In this series, we at The Boot Room are tackling each of the laws of the beautiful game one by one. We’ll talking about the way they’ve resulted in some of the memorable incidents or accidents of chance in the game we love. We’re starting at the beginning with Law One: The Field of Play.
We can all draw a football pitch. It’s a simple set of markings, but it defines everything else. A shot from outside the box, a cross from the by-line, a goal from the halfway line – we treat all of those like absolutes but in reality, football pitches are variable. On occasion, they become part of the game themselves rather than its sharp dividing edges.
It happened in the public eye during the recent Capital One Cup semi-final between Manchester City and Everton, as those sharp dividing lines became blurry and a ball that had gone out of play was cut back for Kevin de Bruyne to score.
As bad as that was, it wasn’t half as ridiculous as an incident in a Championship match between Reading and Watford in 2008. A Reading corner early in the game resulted in a scuffle at the near post with Watford defender John Eustace heading the ball out of play to the right of the goal. Reading’s Noel Hunt stretched to hook the ball back in, where a follow-up shot was turned onto the bar by Watford keeper Scott Loach. Nevertheless, the linesman was flagging to alert the referee, seemingly of the belief that John Eustace had scored an own goal even though his clearance went four yards wide.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said the then Watford manager Aidy Boothroyd. “It’s like a UFO landing, a mistake like that.” It’s not just the human eye and perceptions of the pitch that can betray us, sometimes it’s the pitch itself – think Gerrard’s miscontrol and slip, or Beckham’s scooped penalty from a sandy penalty spot, or of every bobble that’s caught out a keeper dealing with a firmly struck back-pass.
Sometimes a crafty manager and collaborative groundsman can go some way towards tipping a pitch away from being a level playing field. A quick passing team might keep the grass short and water it just before kick off to aid their game, while a long ball side might leave it long to hold up a bouncing ball.
Or you might alter the surroundings, as West Ham did against Stoke in 2010. Back then, Stoke were a world away from the creative powerhouses they are currently and were relying heavily on the long throws of Rory Delap to cause trouble in opposition boxes. West Ham came up with a counter measure, placing a second row of advertising boards a couple of yards from the edge of the pitch, attempting (but failing) to disrupt Delap’s run-up.
There’s also a great deal of variation in pitch sizes. Arsenal’s pitch at the Emirates was a full five metres longer than at QPR’s pitch at Loftus Road, and Burnley’s Turf Moor pitch was three metres slimmer. It’s clear that a bit more space favours a fast passing, pace-driven team like Arsenal, whereas teams expecting less possession and looking to press, break-up moves and play direct might prefer a tighter pitch. Exhibit A for this is Stoke City’s Brittania Stadium, where manager Mark Hughes has had the pitch extended this season, in keeping with Stoke’s renaissance as a creative, ball-playing team. When you have a front three of Bojan, Shaqiri and Arnautovic at your disposal, you want enough pitch to accommodate them and their brilliance.
Current pitches at the top of the game tend to be expensively produced works of art, complete with under-soil heating, drainage, sprinkler system, artificial sunlight lamps and woven mess to prevent them breaking up. However, outside the top leagues, there is still the occasional pitch that makes even the biggest names in the game look like pub footballers.
During their cup run last season, Bradford City enjoyed a trip all the way to the quarter final, including convincing wins against higher league opposition in Millwall and Sunderland and a draw against Reading, on a Valley Parade pitch that had suffered during the harsh Yorkshire winter and was mostly mud and very little grass by the time January rolled around. Some armchair pundits tried to argue the state of the pitch was what was propelling Phil Parkinson’s side towards success – of course they were conveniently ignoring Bradford’s 4-2 victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
The field of play is a living, breathing part of the game; it has to be tended to and looked after just like any other part of the team. That is why; as we close this first in the series, we must give special mention to the miracle performed at Carlisle ahead of their FA Cup game with Everton and congratulate Dave Mitchell, the head groundsman at Brunton Park, who had a pitch fit for competitive football just eight weeks after the ground was flooded to crossbar height by Storm Desmond.
Shame about the result…
Featured Image: All rights reserved by David Price