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Sep 2, 2010

The grass is always greener

It seems plastic isn't quite so fantastic north of the border.

Artificial pitches have long been hailed as the answer to Scotland's inevitable fixture pile up triggered by the winter weather that plagues the country, but a new storm has erupted in the wake of the sickening injury Aberdeen's rising star Fraser Fyvie suffered while playing on Alloa Athletic's synthetic surface.

The 17-year-old severed ligaments in his left knee and now faces a gruelling mental and physical struggle to battle back to full fitness. The serious setback has angered his Dons boss Mark McGhee and will no doubt have disappointed many other managers down south - Birmingham City and Blackburn Rovers are among the list of clubs who have already been alerted by Fyvie's rapid rise to the top.

Fyvie's injury took the shine off of Aberdeen's recent 3-0 Scottish League Cup victory over the Second Division side and has sparked yet another debate about artificial pitches.

"It's a real shame, especially as it could have been avoided," McGhee said after the game. "I don't think Fraser would have suffered that injury had we been playing on a normal grass pitch. The synthetic surfaces are great for training purposes, in the sense of passing the ball between each other, but in dynamic movement it's a dangerous surface.

"Fraser is a terrific young player with a very bright future ahead of him and I'm sure he'll return much stronger once he gets through the recovery process. He'll be properly looked after and I intend to give him as much time as possible to make a full recovery. He's a young lad with his whole career in front of him so he has no need to worry.

"But I'm still angry this has happened as he should be looking to build on the impact he made last term and be looking to further establish himself in the team. There's no doubt in my mind he has been a victim because he plays with such power. He's suffered a bad injury which happened as he was forced to change direction very quickly on Alloa's surface. Those types of pitches are simply not conducive to a high-powered change of direction or deceleration."

McGhee's comments have been echoed by many of his peers within the Scottish game. Former Aberdeen striker Noel Whelan also hit out on the subject, saying artificial pitches should be scrapped completely from football.

Understandably, Alloa manager Allan Maitland defended his home turf, claiming the surface had no bearing on Fyvie's injury, but if these pitches are so good then just why haven't any of the leading lights in Europe like Manchester United, Chelsea or Barcelona ever installed them at their stadiums?

UEFA may have given them the green light to be used in certain matches but Europe's governing body ordered Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium artificial pitch to be replaced by a traditional grass one for the 2008 European Champions League final. Granted, the technological advances made recently mean the synthetic surfaces clubs use now are much better than the first generation pitches we saw in the 1980s when Luton, Oldham, Preston and QPR first championed the plastic pitches. The ball was almost uncontrollable while players regularly complained about suffering carpet burns before the English FA eventually banned them in 1988.

Quite clearly, the clubs who played on them on a regular basis were being handed a huge advantage, and Harry Redknapp has also made his feelings clear on the controversial matter. His Tottenham Hotspur side nearly crashed out of the Champions League when they slipped to an early three-goal deficit in their game on Young Boys' plastic playing surface.

"It's not an excuse as to why we struggled away against Young Boys, but I played on Astroturf myself and hated every minute of it," he said. "We've had it at QPR - thankfully we don't have it anymore in England. I don't agree with Astroturf and I don't think Astroturf should be used in a competition like the Champions League."

In more recent history, Dunfermline were chosen by UEFA to pilot the use of synthetic surface when they were still a Scottish Premier League team. The Pars received a cash grant of £130,000 to install a new pitch, but it was quickly ridiculed and didn't last long before the decision was taken to rip it up.

There are of course many counter arguments for the case to continue to persevere with artificial pitches - mainly supported by bureaucrats and money men. They allow games to be played in all conditions and could in the long term prove to be cheaper than continually tending to grass pitches. But for the football purists like McGhee, Whelan and Redknapp, the future is grass.

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