The first youth game I ever played was aged 7 for St Louise Primary School at the Westwood Hill pitches in East Kilbride. It was a horrible rainy day and as anyone who has ever played on a wet red ash pitch will know, the surface turns to sludge and red puddles form all over the park. Five minutes into the game I jumped to win a header, only to flop over the back of the leaning midfielder beneath me and land with a splat in a red tinged puddle. I got to my feet and found I was twice as heavy from my sodden kit and I couldn’t tell where the ash ended and my blood began. A man laughing at the side of the park shouted “Welcome to real football”. He wasn’t kidding, I had many more experiences like that one. Playing on a red ash pitch on a dry day wasn’t much better. Passes would bobble and bounce in unnatural directions and falling on a red ash pitch would result in losing a few layers of skin. To say it was a difficult surface to play on is being kind.
That said, Imagine me shuffling around the Toryglen Regional Football Centre (pictured, above right) for the first time recently, mouth opened, unblinking and muttering the word “Luxury” over and over. It was at that moment that I realised just has far we’ve come in offering young footballers the best possible facilities. Absolute luxury. Many people are critical of synthetic surfaces and I’ve heard a lot of parents at youth matches talk about the old ash pitches like they were lavish and fit for a king. I then wonder whether any of them ever had to pick pieces of ash out of their teeth after being chopped down by a centre back twice their size. There is not a worse surface to play on than red ash.
It seems that most of the ash pitches have been replaced by synthetic ones but some of the artificial surfaces are not perfect. An audit in 2006 found that the older surfaces hadn’t been properly maintained. Now in 2011, I can honestly say I’ve never seen a synthetic pitch in a worse condition than the red ash parks I used to play on. If they are properly maintained then there should be no reason for youth footballers to experience the pain and lack of playability of the ash park. It makes me want to invest in a new pair of football boots and join an adult team.
The Toryglen facility is only a few years old and has set a precedent for what we should be aiming for in football facilities. With a price tag of £14.5 million, Toryglen offers a synthetic full size indoor football pitch, 3 outdoor synthetic grass pitches, an outdoor full size grass pitch, a strength and conditioning zone, a players lounge/café area, 13 7-aside pitches, a briefing room with video analysis and changing rooms with showers and toilets,. Is it any wonder I was rubbing my scars and uttering “Luxury”?
There are other fantastic facilities that I wish I could have played on. Home to the Harmony Row Youth Club is Alex Ferguson Park, which is as good a synthetic surface as you’ll find in Glasgow. Out in Bellshill, The Sir Matt Busby Complex is an excellent facility as is the East End Healthy Living Centre in Glasgow. There are decent parks at Ibrox, Cardonald and Stepford too. You don’t need to travel too far to find a good synthetic park.
So what about grass surfaces? Well the 2006 audit found that 74% of natural grass football pitches were unsatisfactory, suffering from poor drainage, poor construction and a lack of maintenance. Having been to see games at the St James’ Playing Fields in Paisley, where some of the pitches have hills and slopes in them, and at the Netherpollock pitches in Pollok Park, where surfaces are regularly waterlogged, I reckon there is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to grass. I had the luck of playing a few times on grass parks back in the day and although the parks were a country mile better than the red ash pitches, in hindsight they could lack playability too. One game I played in on a grass park had broken bottles on it and another had more than one dog dropping (not even drunks and dogs would play on ash pitches). I also remember a team-mate breaking his ankle by sliding in the mud on a waterlogged grass park.
There is no denying that youth facilities have improved 100% in the last 10-15 years. Gone are the days when you jink past a full back only to find the ball half-submerged in the pitch 9 yards behind you, or when your lob over the keeper lands dead with a splash 2 yards short of the goal line. These things don’t happen anywhere as much anymore. Steps have been made in the right direction and if we want to produce the very best players they have to play on the very best surfaces. That’s the way football is these days. The progress has been very pleasing to watch.