Football pitches have changed and evolved like the rest of the sport in the last half a century. New technologies have changed the way that the game is played, the kits are manufactured, and how the stadiums are designed and built.
Football is part of the English national fabric and the way that our stadiums have been built has always been considered by many to be a poignant reflection of the society in which they exist.
It is therefore of interest to understand exactly how pitches have changed over the second half of the twentieth century until today.
The Modern Pitch
The first pitches that are widely recognised as being modern appeared towards the end of the 50’s and became widespread throughout the 60’s. Undersoil heating started to appear during this time, but as far as differences that the average spectator would notice, stadiums were still standing room only and pitches were surrounded by fencing.
It was also during the 60’s that the first artificial turf was seen, although it would later (1996) be banned.
Whereas football pitch markings are today painted by companies like Bowcom who use line marketing technology, they used to be painted by hand. The FA, however, took steps to standardise measurements and ratios so that players would be comfortable playing on any pitch.
No single event has had the same level of impact on how football has been perceived and how stadiums and pitches have been design than the Hillsborough disaster. It occurred on April 15th 1989 when a variety of factors led to Liverpool’s football ground becoming overcrowded. The surge in the crowd caused fans nearest to the pitch to be crushed to death between the wall of people behind them and the large chain-link fence that ran the perimeter of the pitch. Such fences were later removed, reducing the physical barrier between the spectator and the pitch.
There had been incidents similar to the Hillsborough tragedy before, but on this occasion the death toll was 96, making it far more deadly than any of the previous incidents. It provided the final impetus for converting all the major sports stadiums (and later all sports stadiums) in Britain to all-seating models. A raft of legislation was introduced to formalise the obligation sports clubs had to the safety of their visitors. At the time, the change only extended to the top two divisions but has since been expanded and has been successful in preventing another tragedy from occurring.
The laws surrounding ticket sales were changed so that football tickets could only be sold through the clubs themselves. This was primarily introduced so that fans of different teams could be segregated, in an effort to reduce hooliganism and violence, but it was also a way of making it easier to identify individuals within the crowd. The segregation of fans in the stands produced an atmospheric change noted by many players on the pitch.
More and more technology is being introduced to the football pitch and much more is planned for the future. Goal-line technology, which can definitively make a call as to whether the ball crosses the goal line, has proven hard to roll-out even though it is now trivial to achieve. Similarly, tiny tracking devices could soon allow for an automatic calling of offside.
Football pitches have been constantly evolving since the game began. The basic design has not changed but behind the scenes, from underfloor heating to the emergence of advanced irrigation and drainage systems, they continue to change at a rapid pace.