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PITCH PERFECT?

Inside Sutton United – the club that faced relegation even if they finished first in the league

The National League club are having the time of their lives currently but have found themselves in a perilous pitch position

Sometimes success comes at a cost.

For National League side Sutton United, that cost may end up being £400,000.

The U’s are having the time of their lives right now, sitting third in England’s fifth tier – but potential promotion into the Football League has caused the South London club an unlikely headache.

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As I entered the club prior to a recent National League match, I got a glimpse of what I was really here to see – not the players, not even a game, but the 3G artificial pitch.

There was that rubber, plasticky smell, familiar with all amateur footballers as the sun beat down on the pitch for the first time in 2018.

Sutton are one of three teams in the National League to play on a FIFA-approved 3G artificial pitch, with Maidstone and Bromley also opting to play on plastic turf – for many non-league clubs the issue of whether or not to install an artificial pitch is the most pressing issue to deal with currently.

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However, whilst international matches and FA Cup games can be played on the artificial pitch, the EFL outlaws the use of such pitches in their leagues.

It gets worse still, as the National League rules state that if a club gains promotion from the division but elects not to take that spot, they will be relegated from that league.

For Sutton, this has left them in a perilous position. If they gain promotion, do they rip up their pitch and lay down turf to be in line with EFL rules, or keep their 3G pitch and accept relegation back to the National League South division?

“We’ve looked into what our options are, and if we want to get promoted, which we do, then we have to rip the pitch up,” manager Paul Doswell told Dream Team.

He continued: “It’s a poisoned sword in some respects – we’re well known as being a good community club, and it will be a real shame to see the pitch go.

“Ultimately, the football side of the club has done well enough to warrant the potential of it happening.”

Mark Robinson - The Sun
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Things have never been better for the U’s.

Having earned promotion from the National League South in the 2015/16 season, their first year in the National League saw them finish 12th, alongside a remarkable FA Cup run in which they defeated AFC Wimbledon and Leeds before welcoming Premier League giants Arsenal to Gander Green Lane.

No-one really expected Sutton to rise through the ranks as quickly as they did, not least when they installed their 3G pitch in the summer of 2015.

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“The change round the club in the past few years has been unbelievable,” says Ian Stone, a long term fan.

“Everyone concerned with the club, and the amount of time and effort that has gone into changing our fortunes is really uplifting.

“As for the position of the EFL about the pitch situation, well, I don’t want to get into it…” he trails off.

The club estimate the all-weather pitch is now used by over 500 players each week, with community projects and a host of teams plying their trade there.

Arriving at the club two hours before their 3pm kick-off, I watched two games being played simultaneously on the pitch as a Sutton disabilities team took on a disabilities team from Chelsea.

Such community work and pitch use is simply not possible at a club with a grass pitch – and after a quick sweep of the surface, the artificial turf was match ready again.

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In some ways it is a happy dilemma for the club’s hierarchy to have, but also one without an easy solution.

The artificial pitch has allowed a marked increase in use by local clubs and has proved incredibly lucrative too.

But the prospect of potential promotion, coupled with the threat of automatic relegation, has led the club to the tough decision that they will rip up the pitch should they earn a League Two spot through the play-offs.

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“You’ve got up to 500 players on there every week and it’s transformed this football club,” says chairman Bruce Elliott.

“It will be a sad day if we have to take it up, but if we get the opportunity to get promotion then we’ll take it.

“How would you ever turn that down? We may never get that opportunity again and after 120 years of this football club being in existence, it’ll be the first opportunity to play in the Football League.

“So we’ll take it, but obviously it is frustrating.”

Reuters
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The debate around artificial pitches versus grass pitches is not going to go away soon.

According to a recent PFA poll, 94% of players are against the use of artificial pitches, while managers such as Arsene Wenger have questioned their merits in the past.

But it’s hard to find a fault with the willingness in which some lower league clubs have to installing a 3G pitch , especially when you see how effective it can be up close over the course of a Saturday afternoon.

The situation is unlikely to find a quick resolution. The Football League hasn’t included the issue of introducing artificial pitches to their summer meeting agenda, and there is a general reticence to hear the pleas of clubs such as Sutton.

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While the jury is still out on the merits of using such pitches at a higher level, Doswell remains convinced that the tide is turning in favour of the all-weather turf.

“You’ve got to look at the current situation and accept that the rules aren’t going to change, certainly for the foreseeable future,” he adds.

“But you mark my words, in 20 years time when I’m sat in an armchair, this situation will look crazy because there will be a lot of players playing on 3G pitches in the Football League.”

Long gone are the days of the plastic pitches from the 1980s, which were widely regarded as hugely detrimental to the game.

The new, sophisticated artificial surfaces have been a saviour to many lower league clubs, and if Sutton’s experience is anything to go by, it seems only a matter of time before they are reintroduced at Football League level.

The problem is this – the EFL already has 99 problems, and currently the pitch ain’t one.


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