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Pitch imperfect

May 30, 2010

Nice stadium, shame about the pitch

Wembley’s pitch has become an easy target for criticism since it has proved itself an unfit surface on which to play a game of football.

It cost Tottenham in the FA Cup semi final against Portsmouth earlier this season, though so did their inability to turn domination into goals. When Michael Dawson slipped allowing Frederic Piquionne to tap in, replays showed the pitch cut up at a crucial time, in a crucial game.
The League Cup final earlier in the year was also blighted by a poor surface, as was the FA Cup final.

Yesterday, though, was the clearest example of the pitch costing a team big. With 20 minutes to go, Swindon’s Charlie Austin pounced on a defensive error and advanced on goal with a chance to level the League One playoff final with Millwall at a goal apiece. It was not a tough finish, but as he swung his foot, the ball bobbled up. It came off his ankle, skewing wide from around 12 yards. Swindon did not get a better chance and Millwall won 1-0 to take their place in the Championship.

Charlie Austin watched his shot screw wide - BBC

Millwall deserved to win; Swindon were terrible in the first half. But that is not the point. A far from perfect pitch let the game down in an important game.

True, most people don’t care about the League One playoff final. Fewer care about the League Two playoff final, which is in line to be the next victim of the pitch when Dagenham and Redbridge (who, in particular, offer an attractive style of football in the final third which involves passing the ball – a potential concern) play Rotherham this afternoon. That these are not significant games to many outside the two clubs is of course, irrelevant.

But the warning signs are there: England will play matches there with hundreds of thousands watching. Wembley will host the 2011 Champions League final. If someone gets injured, slipping on a duplicitous grassy sod, the Wembley suits will not hear the end of it. Nor will they if, at 0-0 with ten minutes left, Wayne Rooney slashes wide against Real Madrid after a bobble.

It is obvious to people watching at home and it is of concern to players and managers. Players wield an inordinate amount of power in the game but on this issue their views must be acted upon. However the FA and Wembley staff sort the ‘curious microclimate’ out; however many discussions it takes between groundsmen and suits, it needs sorting. There must have been attempts (the pitch has been relayed eleven times) but this has not heped. Fairer Subbuteo games have been played when eager youths have forgetten to iron the baize before laying it on the kitchen table.

The best thing that can be said about the pitch is is equally uncomfortable for both teams to play on, and therefore equally likely to inconvenience both sides. We should, though, expect better from the national stadium’s pitch – on which, of course, every available game is being played to recoup the massive amount of money spent on it.

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