The Scottish FA’s Facilities Manager, Cammy Watt, believes state-of-the-art 3G and natural grass can co-exist in Scottish football as he scratches beneath the surface of the pitch debate.
Watt, whose role requires him to preside over the Scottish FA’s pitch strategy for the recreational and professional game, has been an interested spectator in the discussion around the viability and safety of modern artificial surfaces.
While some views remain entrenched, he is convinced the future for Scottish football is to remain open-minded to the ever-improving technology, while being mindful of the impact harsher and more prolonged winter periods are having on traditional grass surfaces.
“It is a complex topic and one that should bring a wider discussion: that’s why we partnered with PFA Scotland to undertake the professional player 3G perception survey back in 2014,” he said.
“Gauging the views of current pro players is a vital part of the debate – but it is also just one part. The core issues stretch far beyond the pro game too.
“In an ideal world, football at all levels would be played on high quality, natural grass pitches. However the reality here in Scotland is that neither the weather or the financial climate is perfect at the moment. 3G therefore has a vital role to play across the game."
Fundamentally, 3G pitches are here to stay and greatly help to ease the burden on grass pitches which can only be used for football between five to eight hours a week due to a number of factors, weather and over-use being the most critical. Add to that the fact that pitch maintenance budgets are continually under threat given the wider financial challenges faced by local authorities who look after the vast majority of pitches in the country, and we are faced with real difficulty in supporting our national game in facility terms.”
“The climate in Scotland - in both financial and weather terms - means that the commercial opportunities offered by a 3G pitch are extremely attractive to clubs at all levels of the game, from grassroots to the highest level of the professional game.. With that in mind, there is clearly a place in the game for 3G.”
Exactly where that place is, is the subject of an intense debate which is currently centered on the aesthetic impact of artificial grass and its safety. Whilst the community and commercial aspects of artificial surfaces are well documented, a common criticism has been the alleged detrimental impact through injury to professional footballers."
Watt has pored over reams of 3G injury incidence research conducted globally - and while he firmly believes all injury concerns must be taken seriously, he is in no doubt of its dependability from a health perspective as well as its practical durability.
“A number of studies have been undertaken on this subject, primarily in Scandinavia given the high number of 3G pitches in use at all levels of the game there,” he said.
“The consistent key finding across these studies is that there is no significant difference in the number or severity of injuries sustained on 3G versus that on natural grass. In fact, one study showed that recovery times were actually slightly longer for injuries sustained on natural grass compared to that on 3G, although is hould be said that the differences are negligible on both sides.
“Developments in pitch technology means 3G pitches are only becoming safer and closer to mirroring the performance characteristics of natural grass.”
These developments, along with the stringent testing standards in the European Union for the materials used in the production of the rubber crumb infill, make these facilities safe to use.
“The rubber used in the production of crumb infill - and the properties therein - are subject to stringent testing standards in the UK and EU”, Watt said.
“The source product and the test standards applied to 3G pitch infill mirrors that applied to the use of materials in children’s toys - in other words, the testing is as stringent as possible”.
While the focus of the debate tends to focus on the senior professional level, Watt considers the evolution of 3G to have had a significant impact on the grassroots game. With nearly 150,000 registered players in Scotland, 3G pitches provide a critical link in supporting such a significant number of players in the country. This challenge is aided by the Scottish FA’s partnership with the Scottish Government’s CashBack for Communities programme, diverting proceeds of crime into community-driven facilities."
With professional clubs a traditional hub for their communities, the ability to turn stadiums into a facility for all every day of the week has had an immeasurable impact on the grassroots game.
He said: “The impact on the development of our game is huge - the increase in access, hours of use and the ability to address, at least in part, the climatic challenges of playing football in a northern European country like Scotland is undeniable. That these facilities can be provided by clubs allows them to become a hub for football within their own communities, as opposed to football being spread sporadically across an area, making club development more challenging for all concerned.”
This, from a commercial angle, has obvious benefits too. Facilities that previously had restricted use as natural grass now have virtually unlimited access all year round. New revenue streams, combined with the savings that can be made in other areas, make 3G pitches a smart move financially as well.
“3G pitches can often introduce new revenue streams for clubs that previously did not exist”, Watt explained.
“It changes the level of pitch use to seven days a week, 365 days a year, instead of the traditional six hours every other Saturday during a July-May season. And perhaps even more crucially, the expenditure clubs can save by not having to pay out for external training facilities can make a significant dent in the vitally important replacement fund required to replace the 3G surface at the end of it’s lifespan – usually around 7 or 8 years depending on use.
Watt added, “I’ve had a number of conversations with clubs where the money they save annually on training facilities equates very closely to that which requires to be invested in their longer term pitch replacement fund – in that regard alone it can be cost neutral."
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