Players’ union boss Fraser Wishart has called on the game’s ruling bodies to prevent more senior clubs installing plastic pitches until proper research has been done on the damage they can do to players and the game itself.
Twelve of the 42 SPFL clubs play on 3G surfaces and many players – in some cases, leading goalscorers – are left out by their managers when they visit certain grounds due to the impact the synthetic turf has on their joints.
PFA Scotland wants to find out whether players are more likely to be crocked on artificial pitches than they are on grass and Wishart also worries that artificial pitches produce artificial games.
In 2013, the SFA announced that they had asked Wishart to send out a survey of his members on the subject and more than 700 of them replied. The vast majority wanted to avoid Astroturf, but the SFA kicked the results into the long grass, where they have remained… until now.
As more clubs queue up to install plastic pitches as a money-raising venture, Wishart is demanding answers to players’ questions before they are given the go-ahead.
“We know that artificial surfaces are here to stay,” he admits. “They’ve been sanctioned by Fifa, they’re in the laws of the game, and they’re used in the Champions League, so it’s not as though we want to reverse that process.
“But, while there seems to be a clamour at the top of the game for these surfaces to be rolled out everywhere, there are issues which have been raised with us.
“A quarter of our clubs play on plastic pitches but we would like the authorities to take stock and ensure they should all be of a similar standard.
“It’s important that the views of players and managers are listened to. It’s about achieving the best possible surfaces because, at the moment, the variance in quality is a cause for concern.
“We’re not aware of any medical research that’s been done and we believe that should be addressed. Right now no-one can say that artificial surfaces cause more injuries to players or whether there are fewer problems than there are with grass.
“As a union, we would like this area to be examined. We already know there are certain players who can’t play on plastic. I know of one of our members who has had to leave his club because he’s been told by his doctor that he can’t play or train on Astroturf. Consequently, we would like an official review to determine what the long-term effects of playing on these pitches will be.”
Wishart also fears that fans are being turned off by the quality of football being produced on shoddy surfaces, arguing that only the very best 3G pitches should be allowed.
“They already produce a different type of game because there is a different bounce,” he claimed. “Players tell us it’s harder to change direction and that it makes closing opponents down more difficult.
“Artificial pitches wear out. If you use them for 80-100 hours per week then they’ll need replaced in a few years. I go to games all over Scotland and I can see that some surfaces aren’t as good as they were three years ago. They’re quicker and the ball doesn’t bounce like it used to.
“We’re not Luddites – we just want to ensure that the standards are as high as possible because there is a huge gap between the best and the worst ones at present.
“Clubs don’t install them to have a better surface on a Saturday. If that was the case then they wouldn’t be using it non-stop for the rest of the week.
“It’s about fund-raising and we’re not against that, but these pitches need to be properly maintained because this is a professional game.
“There seems to be a mad rush to bring them in, but I’m not sure how many people running our game are aware of the results of our survey and I think there should be another one conducted, this time involving the medical people at our clubs.”
PFA liaison officer Stuart Lovell notes that England’s 92 league clubs are currently prevented from playing on synthetic turf.
“You’re not allowed to have a 3G pitch in the Football League – it’s against their regulations,” he said.
“What we’ve always been concerned with is performance, playability and safety and that’s what we’ve discussed with our members.
“It’s been suggested by someone at the SFA that clubs should install pitches which are IRB compliant but we know of at least one lower league club which has an artificial surface without shock pads.
“Players feel leggier and stamina becomes an issue on artificial pitches. The energy that goes from your body into the pitch doesn’t come back from 3G. It’s like running on sand.
“The manufacturers are trying to find ways around that and, if they can do that, they’ll receive far fewer critical comments. But the players are the experts here – not directors or club secretaries.”