IT AIN’T EASY trying to play the beautiful game on a ragged, worn, bobbly surface so it’s no surprise that the condition of pitches has become a major talking point in the Airtricity League this season.
Even those casual fans who caught the nil-all borefest between Bohemian and St Pat’s live on TV couldn’t have failed to notice the threadbare Dalymount pitch and its capacity to reduce the teams (and spectators) to mind-numbing tedium.
We’re quick enough to criticise the league when it doesn’t live up to our high standards so it’s important that we give credit where it’s due. The latest initiative to improve pitches, announced yesterday by the PFAI, is certainly a step in the right direction.
Following the lead of FIFPro, the World Players’ Union, the PFAI plans to release a monthly table rating the league’s pitches on a scale of one to five, with five being the top score available. Each week, the away team will be asked to rate the pitch that they’ve just played on using criteria such as run of the ball, stability and grass coverage.
The ratings will then be compiled into a monthly league table and — in case playing on a pristine pitch week in, week out wasn’t reward enough — the club which finishes on top at the end of the season will take home an award for their groundskeeping diligence.
The initial results show The RSC in Waterford as the golden boy of the moment, its score of 4.5 just edging out Tallaght Stadium (4), Longford’s Flancare Park and the Showgrounds (both 3.5). At the opposite end of the scale, Galway’s Terryland Park scores a rather pitiful 1.5.
This is no mere vanity project though and yesterday’s comments from Ollie Cahill, the PFAI Player Executive, hint at how such a rating system might just be the force for change which the league needs.
“There is a similar model running in England and if a pitch falls below a rating 3, the league in question writes to the club to ask for their comments on why the pitch is performing badly and what they intend to do to bring its standard back up to scratch.
“We would like to see that happen here and some resources being given to clubs to help them out. We know about the difficulties groundsmen face being under resourced but with over 30 Premier Division games live on TV this season, it’s imperative that the pitches are of a standard where players can showcase all that is good about this league.”
The resources question is an important one, as it’s clear that a lack of finances is exacerbating the problem more than any other factor. In the opening weeks of the season, Tolka Park and Dalymount Park both came in for stinging criticism from visiting sides who felt that the pitches were hardly suitable to let sheep graze on, let alone play football.
The problem is not lack of effort or poor groundsmen; it is simply overuse. With little disposable income to rent out secondary facilities, some clubs simply have to make do with the pitches they have, irrespective of the damage caused by holding multiple training sessions or playing youth team and U20 matches on them.
It’s a sad reality, particularly at time when television coverage of the league as its highest. There is some attractive football being played in great battles around the Airtricity League grounds this season. With a marginal improvement in most of the league’s pitches, there’s a chance that we could see even more in the near future.
Airtricity League fixtures (all Friday, 7.45pm unless stated)
- Bohemian FC v Drogheda United
- Dundalk v Bray Wanderers
- St Patrick’s Athletic v Cork City
- UCD v Shelbourne
- Sligo Rovers v Shamrock Rovers (Saturday, 1.45pm)
- Athlone Town v Mervue United
- Waterford United v Longford Town
- SD Galway v Limerick
- Wexford Youths v Finn Harps (Friday, 8pm)