Plastic or fantastic: The stories of QPR, Luton, Oldham and Preston and their plastic pitches

Plastic pitches

Welcome back folks, where we continue to delve into the captivating history of English football and the fascinating stories that have shaped the beautiful game. Today, we take you on a journey back in time to an era when football pitches underwent a revolutionary transformation – the age of plastic pitches.

In the early 1980s, amidst harsh winters and scorching summers, several English clubs sought to break free from the constraints of natural grass pitches. Queens Park Rangers (QPR), Luton Town, Oldham Athletic, and Preston North End took a daring leap by installing artificial turf in their stadiums. The decision sparked debates, controversies, and even accusations of unfair advantages, but it also set the stage for some remarkable successes.

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In this feature-length article, we explore the captivating tales of QPR, Luton, Oldham, and Preston during their plastic pitch era. From the birth of artificial surfaces to the rise of these clubs on Omni-Turf and Sporturf International, we unravel the factors that led to their triumphs and the challenges they faced along the way.

Join us as we unravel the impact of plastic pitches on these historic football clubs and the legacy they left behind. Let’s dive into the fascinating history of plastic pitches in English football, where controversy and triumph went hand in hand, and where the debate over artificial surfaces still lingers in the modern game.

The start of plastic pitches

In the 1960s, the Houston Astro-Dome in the United States witnessed a revolutionary moment in sports history – the birth of Astro-Turf. Initially attempting to grow natural grass indoors, the stadium’s owners soon realized the challenges posed by such an endeavour. Instead, they turned to a novel alternative – a synthetic playing surface that would forever change the landscape of sports.

Astro-Turf’s debut in the Astro-Dome caught the attention of sports enthusiasts worldwide. Its lower maintenance requirements, durability, and ability to withstand varying weather conditions soon made it popular across North America. As the years passed, artificial pitches began to sprout up in different sports, from American football to baseball, and even soccer.

QPR’s decision to embrace Omni-Turf

For Queens Park Rangers (QPR), the decision to adopt artificial turf was driven by a pressing need to overcome the challenges posed by their natural grass pitch. The harsh winters and arid summers of the late 1970s and early 1980s had taken a toll on Loftus Road’s playing surface. What once was a lush green field had turned into a quagmire during milder winters, and a dry, patchy terrain during spring and summer.

The adverse effects on the pitch were beginning to impact QPR’s performance on the field. Despite coming close to league glory in 1979, the team faced relegation in 1979 and struggled to secure promotion back to Division One. By the end of the 1980/81 season, they found themselves finishing eighth, seven points away from the promotion spots.

“We made the decision to adopt the plastic pitch, and it’s working well for us. The players have adjusted, and we’re seeing some fantastic football.”

Terry Venables

With an eye on a solution, QPR embarked on a fact-finding mission to the United States, seeking inspiration from American sports and their experience with artificial pitches. The idea of having a more consistent and durable playing surface resonated with the club’s management, and they decided to bid farewell to their natural grass pitch.

In 1981, Loftus Road underwent a transformation as Omni-Turf, a rival surface to Astro-Turf, was installed. The decision was met with both intrigue and scepticism. Critics derided the new surface as a “plastic pitch,” unsure if it could truly match the charm and unpredictability of natural grass. But QPR’s quest for a reliable playing field had led them down this path.

The installation of Omni-Turf was a bold move that stirred debates among fans and the football community. How would QPR adapt to this new surface? Would it provide them with an edge over opponents, or would it be the catalyst for unforeseen challenges?

As the inaugural match unfolded on the Omni-Turf at Loftus Road, QPR’s journey into the era of plastic pitches had just begun. It was a time of excitement, curiosity, and uncertainty – the birth of a new chapter in English football’s history.

QPR’s first-ever game on the plastic pitch

As the sun set on September 1st, 1981, history was about to unfold at Loftus Road as Queens Park Rangers (QPR) prepared to host Luton Town. It was a momentous occasion, for this would be the first-ever football match played on an artificial surface. QPR had taken a bold step, investing £300,000 to replace their natural grass pitch with this groundbreaking innovation.

The atmosphere inside Loftus Road was charged with anticipation and curiosity. Fans from both sides filled the stadium, eager to witness how this new playing surface would shape the game. Chants of “We Want Grass” echoed through the away end as Luton Town supporters expressed their apprehension about the unfamiliar territory they were about to tread.

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The match commenced, and as the players took to the artificial pitch, it became clear that this was no ordinary encounter. QPR drew first blood when former Luton player, Andy King, found the back of the net to put the home team ahead. However, Luton Town was not to be outdone by the novelty of the surface, and they showcased their adaptability.

In the 70th minute, Mark Aizlewood rose to the occasion, leveling the score for Luton with a skillful finish. The game was finely poised, and both teams sought to claim victory on this unprecedented stage. With only six minutes left on the clock, Luton’s tenacity bore fruit. Ricky Hill seized the moment and elegantly guided the ball past QPR’s goalkeeper, John Burridge, sending the away fans into raptures.

The final whistle blew, and history was etched into the annals of football. Luton Town had emerged triumphant on the artificial pitch, demonstrating their prowess and adaptability to the new surface. David Pleat, Luton’s manager, expressed his delight at the experience, confident that more memorable matches would unfold on this revolutionary pitch.

Little did anyone know that a strange twist of fate awaited Luton Town. Four years later, in the summer of 1985, the Hatters would follow in QPR’s footsteps, installing their own artificial surface. This move marked the beginning of a remarkable period for Luton Town, where they would showcase their footballing excellence on the very same type of pitch that had once seemed so alien to them.

The era of plastic pitches had begun, leaving an indelible mark on English football. As QPR and Luton Town paved the way, more clubs would soon embark on their own journey into the world of artificial surfaces, forever altering the way the beautiful game was played and experienced.

Within a year of embracing Omni-Turf, QPR achieved what they had long sought – promotion back to Division One. The newfound consistency and familiarity with their home surface played a significant role in their resurgence.

Luton Town’s history on their plastic pitch

Luton Town’s decision to adopt artificial turf in 1985 marked a significant turning point in the club’s history. The move not only changed the landscape of their home ground, Kenilworth Road, but also had a profound impact on the team’s performances and fortunes on the pitch – Pleat was an initial fan, remember.

Choosing Sporturf International’s version of artificial turf over the Omni-Turf option, Luton Town aimed to reap the benefits of a more advanced surface. The multi-layered pitch consisted of a base of broken stones and bitumen macadam, designed to provide better shock absorption and stability. Topped with sand and the artificial surface itself, the pitch was intended to reduce injuries and offer improved playing conditions.

Under the astute management of Ray Harford, who succeeded David Pleat in 1986, Luton Town quickly adapted to their new home surface. Harford’s tactical approach and the team’s technical skills complemented the artificial turf’s characteristics, and the Hatters soon developed a distinctive style of play that made them formidable opponents at Kenilworth Road.

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Luton Town’s success on the artificial pitch was undeniable. The team consistently performed well in the First Division, securing solid top-half finishes and showing signs of potential for greater things. One of the standout moments came in the 1987/88 season when they reached the final of the League Cup.

Facing off against Arsenal at Wembley, Luton Town produced a stunning comeback to win 3-2, overturning a two-goal deficit with goals from Brian Stein (2) and Danny Wilson. The victory was a moment of triumph for the Hatters and a testament to their ability to thrive on the artificial pitch – whilst still being able to play an attractive style of football on grass.

Despite some detractors who dismissed their success as merely a result of the artificial surface, Luton Town continued to prove their worth on the pitch. The team’s performances on the plastic pitch belied any notion that their success was solely due to the unique conditions of their home ground.

However, the controversy surrounding artificial pitches in English football was growing, and the detractors’ voices were becoming louder. Some critics argued that Luton’s results were inflated due to the artificial surface, claiming that their style of play was tailored specifically to exploit its features.

Despite these criticisms, Luton Town’s achievements on their plastic pitch cannot be discounted. The team maintained a competitive edge and a strong home record throughout their time on the artificial surface. They displayed an attacking and entertaining brand of football that endeared them to many fans and earned them respect within the footballing community.

Ultimately, the Football League decided to ban artificial pitches in 1995, and Luton Town reluctantly returned to playing on natural grass. While they continued to have some notable moments in their history, including a memorable League Cup triumph in 1988 and a promotion to the top flight in 1982, the memories of their successful era on the plastic pitch at Kenilworth Road remain cherished by the Hatters faithful.

The legacy of Luton Town’s history on the artificial turf endures as a reminder of an era when the club thrived on a surface that both divided opinion and left a lasting impact on English football.

Oldham Athletic’s plastic transformation

For Oldham Athletic, the adoption of artificial turf in 1986 marked a transformational period in the club’s history. Under the guidance of manager Joe Royle, the Latics quickly embraced their new home surface and turned it into a fortress that brought about remarkable results.

One of the key elements of Oldham’s success on the artificial pitch was the psychological edge that Royle instilled in his players. The manager believed that his team had the upper hand on the surface, and this confidence translated into their performances. Players felt at home on the artificial turf and approached matches with a sense of familiarity and comfort.

The results were evident on the pitch. Oldham Athletic quickly rose through the divisions, enjoying a rapid ascent from mid-ranging Division Two contenders to Division One. In the 1989/90 season, Oldham experienced a memorable FA Cup run that saw them reach the semi-finals. In the two-legged semi-final against Manchester United at Maine Road, Oldham outplayed the eventual champions for large periods of the tie, showcasing their ability to compete at the highest level.

Oldham’s success was not limited to cup competitions, as they also enjoyed a 32-game unbeaten run at Boundary Park. Their relentless attacking style of play, fueled by an infectious team spirit, endeared them to fans and pundits alike. Oldham Athletic became a team to be reckoned with, and their artificial pitch played a significant role in their achievements.

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During Oldham Athletic’s tenure on the artificial pitch, they experienced a significant upturn in their fortunes under the management of Joe Royle. The installation of the artificial pitch in 1986 aimed to generate more income for the club, and it seemed to have a positive impact on their performance.

In the 1987 season, Oldham reached the play-offs, signaling the beginning of their rise. However, it was in the 1989-90 season that the club experienced one of its greatest-ever campaigns. Oldham achieved major upsets in competitions, defeating strong teams like Arsenal, Southampton, Everton, and Aston Villa. Critics believed that the artificial pitch provided an advantage, but in 1991, Joe Royle responded to such claims in a remarkable way. When Portsmouth manager Frank Burrows asserted that Oldham could not play away from home, Royle stuck the article to the dressing room door, and the team responded with a convincing 4-1 victory.

“I can’t say I’m a fan of this surface. The ball behaves differently, and it’s tough on goalkeepers. But I’ll adapt and keep doing my best.”

Peter Shilton

The pinnacle of success on the artificial pitch came at the end of the 1990-91 season when Oldham secured promotion to the top flight. The final match on the plastic pitch was a moment of sheer excitement, as Latics had to beat Sheffield Wednesday and rely on West Ham losing to win the old Second Division. Despite being 2-0 down against Sheffield Wednesday, Ian Marshall pulled one back, and Paul Bernard equalized with less than ten minutes to play. Then, in added time, Andy Barlow was fouled in the box, and a penalty was awarded. Neil Redfearn converted the penalty, leading to a mass pitch invasion, as it was confirmed that West Ham had lost 2-1 at home to Notts County. The promotion to the top flight came at a cost, as Oldham Athletic had to remove the plastic pitch due to league rules.

The club enjoyed three seasons in the top division (1991-92, 1992-93, and 1993-94) before being relegated.

Preston North End’s remarkable artificial rise

Preston North End’s journey with artificial turf was nothing short of remarkable. At the end of the 1985/86 season, the club found themselves at the lowest point in their history, finishing in 91st place in the Football League and facing the prospect of applying for re-election. The future looked bleak for Preston.

However, everything changed with the installation of the artificial pitch in the summer of 1986. The new surface provided a much-needed boost for the club, both financially and in terms of performance. It allowed Preston North End to generate extra income by hosting matches year-round, irrespective of weather conditions.

Under the management of John McGrath, Preston enjoyed an impressive resurgence. The team’s form improved drastically, and they quickly climbed up the Football League ladder. The following season, they secured promotion back to Division Three, showcasing their ability to compete and succeed on the artificial turf.

However, it was under the management of John Beck that Preston North End experienced the pinnacle of their success on the plastic pitch. Beck’s direct and often aerial approach to the game, similar to the tactics he employed during his time at Cambridge United, proved to be effective on the artificial surface.

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Preston’s style of play and the unique characteristics of the artificial pitch synergized well, allowing the team to reach the Division Three playoffs. They progressed to the playoff final at Wembley in a bid to secure promotion to the third tier. Unfortunately, they fell short at the last hurdle, facing defeat in the final.

As time passed, the novelty of the artificial pitch wore off, and Preston North End faced challenges in adapting their style of play to grass surfaces. Beck’s tactics, which worked well on the artificial turf, struggled to produce the same results on natural grass. The club eventually suffered relegation back to the fourth tier.

Despite their eventual regression, Preston North End’s remarkable rise on the artificial pitch remains a memorable chapter in their history. It was a period of hope and revival for a club that was once on the brink of extinction, and the artificial surface played a pivotal role in their resurgence.

Thanks to the local press, we were able to get hold of these stats about Preston on plastic.

During the eight-year period when Preston North End played on the infamous artificial surface, they participated in a total of 182 league games, with a winning percentage of just over 50 per cent.

Over these 182 league games on the plastic pitch, a total of 559 goals were scored, resulting in an average of 3.07 goals per game. In comparison, the average number of goals per game on grass during the last eight years played on that surface were 2.7, with a total of 66 more goals scored on the artificial pitch during the same period.

Under John Beck’s management reign, Preston North End only failed to score in three matches on the plastic pitch, with an impressive goal rate of 3.7 per game. Despite winning more games on the plastic surface compared to the previous eight years on grass, they still failed to secure victory in over 48 per cent of the games, challenging the notion that the artificial pitch provided a significant advantage to North End.

The return of Deepdale’s grass pitch occurred in the summer of 1994, marking the end of the era on the artificial surface. The last league opponents faced by Preston, Carlisle United, became the 66th different team to participate in league or cup matches at Deepdale on the synthetic surface, and they also left with a victory. Notably, Hartlepool and Aldershot, both considered unfashionable clubs, played three league games on the artificial pitch and remained undefeated, while Walsall played and lost three games without scoring a goal.

Throughout the years of playing on the artificial pitch, a total of 57 different North End players scored league goals on that surface. Tony Ellis, the current player of the year at that time, stood out with the highest number of goals, scoring 45 in total. Eight North End players managed to record a hat-trick on the plastic, with Tony Ellis and John Thomas leading the way, each scoring three hat-tricks.

“I’m not convinced this is football anymore. Real football should be played on real grass, not this fake stuff. It’s for asthmatics and ballet dancers.”

Brian Clough

From December 26, 1987, to October 14, 1989, inclusive, Preston North End impressively scored in 40 consecutive league games on the artificial surface, netting a total of 94 goals during that period.

In their last game on grass, Preston North End played to a 2-2 draw against Exeter, with Simon Gibson being the last PNE player to score on grass at Deepdale. The top five goal-scorers on the artificial pitch (league games only) were Tony Ellis (45), Gary Swann (30), Warren Joyce (25), Gary Brazil (22), and John Thomas (17).

Comparing the eight seasons of playing on the artificial pitch to the previous eight seasons on grass, Preston North End achieved 94 wins, 46 draws, and 42 losses on the artificial surface, while on grass, they secured 72 wins, 59 draws, and 47 losses out of 178 games played.

The FA’s Decision to Ban Plastic Pitches

As the 1980s progressed, the use of artificial pitches in English football became a subject of growing controversy and debate. While some clubs enjoyed success and financial benefits from the artificial surfaces, others raised concerns about the impact on the game and player safety. The detractors argued that the bounce and unpredictable nature of the ball on artificial turf disrupted the traditional style of play and could lead to injuries.

The ban on artificial pitches by the Football Association (FA) came in 1995, effectively putting an end to the era of plastic pitches in English football. The decision was met with mixed reactions from clubs and supporters alike. For clubs like QPR, Luton Town, Oldham Athletic, and Preston North End, who had experienced success and prominence on artificial surfaces, the ban was a disappointing blow.

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QPR’s Return to Grass

Queens Park Rangers, the pioneers of artificial turf, were the first to revert to grass after the ban. At the end of the 1987/88 season, QPR decided to remove their Omni-Turf and reinstall natural grass at Loftus Road. Although the artificial pitch had initially brought about improved results, it became evident that it was not a long-term solution for the club. QPR opted to return to traditional grass in the hope of restoring the club’s identity and style of play.

Luton Town’s transition back to grass

Luton Town, the second club to embrace artificial turf, had their Sporturf International pitch laid in 1985. The Hatters enjoyed considerable success during their time on the artificial surface, including winning the League Cup in 1988. However, as the debate over artificial pitches intensified, the club decided to revert to grass in the summer of 1991. The decision was influenced by complaints from players and opposition teams about the playing conditions on the artificial pitch.

Oldham Athletic’s farewell to artificial turf

For Oldham Athletic, the transition away from the artificial pitch occurred in 1994, just before the ban was officially implemented. The Latics had experienced a golden period on their Sporturf International pitch, achieving promotion to Division One and enjoying memorable FA Cup runs. However, as the debate over the impact of artificial surfaces on the game intensified, Oldham made the decision to return to natural grass at Boundary Park.

Preston North End’s return to natural

Preston North End, the club that embraced artificial turf in 1986, reverted to grass at the end of the 1993/94 season. The decision to return to traditional grass was partly influenced by the overall ban on artificial pitches and also due to the challenges the club faced in adapting their style of play on different surfaces. After experiencing success and promotions on the artificial pitch, Preston had to adjust their game on grass, and the transition was not without difficulties.

The ban on plastic pitches by the FA marked the end of an era in English football. While artificial surfaces had their moments of success and controversy, the decision to return to grass was a symbolic return to the sport’s traditional roots. Today, artificial pitches are still used in certain contexts, but they have not regained the same prominence they once held in English football.

Plastic Pitches: What they said

The introduction of plastic pitches in English football during the 1980s sparked both excitement and controversy among players, managers, and football pundits alike. Here are some notable quotes from well-known football personalities of that era, reflecting the diverse opinions surrounding the artificial surfaces:

Kevin Keegan, English forward, and manager: “It’s like playing on a snooker table. The ball runs so smoothly that it takes some getting used to. As a forward, I can’t complain about the bounce, though!”

Brian Clough, renowned manager: “I’m not convinced this is football anymore. Real football should be played on real grass, not this fake stuff. It’s for asthmatics and ballet dancers.”

Bryan Robson, Manchester United and England captain: “We prefer the good old grass pitches, but we can’t let it be an excuse for poor performances. We have to adapt and keep winning.”

Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool legend and manager: “As a player, you always grew up dreaming of playing on the hallowed turf. This new plastic era feels different, but we must embrace the change and make the most of it.”

Howard Kendall, Everton manager: “It’s a great advantage for us. Our style of football is well suited to the plastic pitch. We can move the ball quickly and precisely.”

Peter Shilton, England’s goalkeeper: “I can’t say I’m a fan of this surface. The ball behaves differently, and it’s tough on goalkeepers. But I’ll adapt and keep doing my best.”

Terry Venables, Queens Park Rangers manager: “We made the decision to adopt the plastic pitch, and it’s working well for us. The players have adjusted, and we’re seeing some fantastic football.”

Lawrie McMenemy, Southampton manager: “I have mixed feelings about the artificial pitches. It’s true that injuries seem to be less frequent, but I miss the traditional mud and grit of the game.”

Bobby Robson, England manager: “Plastic or grass, we must continue to develop our players and play attractive football. The pitch doesn’t define the spirit of the game.”

Gary Lineker, England striker: “Scoring goals is my job, and whether it’s grass or plastic, I’ll keep putting the ball in the net.”

The advent of plastic pitches in English football certainly stirred passionate debates, with each side expressing their thoughts on how it impacted the beautiful game. While some embraced the modernization and potential advantages, others held onto the nostalgia and tradition associated with the natural grass pitches. As the 1980s unfolded, football would continue to evolve, and the era of plastic pitches would leave a lasting mark on the sport’s history.