PFA Assistant Chief Executive Simon Barker has voiced his concern regarding the potential return of artificial pitches to the Football League.
At a meeting on Thursday 26th September 2014, Football League Clubs in League One and Two voted in favour of allowing artificial pitches to be used in their competition from next season. This decision will be going to a formal vote for ratification by all the Football League Clubs at an EGM in November.
PFA Assistant Chief Executive Simon Barker, stated: "In my opinion artificial pitches should not return to elite level professional football, which the Football League is.”
"The PFA surveyed members two years ago on the issue as part of a wider consultation by the Football League and the players were overwhelming against the reintroduction of artificial pitches."
"The Football League at that time decided to reject the reintroduction of artificial surfaces after wide consultation amongst stakeholders in the game and major research into the issue, so the PFA are surprised and disappointed by the recent decision by Football League Clubs.
"It is a concern that the PFA as the representatives of the players has not been asked to make representations on the matter to both the Football League and the Clubs before the Chairmen voted, as ultimately it will be our members who will be playing on these pitches. I have also spoken to the LMA and the managers have also not been asked about their opinion on the matter.”
The results of the PFA's survey has also been mirrored internationally. Both the Dutch and Danish Player Associations have carried out surveys amongst their players, many of whom actually play on artificial pitches and their members spoke out against such surfaces.
Furthermore there is also a heated dispute and associated litigation happening at international level with the Australian Women's football team and other countries arguing against artificial pitches being used in the World Cup Finals in Canada next summer.
Barker represents the PFA on the Playing Surfaces Committee (PSC) along with representatives of the Premier League, Football League, Football Association, Institute of Groundsmanship and Sports Turf Research Institute, and so is well placed to evaluate the pros and cons of 3G artificial surfaces.
Barker states "There has been a huge amount of improvement in artificial pitches over the last few years and it is heavily promoted by that industry and bodies such as FIFA. However, what is not as well known is the vast improvement in natural turf pitches over the same period and the PSC marks and assesses the quality of all professional pitches at every League game and the standard of the vast majority of pitches is very good.
"I do believe there is a place for artificial surfaces, especially in countries where there are extreme weather conditions. For example in Africa where there is very little rain and it is difficult to grow natural turf pitches and in Russia and Scandinavia where temperatures are so low they struggle to produce quality natural turf pitches.
"In these areas of the World, I can appreciate they will benefit with artificial turf pitches but where there is reasonable weather conditions such as England, I don't believe that artificial pitches are required at the top level of the game.
"The advancement in technology of natural turf pitches has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, as have artificial surfaces, however it would seem that the latter is being driven by promises of increased commercial revenue streams and not for reasons of quality, integrity and safety."
The arguments often cited in favour of artificial pitches, is reduced maintenance costs and an increase in additional revenue, however Barker is not convinced: "Discussions we've had with knowledgeable sources within in the game suggest that figures quoted for additional revenue from hiring out of an artificial pitch are often hugely inflated.
"With regard to decreased maintenance costs, experts in the industry believe the upkeep costs of an artificial pitch are on a par to a natural turf pitch. The fact is the more and more you play on an artificial surface, we are told by the industry experts that the surface deteriorates and the quality of the pitch reduces. A FIFA 2 star pitch costs in the region of £500,000 to install and the more it is used the lifespan of the pitch reduces accordingly before it needs to be replaced. This has a significant effect on the payback of such a pitch"
Barker continued: "We understand why clubs and the chairmen may be minded to vote for artificial pitches on the basis of a potential income surge and/or cost savings, however we believe they should be very wary over the claims of how much income they will actually make from these pitches and look at some of the other negative issues that would come with such a decision.
Other issues should also be considered. For example, it is very unlikely that either the Championship or the Premier League will accept artificial pitches therefore any team with an artificial surface gaining promotion from League One would then have to replace an artificial surface with a natural turf pitch."
Barker also highlighted potential problems differing playing surfaces may create with regard to the integrity of a competition: "Teams may gain a competitive advantage over other teams by playing on artificial surfaces more regularly than others by virtue of their home fixtures. As a visiting team they would not have the same experience and knowledge of how to play on such a surface creating a competitive advantage. This would create a clear integrity issue in the competition, in my opinion.”
“We are also told by not only our members but players around the World that the way the game is played is very different on an artificial pitch than on a natural turf pitch. The Football League has had increased attendances year on year for a long period of time now so what is being produced on the pitch must be valued by the supporters and we have to be careful of changing the way the game is played and therefore the product.”
However, it is player welfare that causes Barker the most concern: "The biggest issue for the PFA has always been about the long term injury effects playing on artificial pitches will have on players.
"There have been a few surveys carried out by FIFA that appear to show there is very little difference in short term injuries for players playing on both natural and artificial turf pitches. The difference being a higher occurrence of grazes, stiffness and fatigue when playing on artificial turf pitches.
"However, there have been no studies on long term injuries with players playing regularly on artificial turf pitches and this area is a major concern to the PFA. Potentially, it could lead to litigation if a player’s career was cut short due to injuries associated with playing over an extended period of time on such pitches.
"The feedback we have received from our members is that if anyone has a minor injury or an existing injury, even the new 3G artificial pitches find these out and therefore lead to extended time on the treatment table and not being available to play."
Barker concluded: "Many older players advise that they simply cannot play at all on 3G artificial pitches due to managing their injuries and bodies. This in reality would counteract any potential increase in income streams from such pitches, if players who train and play on such a surface are not available to play for the Club.
"The PFA would like more research into the long term health and safety of players playing on artificial pitches before they are reintroduced at elite level, this as well as the other related issues remains our primary concern."