Sutton United’s 2-0 loss to Arsenal saw the end of a glorious FA Cup run for the non-league side after wins over the Championship’s Leeds United and League One’s AFC Wimbledon in previous rounds.

Despite their loss there still remains a non-league side in the FA Cup in the form of Lincoln City who must now travel to the Emirates Stadium to play Arsenal for a place in the semi-finals. Who said the romance of the Cup was dead?

Another topic which created a lot of column inches prior to last evening’s game was that of Sutton’s FieldTurf Vertex 3G pitch. Some thought this may level the playing field (sorry) and allow Sutton an advantage over Arsenal who play weekly on grass.

When asked about the topic prior to the match Arsene Wenger acknowledged his concern regarding the pitch but highlighted the fact his team had trained all week on its own indoor 3G training pitch at its London Colney training facilities.

Whilst many may think artificial surfaces are a relatively new addition to football they in fact have a long but varied history in the game having first been used in the 1980s.

QPR was the first club to use an artificial surface when it laid its ‘Omniturf’ pitch in 1981, some 36 years ago; indeed this pitch remained in situ at Loftus Road until 1988. The pitch was often referred to as a “plastic pitch” but would more commonly be recognised nowadays as AstroTurf which had been introduced in American Football in the late 1960s.

It is safe to say that the Loftus Road pitch was not universally liked with players complaining of severe burns as a result of slide tackles, other injuries and the unfair advantage gained by the ‘Super Hoops’ who were used to playing on the surface week in and week out. Whether it was the benefits of playing on Omniturf or not, the artificial surface did QPR no harm as in the 1981/82 season the club reached the final of the FA Cup as a Second Division (as the Championship was then known) side before winning this league the following season.

Notwithstanding trials by QPR and a number of other clubs artificial playing surfaces were eventually banned in all forms of the professional game in 1995, mainly as a result of concerns regarding serious injuries sustained on the largely unforgiving pitches.

Interest was re-invigorated at the turn of the century at which point both FIFA and UEFA conducted further research into the use of artificial surfaces and started a quality assurance programme in respect of their use which led to the following developments:

  • 2003 – the U17 FIFA World Cup was held in Finland where the Stadium used to host the final had a first generation artificial surface.
  • 2004 – IFAB agreed to change the rules of the game to allow international matches to be played on FIFA 1 star and FIFA 2 star recommended surfaces.
  • 2005 – the U17 FIFA World Cup takes place in Peru entirely on artificial surfaces.
  • 2007 – England lose to Russia in a Euro 2008 qualifying match on an artificial surface at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow.
  • 2009 – FIFA implements the FIFA Preferred Producer initiative in order to further increase the quality of football turf and protect the end-user. Preferred Producers meet the FIFA quality criteria in all areas of football turf pitch construction.
  • 2015 – the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada is played entirely on 3G artificial surfaces.

As can be seen from the above, FIFA in particular has relaxed its resistance to artificial surfaces with the advent and introduction of 3G surfaces that include both sand and rubber infill, pitches that have also recently been introduced successfully in rugby, most notably at Saracens’ Allianz Park.

What then are the current rules concerning artificial surfaces in England?

Artificial Surface” is defined in both the Premier League and English Football League (“EFL”) rules in near identical terms as “any playing surface which is not or not intended to be predominantly natural grass.

As one would expect the rules concerning Pitches and Stadium Criteria are set out in some detail within the Premier League and EFL rules. Despite this both the Premier League (Rule K.24) and EFL (Rule 15.1) could not be clearer on the issue of artificial surfaces stating:

No League Match(es) shall be played on an Artificial Surface.”

The issue of re-introducing artificial surfaces for league matches in the EFL was put to a vote as recently as 2014 however a deadlock of 34 votes each way (with 4 abstentions) meant the majority support required to allow their re-introduction was not achieved.

Even though no Premier League or EFL club can play matches on an artificial surface the FA recognised the significant interest in their use particularly in the National league System and below given the perceived costs that could be saved in respect of pitch maintenance and the increased use that these surfaces can sustain, particularly in communities where green space is at a premium.

In respect of the FA Cup, up until 2014, no artificial surface could be used in ties beyond the first round however this rule was relaxed for the 2014/15 competition and now artificial surfaces can be used in any round hence the reason Sutton were not obliged to move their match against Arsenal from Gander Green Lane.

In 2016, the FA Board and Council approved the use of artificial pitches in all FA competitions including the FA Cup, Trophy, Vase, Youth Cup and Women’s Super League; subject to the surfaces meeting FIFA 1 star quality performance standard or equivalent International Artificial Turf Standard.

How long then until the Premier League and/or the EFL relax their rules concerning the use of artificial surfaces?