"Don't drop a groundsman for an artificial pitch", says Geoff Webb as IOG debate hears challenge to "no maintenance myth" of non-turf surfaces.

The Institute of Groundsmanship's chief executive Geoff Webb has pledged to "go into battle" supporting grounds staff whose roles are threatened as panelists share frustration over "all-weather" tag of artificial surfaces.

The issue was the subject of the main debate at the Institute of Groundsmanship (IOG) national conference held last week at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, with panellists David Rhodes (consultant), George Mullan (Support in Sport), Alistair Cox (Labsport), Clive Liddiard (Hampton School), John Courtney (Swansea University) and Dr Tim Lodge (Agrostis) all asked what effect synthetic turf was having on groundsmanship as a profession.

There was general agreement that for some sports, such as hockey, artificial is best, while well-used multi-use sports fields could benefit greatly from being synthetic, particularly when they also have non-sports uses such as big events like music festivals.

Lodge said: "We focus on sport but we tend to ignore all the other uses such as public open space."

While Liddiard said his school’s artificial pitch got boys out in the fresh air and prevented natural pitches from becoming damaged through too heavy usage.

Panellists also agreed that areas with extreme weather can also benefit, but they were incensed at the perception and marketing of artificial turf as "all-weather".

Rhodes said with "all-weather" came the term "maintenance-free" which was not the case at all.

"The offer was you can install something that you don't need to do very much to and you can use it all weathers. You guys are left to deal with that. That communications strategy needs managing."

Consultant Professor Eric Harrison who had earlier revealed results of machinery tests on artificial turf, said that in blind tests 83 per cent of footballers preferred natural turf and 17 per cent artificial but when younger players were tested the numbers flipped, possibly due to younger players growing up playing on artificial pitches.

When conference host and BBC 1 and Radio Five Live football presenter Mark Clemmit invited Webb to the stage to give his input Webb said natural turf had suffered from a lack of investment for too long.

He said: "Now is the time that natural turf needs to stand up. Groundsmen are much more in tune with the change than most people realise, I don’t think we’ve got Luddites in this room.

"Where it’s wrong is where you have a sales pitch with lies about the turf industry and I’ve seen that. I think they’re using the aggressive marketing that it’s us against the world. But a lot of sites now are multi sport."

He criticised FIFA for "almost bankrolling the industry" and said "people at the top have been seduced by the messaging" of artificial.

He added: "the problem is with the lack of investment since the 1970s, CCT and cuts. Really we have to get these pitches back.

"There’s this common misconception about the management of a grass pitch. The perception that groundsmanship is old-fashioned, antiquated and out of date.

"My message would be don’t drop a groundsman for a synthetic pitch. The IOG will definitely go into battle on that one."

While a straw poll of delegates revealed that while only a few groundsmen present embraced synthetic turf to some degree, nobody was "dead set against" its use.

This year's conference under the banner 'Raising the Game' also covered e Educational initiatives, a partnership between Sport England and the IOG to spread professional grounds knowledge to grassroots clubs and pitch preparations for the Rugby and Football World Cups.

The room was rapt by Clemmit’s live interview of Paris Saint-Germain head groundsman Jonathan Calderwood who described how surprised he was when he was suddenly offered his job after winning at last year’s IOG Awards.

He said he had "12 great years at Aston Villa" and thought he would end his career there but when offered the opportunity knew he would regret it if he did not take it.

"I’m living the dream," he said.


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