeping Charlton informed about the state of the pitch prior to
the match. With a little bit more information they could have had the
correct beach flip-flops ready to wear!
They say that groundsmen
would be happy bunnies if only they could
stop people kicking the ball around on their beloved turf. So when two
matches are played on the same pitch on the one day they must really get
upset. Only twice has a ground staged two Football
League matches on the same day.
The first occasion was at the end of the
1920/21 season. Stockport County were battling against relegation from
Division 2 when they entertained Sheffield Wednesday at their Edgeley Park
ground on Saturday April 2nd 1921. With County losing 0-1 referee Mason
rejected a strong Stockport appeal for a penalty, a decision which was
followed by serious crowd problems culminating in windows being broken in
the ref's dressing room.
As a result the FA closed Edgeley Park for
the final home match of the season. By then Stockport had been relegated
and just 13 spectators paid to watch County play Leicester City at Old
Trafford on Saturday 7th May 1921, the match kicking off at 6.30 after the
same ground had hosted Manchester United v Derby County in the First
Division in the afternoon. The paying attendance of 13 would be the lowest
ever in the Football League but in reality many of the 10,000 fans who
were at the earlier fixture stayed on to watch the second match for free.
The actual attendance for the Stockport v Leicester match was estimated at
between one and two thousand spectators (the match ended in a 0-0 draw).
The second occasion was at the start of the
1986/87 in the more humble surroundings of Hartlepool United's Victoria
Hartlepool's near neighbours Middlesbrough
were on the verge of extinction during the 1986 close-season. They had
been relegated to the Third Division, home crowds were regularly less than
5000 and they were heavily in debt. With literally ten minutes of a
Football League deadline remaining a consortium that included Steve Gibson
saved the day and reformed the club - as Middlesbrough Football and
Athletic Company (1986) - ensuring that they could start the League season
the following day. But not at their own ground!
Their Ayresome Park ground had been locked
by the Official Receiver forcing their first match, due to have been
played at home, to be staged at nearby Hartlepool. So on Saturday August
23rd 1986 the Victoria Ground hosted Hartlepool United's Division 4 match
against Cardiff City in the afternoon (1-1 draw, attendance 2800) which
was followed in the evening by the Middlesbrough v Port Vale Division 3
encounter (2-2 draw, attendance 3690).
Having played their first 'home' match at
Hartlepool fate then decreed that Middlesbrough played their first away
match at the same venue. So three days after the season kicked off at the
Victoria Ground, Middlesbrough returned there for the away leg of a
Littlewoods Cup tie against Hartlepool. Their first home match at Ayresome
Park was then in the home leg against Hartlepool with Middlesbrough
repaying their neighbours help by knocking them out of the competition,
3-1 on aggregate!
Town have had a problem with muddy pitches. Long before they dumped
Manchester City out of the FA Cup in the mud at the Shay ground in 1980
the club needed to lay a new pitch. The idea in 1968 was to play a giant
game of battleships with the pitch being plotted on a graph with punters
buying a square with the winner getting a couple of season tickets by
selecting a square with a penalty spot. Tickets cost just a shilling (5p)
a go with the proceeds going towards re-turfing the pitch. When they had
sold £200 worth (not bad - 4000 tickets) they realised that re-turfing
would not work as there was not enough time for the turf to knit so they
quickly changed the rules so that the proceeds could be used to re-seed
Fast forward 40 years and there has been a revolution in pitch science.
Nowadays with the need to have a surface which is able to support a
multitude of different users over 12 months of the year there are even
spare pitches which can be delivered to the main site as the photos of the
Millennium Stadium show. The groundsmen with just a fork has made way for
the fork-lift truck! How things have changed!
the most bizarre use of what is normally a football pitch was when Wembley
played host to the Race of Champions events in 2007 and 2008. The pitch
was transformed into a motor racing track with the likes of Michael
Schumacher, Jenson Button and David Coulthard treating the place like
Silverstone. Spectacular perhaps but not financially successful and the
event moved on to Bejing in 2009.