On This Day: The Imps’ Plastic Dream Dies

If you’ve clicked on here looking for something to engage that 2017 term ‘plastics‘, you’re in for a surprise. This isn’t about that at all; it’s about artificial playing surfaces.

Since 1988, Football League regulations dictate that teams must play on grass, but it hasn’t always been the case. Sutton United, relegated this season out of League Two, are putting their artificial turf back in at Gander Green Lane, and when they do, few will be really angry. Today’s artificial turf isn’t bad to play on, but 15 years ago? That was a different story.

Anyone who used to knock about in midweek at Yarborough or Ruston’s will have a plastic pitch horror story. I’ve seen plenty of blood playing on those things and had a few nasty burns myself. Falling on it was like falling on glass, so it’s no surprise they were outlawed. However, there was a time when plastic pitches were thought to be football’s saviour.

That time was the 1980s, the halcyon days of football for many. In truth, some things in the eighties harked back to the dark ages. You wouldn’t get politicians looking for cheap votes by watching games back then – they were more likely to be locking fans up. Attendances fell as hooliganism raged on the terraces, and clubs looked for an alternative revenue stream long before Sky’s millions.

In 1981, QPR dug up their turf and installed a plastic pitch. It was controversial—in the FA Cup, visiting teams were given three days to train on it and could charge the Hoops for three nights’ accommodation nearby as well. That wasn’t an issue – the club felt they could save money on postponed fixtures and make enough from other uses to cover the expense.

The experiment looked like a success all around – in 1983, they won the Second Division, and in 1984, they finished fifth in the top flight. In 1985, they reached the quarter-finals of the League Cup, and in 1986, they were beaten finalists.

Luton Town were next, installing their new ‘turf’ in 1985 and achieving three top-ten finishes in the First Division after that. They also reached the FA Cup semi-final in 1988 and won the League Cup. Oldham followed suit in 1986, and Preston in the same season. It seemed as though plastic pitches were here to stay.

George Kerr wasn’t impressed when our ‘promotion push’ was derailed on Preston’s Deepdale in January 1987. We went into the game in eighth place but got beat 3-1. It certainly derailed something—we won three of the next 21 fixtures we played and dropped out of the league.

“Swinburne did really well, but he suffered because of the artificial surface,” raged Kerr, who suggested that artificial pitches would produce artificial footballers. Given the capitulation that followed, a footballer of any type might have been nice!

However, Kerr might have been openly raging about the surface, but John Reames had been convinced in the boardroom. It’s not well known, but Lincoln City decided to apply to install an artificial surface at Sincil Bank and were given the go-ahead.

Even Kerr confessed he was impressed with Deepdale itself, admitting, “I was impressed with the facility, but whether it is right for professional football is a different thing.” Lincoln City felt that it was.

The reasons were clear. Luton reportedly generated £100,000 of income in 1985/86 from their pitch and enjoyed the success the advantage of being used to the turf brought. It was believed a dozen clubs were eager to install the new surface. City, Torquay, Wigan, Brentford, Bolton, Southend, and Bradford applied without getting to the installation stage.

They weren’t widely popular. West Ham wanted a three-season ban on the surface, and both Crystal Palace and Leicester had been rallying against them since QPR first fitted theirs at the beginning of the decade. However, John Reames was adamant that a ban wouldn’t just threaten plastic pitches but the club’s entire existence.

“There is no future for clubs of our size unless we can use the ground for more than a couple of hours a fortnight,” he said. That much was true, and in many ways, Reames was a visionary, although the thoughts on the artificial surface were a little awry.

The thought of such a pitch is hideous to us now, but back in the eighties there was an awareness that something needed to change around a stadium’s use. However, the pitches proved to be a problem – John Beck struggled to recreate his Cambridge success at Preston because of their artificial surface and was even known to put more sand on the surface to kill the bounce.

What killed our plans was a double-whammy, the first blow reported in the Echo 38 years ago today (yesterday, as this article is a day late) – before the Imps publicly announced plans to put their surface in. In May 1986, a meeting took place the day before England faced Canada in a World Cup warm-up. The outcome was a ban on plastic pitches in the First and Second Division, and it was a precursor to a full ban which came into force in 1988.

The other issue? The small problem of initial cost. It’s all well and good getting £100,000 a year back on a £400,000 investment, but you have to have a £400,000 investment in the first place. City were just starting to develop Sincil Bank into the ground it is now, and despite wanting a plastic pitch, we couldn’t actually afford one.

At the time, the Imps were only renting the ground, and the council’s Derek Miller admitted that despite making sense for them to have an artificial surface, it simply wasn’t possible given the other financial commitments. “We had to undertake an expensive stand project,” said Mr Miller. “We could not possibly afford to do that and install a new pitch.”

The Golden Goose was not entirely what it seemed at other clubs. Preston and Oldham didn’t expect to profit from their pitches, and the FA were still against such surfaces. In 1988, new installations were banned from the Football League. Fans had grown tired of them, too, as Graham Lawton wrote in the New Scientist. “They soon became a national joke: the ball pinged round like it was made of rubber, the players kept losing their footing, and anyone who fell over risked carpet burns. Unsurprisingly, fans complained that the football was awful to watch and, one by one, the clubs returned to natural grass.”

QPRs went in 1988, and Luton and Oldham followed suit in 1991. Preston clung to theirs, beating us 2-0 on it in 1994, with Paul Raynor grabbing one of the goals. The last game on a fake Deepdale pitch saw them overturn a 2-0 play-off semi-final defeat against Torquay by winning 4-1, again with Beck in charge. They lost the final, the pitch came up the next season and Beck was sacked in November.

Since then, artificial pitches have come on in leaps and bounds, but the game must still be played on grass in the UK. Now, the Sincil Bank pitch is so good it almost looks artificial, and the 3G at the ground ensures income from the stadium all year round. John Reames knew the direction football was heading in, and was probably as close to any in predicting what was needed; the plastic pitch was just installed a few hundred yards to the east.