It is not unusual to bemoan the pitch black in Scottish football. Across the past fortnight alone we have had the darkly comic calamities of a botched Scottish Cup draw, a botched venue selection in the competition, botched television scheduling for ties and Andy Halliday’s botched red card to blether about bleakly.
Now, though, another type of pitch black is exercising Rangers manager Mark Warburton. It is not just the size of Alloa’s pitch he doesn’t care for. The structure is anathema to him. Black rubber pellets scattered over a synthetic surface has Warburton believing the grass is always greener than where his team will play tomorrow, the Rugby Park pitch where they will contest a Scottish Cup replay on Tuesday, and the Dumfries astroturf they will face Queen of the South on next weekend.
Whatever ‘G’ each of these plastic pitches might be credited with, for Warburton the intitial could never stand for ‘good enough’.
“I’m a grass man in terms of playing surface. I understand the problems with the weather but I prefer grass,” he said. “We don’t know enough about the long-term impact. We have players training every single day on artificial surfaces – where are they going to be in 10/15 years’ time in terms of their joints?
“The short-term, superficial stuff? The last time we played a game, Rob Kiernan and Danny Wilson had serious abrasions that stopped them training for two or three days.
“Danny had a really nasty abrasion – the doctor had to cover it and dress it and he missed three days and Rob missed two days with two similar wounds on the knee. It’s accepted as part and parcel but it shouldn’t really be accepted as readily as it is. To move to more artificial surfaces is a mistake. Not just because of the cuts and bruises you get on the surface but because of the long-term wear on the joints. There is still a big question there.”
Warburton believes that Scotland PFA chief executive Fraser Wishart made a “great point” in this week calling for the SFA to be more vigilant in policing plastic pitches. Too many were of a varying quality that had a potentially detrimental effect on the long-term health of players, he said, yet there seemed a clamour for ever more of these around the country.
In turn, Hamilton chairman Les Gray hit back, saying that his club’s artificial surface met standards that many of the grass pitches in the senior game would not pass because the composition of plastic pitches allowed for testing. At Hamilton, as with most other clubs switching to plastic, the moves serves a financial imperative, which Warburton understands but does not believe should trump all else.
“I thought it was very good [what Fraser Wishart said]. That’s his job. He hasn’t shirked responsibility, he’s made a really strong point and I thought it was prepared really well. It made perfect sense to me – you just don’t know what the implications are.
“I understand the financial implications. I get all that. You can hire your pitch out every evening and it brings much-needed revenue but we’re talking about the game and seeking investment so at some stage you have to separate the elite. Whether it’s just Premiership pitches or both [those and the Championship] I don’t know. You have got to put a directive in place. It can’t be a generic one-cap-fits-all because of the financial implications.”
In England, plastic pitches are not allowed across the four senior leagues, though FA Cup matches can be staged on them. Meanwhile, across Europe, and in the Scandinavian countries in particular, they are not squeamish about the use of such surfaces. The weather, much more inclement in Scotland than across the Border, is a factor in pitching for plastic. “I get it but maybe at the top tier it [grass] should be sacrosanct. I’m sure a lot of managers feel the same – I saw Tommy Wright’s comments and a lot of managers are old fashioned in terms of grass pitches. They are difficult to maintain and expensive and the ground staff have a tough job with the weather we’ve had this year, but if you ask any supporter they will take grass ahead of artificial,” added Warburton.
“At Brentford, if we had really poor weather we would go to the indoor facility which is similar to the one we have here at Murray Park. Four or five players couldn’t train on it from long-term injuries, be it cruciate injuries or ankle injuries or reconstructions, back problems, lower back problems. They wouldn’t go and train on it – especially the older players. They would refuse to train on it. They are pro players, they know their bodies. It’s their livelihood. It’s all right for us on the staff having a five-a-side on the park.”
Warburton doesn’t spell it out but it is clear he believes that the move towards synthetic surfaces in Scotland gives the impression of our football being a small-time operation. Which, in comparison to the English game he left last summer, it is in every way, shape or form. The television rights goldrush that the game south of the Border struck has seen to that. Which is a real pitch.