Thursday, 30 April 2009

Turf's Up

This year’s FA Cup Final will be contested by a couple of familiar names on Saturday 30th May. Chelsea and Everton will follow the example of Glossop North End and Whitley Bay and colour the stadium in swathes of blue and white. Both the Premiership clubs have already graced the Wembley turf when they played their FA Cup Semi-Final ties there a couple of weeks ago.

The condition of the Wembley turf was once again a big topic of conversation following Chelsea’s victory over Arsenal and Everton’s penalty shoot-out triumph against Manchester United. I watched the Everton game, and from very early on it was obvious that the Wembley pitch was cutting up badly; players struggled to keep upright and huge divots of turf exploded from the surface at every tackle.

I have seen the pitch up close recently myself. I visited Wembley on a non-match day and I was lucky enough to have a tour around. The grass was understandably out of bounds. I was told how new turf had been rolled out following a motor sport event that had just been held there and how the England manager, Fabio Capello, insists that the grass is cut to a precise height, a few millimetres shorter than Sven-Goran Eriksson used to stipulate. The manicured surface was receiving some intense artificial sunlight treatment (see picture above) and the impression I came away with was that no expense is spared nurturing the playing surface, in preparation to host some of the world’s biggest events. So I was rather surprised to see it shredded, like Crispy Duck off the bone, weeks later after the Cup Semis.

Much has been written on this subject in the media following the FA Cup games. Wenger called the surface "laughable" and "a disaster". Ferguson felt he had no choice to field a weakened team, blaming the state of the pitch for his decision. Moyes described the turf as "spongy". Only Hiddink from the quartet of managers emerged with any respect explaining that he had experienced far worse surfaces in international football and the grass was "fine to play on". The FA reacted by declaring that the surface will be ripped up and re-laid in time for the FA Trophy Final on the 9th May, the day before the FA Vase Final. It will have a "different composition", apparently.

So with all the moans and groans and complaints and whinges and FA promo-babble, it was rather refreshing to hear the views of the Glossop North End and Whitley Bay parties who visited Wembley for the FA Vase Media Day a few days after the FA Cup Semi-Finals. Dave Young, the Glossop skipper, was impressed with the surface and couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. This is what Whitley Bay manager Ian Chandler had to say:

“These managers and people from the Premiership should try and play on the some of the pitches we have to play on every week!” he said. “Compared to those, Wembley will be like a carpet. Our pitch is rock hard at the moment, so Wembley will be perfect for us."

The most sensible thing I've heard on the subject. The standard of the surface is relative, it depends upon what you are used to. The nation’s elite walk out onto very good surfaces, week in, week out. It is no surprise, on the rare occasion they travel beyond their comfort zone to play at lower league opposition, they struggle. They struggle with the smaller pitches, with surfaces composed of mainly mud, sand and little grass, the intense slopes and the rutted ground that makes close control well-nigh impossible. For the majority of the season though, the stars play on some of the country’s finest areas of green, lovingly tendered by dedicated groundsmen who have budgets bigger than the combined wage bills of Glossop North End and Whitley Bay put together. To describe the Premiership big boys as ‘spoilt’ is probably the wrong verb to use, but experiencing the slightest problem with the Wembley turf was certainly something they felt wholly justified moaning about.

The Glossop and Whitley Bay players are relishing stepping out onto the lush green come the FA Vase Final in a little over a week. Onto a surface that will, to them, feel as smooth and unblemished as the finest velvet. They will struggle in a different way, with the sheer dimensions of the playing area and the longer grass that will sap energy and nutrients from every muscle. But unlike their Premiership counterparts, you will not hear a single one of them complain.

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