Interestingly, this article from The Times a few days ago suggests that the teams with 3G pitches WILL be allowed to enter the play-offs, but would then be immediately relegated if they win the play-offs. I'm certain that I read earlier in the season, that they would not be allowed to enter the play-offs, but maybe that has now changed.
Why Sutton’s plastic pitch means promotion would spell relegation
February 19 2018
It is not beyond the realms of possibility that, in May, two clubs will do battle in the Vanarama National League play-off final at Wembley with relegation as one of the prizes on offer. It is a bizarre scenario that refuses to go away chiefly as a result of the impressive progress of Sutton United, whose memorable FA Cup fifth-round clash with Arsenal at Gander Green Lane took place a year ago tomorrow.
The artificial playing surface that added an extra layer of intrigue to the spectacle that night could soon serve up an aftertaste almost as unpleasant as the now infamous Wayne Shaw pie-eating fiasco. This season, Sutton have spent just one week outside the League’s expanded play-offs and their tenacious second-half display in a 1-1 draw against fellow promotion hopefuls Wrexham on Saturday did not leave the impression that they are going to let their grip on the play-offs slip.
Six points behind them, meanwhile, are Bromley, who are one point outside the play-offs, in eighth, and another club realising the benefits of laying down a 3G pitch.
For Maidstone United, down in 17th, the third of the National League’s 24 clubs with an artificial pitch, a promotion push looks unlikely but they too have seen ties with the community strengthened and crowds increase since going plastic.
In compliance with English Football League (EFL) regulations, however, if any of them were to be promoted, they would be required to replace their artificial pitch with grass, at a cost of up to £500,000. To add insult to injury, though, should they refuse, the National League’s regulations state that relegation to the National League South would follow, and a return to step-one of the non-League pyramid refused until a grass pitch had been put down.
“You could almost argue we’ve shot ourselves in the foot,” says Bruce Elliott, the Sutton chairman. “But you could also argue that we wouldn’t be in the position we are now had we not taken that decision [to lay the 3G pitch] three years ago. It’s brought the whole club together. We’ve got hundreds of people playing on this pitch all week. It’s focused people locally and encouraged them to get down here, to enjoy watching and playing football on an excellent 3G surface.”
Boys’ and girls’ teams ranging from under-8s to under-18s, a ladies’ team, three disabled teams and four academy teams all play their football on a pitch that was a hive of activity up until one o’clock on Saturday afternoon. “It’s a big if, but if we were to get promoted then we lose 42 teams being able to play their football here,” says Paul Doswell, the manager, speaking in his office — accessed via the first-team toilets — before the game.
Before the surface was laid, at a cost of £500,000, “they all played spread across the borough, at different venues, whatever they could get hold of,” Doswell says. “Most council pitches get waterlogged and don’t get played on from November through to February. And people don’t feel engaged with the club when they’re never here.”
Now, however, £100 season tickets and a ground now seen as a community hub, mean “we’ve gone from an average of about 600 to 2,200 in the space of two years,” Doswell says.
More than 2,600 were there on Saturday to see Simon Walton, the former Leeds United midfielder, cancel out Scott Quigley’s first-half strike and earn a well-deserved draw. “When I first came here the crowd were all in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s,” he adds. “We’ve changed the demographic too.”
Last year’s cup run, which saw Leeds United, Cheltenham Town and AFC Wimbledon put to the sword, swelled Sutton’s coffers to the tune of almost £1 million. Both dressing rooms have been refurbished, new floodlights, new toilets and a new club shop installed — “it now sells stuff online to people from all sorts of countries that I’ve never even heard of”, Elliott says — and there are plans for an on-site academy pavilion, which Arsenal contributed their gate receipts to, and will bring a team down to open it this year.
The improved facilities complement Sutton’s model. And both the FA and the EFL have been open in acknowledging the benefits of dual-use stadiums at this level. The potential use of artificial surfaces “is currently being discussed as part of an ongoing Stadium Criteria review,” Shaun Harvey, the EFL chief executive, said, adding that “any change in regulation would require the support and backing of the majority of EFL clubs and could only be brought into place at our June AGM, to be effective from 2019-20.”
Although the National League ruling, which could in effect hand down a double relegation, may sound draconian, Doswell empathises with their position. “The National League has been pushing the Football League since the day dot to get more than two teams promoted,” he says. “Originally it was just one team. And before that there was just re-election.
“They fought hard to get into a closed shop, and the reality is the National League should have three promotion places. What [the National League] can’t afford is to have a promoted club turn down promotion. It would set them back years.”
Sutton have employed a sports lawyer to investigate all possibilities, including a potential ground share for a year or two. “We knew the rules,” Doswell says, “but rules are there to be challenged. We know in our heart of hearts, it’s going to cost 500 grand to put a grass pitch down; we haven’t got 500 grand, and 800 kids will lose a facility. And come November it would be a mud-heap, because we’ve got raspberries drainage: that’s why we replaced the pitch in the first place.”
The last vote on the issue, in February 2015, ruled out the introduction of plastic pitches in Leagues One and Two, three months after a previous ballot had resulted in a tie — 34 clubs voting for and against, along with four abstentions. But when “Arsenal can play on it here in the FA Cup last year, and in Europe [against Ostersunds on Thursday], England have played on it in Russia and Lithuania, and Celtic and Rangers play on it at least four times a season, it’s beyond ridiculous,” Doswell says.
The PFA’s members have always been opposed to artificial pitches, of course — another key stakeholder in a debate that has rumbled away for many years, but one that feels as though it is gathering momentum again in the lower leagues.
“Be absolutely clear about this, if I had a pitch as good as Wembley, I’d prefer a grass pitch,” Doswell says. “But we haven’t got a million pounds for a Desso pitch; we haven’t got a hundred grand to employ two groundsmen, and that’s why all these clubs in League Two and the National League are struggling financially.
“Look at Rochdale’s [old] pitch, look at Newport’s. We went all the way to Barrow [last month] only for the game to be cancelled. That cost us three, four thousand pounds: a huge amount of money for this football club.
“I’m a massive Southampton fan, and I went to Luton and saw us get beat 7-0 on a plastic pitch [in Division One in 1985], where the ball bounced 50ft in the air. But the technology of these pitches now is so far ahead of those days.”