(Picture: Action Images via Reuters)
By Matt Badcock
STEP 1’s 3G trio have called on the National League, EFL and the Football Association to “show leadership” and reform the rules on artificial pitches in the Football League.
Maidstone United, Sutton United and Bromley have released a joint-statement saying it’s time for English football to come in from the wilderness when it comes to 3G surfaces.
At present, the National League is the highest level in English football clubs are allowed to have an artificial pitch, and even then they must meet FIFA Quality Pro standard, which is the same level as international football.
Maidstone had to fight hard for acceptance to Step 1 in the first place with the National League reluctant to accept the 3G pitches initially.
In November 2014, League One and Two clubs voted on allowing 3G pitches in their competition and were tied 34 for, 34 against with four abstentions.
They were balloted again in February 2015 and it was announced 3G pitches were still not allowed.
Since then the matter has gone relatively quiet but it’s potentially on a collision course regardless as the three clubs push for the play-offs, while a number of clubs further down the Pyramid continue to go down the same route.
Sutton currently sit top of the National League and ahead of the weekend Bromley were second.
Should any of the three win promotion under the current rules, they would have to commit to ripping up their plastic pitch and replacing it with natural grass or face relegation down to Step 2 of the Non-League Pyramid.
Furthermore, the new National League rule wouldn’t allow them to win promotion back to Step 1 until such time they had laid down a natural surface.
Extension of this season’s play-offs down to seventh has also increased the number of clubs able to fight for promotion.
Bromley are currently in their first season on a 3G pitch but the benefits have been clear to see for trailblazers Maidstone, who won three promotions in four years, and Sutton United.
As well as community activities increasing – a big reason why the FA are big advocates – the clubs argue that 3G pitches allow clubs to become financially sustainable rather than rely on owners injecting significant capital.
And they believe now is the time to pre-empt any problems that may arise further down the line.
The statement – signed by Maidstone joint-owner Oliver Ash, Sutton boss Paul Doswell, and Bromley chairman Jerry Dolke – said: “All this leaves English football out on its own in 2017.
“Currently it fails to embrace and encourage 3G pitches in professional football and restricts their use to Division 5 and below with draconian penalties for any club daring to be good enough for promotion.
“It imposes unreasonable rules as to the quality requirements of 3G pitches. In National League the requirement is for FIFA Quality Pro, the same as for international matches. Lower down the pyramid the requirement is for FIFA Quality, still extremely demanding.
Recently a Division 7 club, Worthing, were refused permission to play on their pitch because of minor undulations, which according to their Chairman were not at all dangerous. Most natural surfaces have far worse undulations, ruts, bare areas and muddy patches.
“At the time of writing Sutton United and Bromley are early leaders of the National League. If they were both still in a promotion position come May 2018 this could well cause a serious conflict within professional football. Neither club will wish to destroy their successful business model by installing a natural mud-grass pitch at significant cost, only a year or two after installing a 3G pitch at significant cost and with the real possibility of this pitch replacement only being necessary for one year, in the event of relegation back to the National League.
“A similar situation occurred in Scotland several years ago with Hamilton Academical FC in the SPFL, causing great damage to the club.
“It is moreover quite possible that the current EFL restriction and the National League rules would not stand up to challenge either at FA Tribunal or in a Court of Law.
“Everything possible should surely be done now by the English Football authorities to pre-empt this situation from ever arising.
“We therefore call on The FA, EFL and National League to show leadership by urgently convening a special conference on 3G pitches. This conference should discuss and agree appropriate structures, rules and pathways to enable 3G pitches to be used as from next season in the EFL up to League One level, consistent with many other European countries.
“It should also review quality standards at all levels of pro and semi-pro football in England in order to render these realistic, sensible and consistent with the quality controls of natural mud-grass pitches.
“We believe this progressive approach is the right way to bring English football in line with much of Europe. In so doing it will offer opportunities to more of our professional clubs up to League One level to install 3G pitches and benefit from the development of self-sufficient and sustainable club businesses and also to become even more integral parts of their local communities.”