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Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Pat Nevin: Why football's slipped up in search of a perfect pitch

HOW OFTEN have you watched a professional footballer and wondered if he actually went to the trouble of trying out his boots before the game? While commentators delight in telling us that the same player has just fallen over for the fifth time, even ex-players of a certain vintage are quick to question the new-fangled bladed football boots or even the fact that players may be wearing certain unsuitable footwear because they are being paid to and not because they are the right ones for the job.
In actual fact the fault usually doesn't lie with the boots, the studs or the player. It is the new-style pitches that are causing even Cristiano Ronaldo to look like Bambi on ice as soon as he attempts a quick about turn.

The new-style pitches are nothing like the old ones; they are generally flat for a kick off and the better kept ones in the English Premier League maintain a deep verdant hue throughout the season. They always look fantastic on the TV and this is the root of the problem: they are built to look the part, not play the part.

The top one or two centimetres are fine generally but below that they are rock solid. It doesn't matter how long you soak the ground before the game or even at half-time, the drainage is so effective that it is back impersonating concrete 10 minutes later. For players the effect can be like trying to turn on a marble floor with blocks of wet soap on each foot.

I recently played in a charity game at the Millennium Stadium: what a fabulous piece of architecture, what an awful pitch. If there was one thing I wasn't too bad at during my playing career it was twisting and turning. I've felt more sure-footed on the ice rink in Princes Street Gardens in December than I did in Cardiff last week.

So is the answer not to water pitches before the game and pray for dry weather? The problem is that the tops of these luxuriant green oases then take on the constituency of a school playground. The balls themselves – and they are extraordinarily light these days, which accentuates the problem – bounce like the rubber 'super balls' of my youth.

Why has this happened? For a start no one has troubled himself to actually ask any players about the make up of pitches. It is generally the groundsman who decides with little more than a cursory nod to the manager. Their particular remit is to have a nice looking, hardwearing, flat surface and the modern pitches tick all those boxes. The ground staff may well be highly trained agronomists and pleased with their work, but they aren't professional footballers so they can't know there is a problem unless they are told, and there is a problem.

How many times do fans and journalists bemoan the lack of good old-fashioned, skilful, entertaining, twisting and turning dribblers? Well, let me tell you they will not be coming back any time soon if these pitches stay the same. There is no point sprinting one way then sneakily checking back if your boots, studs, medial ligament and groin muscles aren't in on the secret. It can be painful and dangerous as well as embarrassing.

What about the aforementioned Ronaldo? He isn't short of a trick or two. But his is a slalom style, with feints and dummies thrown in along the way. Fantastic stuff I agree, but if he checks sharply to change direction he is in as much danger as the rest of going head over heels and looking like a slapstick clown.

It was late in my career when these surfaces first began to appear. Liverpool's were among the first and it took me a while to find answers to the problems they set me. I knew that unless I changed my style completely I had to find a footwear solution. I did eventually, but it wasn't legal.

After a massive search I discovered some ultra thin metal Italian studs that were closer to running spikes than conventional studs. No referee would have let me within 100 metres of a pitch with those lethal looking pins, so I would show him another pair before the game then switch them in the dressing room. They were never re-checked.

I knew I was unlikely to hurt somebody during the game – I would need to tackle for that to happen and I didn't often do anything quite so rash – but it was the only way for me to ensure some purchase on the pitches.

I am convinced further problems will emerge in the fullness of time as wear and tear injuries with players kick in sooner because of the relentless pounding on these solid surfaces. Has anyone made any effort to study the long-term effects of playing and training every day on these unforgiving new pitches? The answer is no.

I asked one of the new pitch providers, why change from the old ones? The answer: "The new ones are harder wearing, easier to maintain, and rarely have games called off, so they save money. Specifically, because of the durability, they don't have that old problem of brown worn areas the length of the pitch, 10 yards wide, that stretch from one goal to the other."

I suggested putting the new system down in that particular area and leaving the rest of the pitch in the old style so that skilful trickery was still a possibility. The reaction was that he couldn't imagine any club boards these days spending extra money on frivolous, fan dancing wing play, if it negatively affected the balance sheet. I knew then and there that the game had changed forever.

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