NB: Those who don’t follow non-league football may want to consult the diagram below about English league structures before reading, to avoid confusion over what a Ryman or Conference league is.
It’s an understatement to say there are a few issues to resolve following the devastating floods in the south. Issues such as whether it’s worth cutting flood defence funding if the government later has to pay more for preventable flood damage, why there is funding available to help flood victims but not working families reliant on food banks, and how Nigel Farage so closely resembles a confused frog in his waders and wellies.
The effect of the weather on non-league football is much further down the list. Winter fixtures at these levels are always prone to postponements and abandonments; indeed, the first Tonbridge Angels game I attended back in 2006 was called off after 70 minutes, as the pitch was so waterlogged that the ball was literally floating. Yet these unprecedented conditions have led to a huge backlog of fixtures for many teams. Tonbridge have had to rearrange Conference South fixtures for Thursday nights because Tuesday nights are already fully booked to the end of the season.
This havoc is perilous to the finances, and therefore survival, of clubs up and down the country. We have played just 8 of the season’s 21 home league games, with many more postponed in the past few months. Consequently, with no revenue coming in, the club’s benefactors have had to dip into their own pockets to pay players. Although rescheduled weekday fixtures arguably have a better atmosphere than those on Saturday afternoons, they’re far less profitable, with crowds and bar takings down. This is bad enough for the Angels, who are solvent. Clubs with debts must be watching through their fingers.
Meanwhile the board and supporters of Maidstone United FC, Tonbridge’s rivals, must be feeling pretty smug about this panic. The club were the first in England to install a 3G/’plastic’ pitch at their ground of 2 years, The Gallagher Stadium. Where grass pitches are susceptible to frost or becoming waterlogged, plastic pitches are resilient to the caprices of the season. Accordingly, they’ve had no home games postponed this season.
Yet current rules state that these pitches are unacceptable in both the Football League and the Conference leagues, including the Conference South – the league for which Maidstone are aiming. Sitting top of the Ryman Premier table, they’re well on course for promotion this season. The Conference leagues voted to decide whether the rule should be overturned – but the result was a resounding defeat for the Stones. Their response to democracy? Threatening to sue the Conference.
But, given the weather, their arguments in favour of 3G pitches are clearer than ever. Fewer games postponed, more steady revenue, and opportunities to loan out the pitch, raking in up to £150,000 a season. Their persuasive response to the oft-made point that artificial pitches cause more injuries than grass – that there’ll be even more injuries from a three game a week, end of season fixture pile-up on grass – is even more convincing. Add to this the fact that a European Championship game between Russia and England was played on plastic, and outsiders must be bewildered as to why the Conference would turn down the proposal.
While there is little doubt at this level that 3G pitches are the future, it’s not as simple as it sounds. For a start, they’re not cheap. The FA gives out £150,000 grants for sustainable pitches, but they cost nearly half a million pounds to install, while necessary maintenance costs stand at over £100,000 a year. The cost of installing a pitch in the short term is far more crippling to teams than a few months of precarious weather. It’s not a debt that can be paid off quickly, either; Maidstone are making a profit of just over £180,000 a year from their pitch, but this is with average crowds of nearly 2,000 a game and a league-winning side. They still have debts of over £3.3 million, £2.8 million of which was accumulated on the stadium, to pay off. A change in financial circumstance could destroy the club – a club whose predecessor was wound up in 1992 for bankruptcy. Should the rules remain, they can only be promoted if they groundshare a grass pitch; previous groundshares have seen their crowds dwindle to a tenth of their current average.
Secondly, for as long as artificial pitches are unacceptable in the Football League and ‘proper’ rounds of the FA Cup, they will continue to be in the Conference. There is no point having a vote, or now a lawsuit, to overturn rules in the Conference if in a few years the same argument will need to be had all over again so the Football League will accept them.
Finally, until the threat of injury on them has been assessed long-term, there looms the threat of lawsuits from injured players that would further deplete a club’s finances.
Besides, despite their reasonable points, Maidstone have approached this unreasonably. Aside from shunning democratic decisions, they knew when installing their pitch that it was only acceptable in certain leagues: that they have waited to consult the Conference until the season in which they could have their promotion blocked is madness. As such, their righteous indignation at choosing between stagnation in the Ryman Premier or groundsharing evokes little sympathy.
Their lobbying group, 3G4US, also has dubious ulterior motives. While it has the support of 50 clubs across the football pyramid, one of its chief endorsements comes from FieldTurf, a company specialising in artificial pitches. It takes little effort to imagine the profits that they would make from the leagues embracing their wares.
I have no doubt that 3G pitches will become acceptable soon, as clubs such as Merthyr Tydfil and Harlow Town jump on the plastic bandwagon. But ultimately, the Conference and Football League need to work together, over a sensible timeframe, to work out the logistics and consequences of implementing this change. Until this has been achieved, Maidstone will have to grit their teeth and realise they should have looked before they leapt.