When promotion could mean relegation: National League trio may be forced to install grass pitches

Sutton United concede a goal in their FA Cup fifth-round tie against Arsenal in February 2017
Artificial pitches have been allowed in all rounds of the FA Cup since 2014-15 and the National League since 2015-16, but are not currently permitted in the English Football League

Imagine winning promotion at the end of the season, only to end up being relegated because you play on the wrong type of pitch.

That is a situation facing three National League clubs - Bromley, Maidstone United and Sutton United - whose 3G surfaces are permitted at their current level, but not in the English Football League.

Under National League regulations, any club which wins promotion but does not install a grass surface to comply with EFL rules would subsequently be demoted to National League North or National League South, and could also be fined.

EFL clubs are discussing whether to allow artificial pitches, but a vote on the issue is unlikely until June 2018.

Should any of those three sides be promoted next May they would face a stark choice; tearing up their pitch to win promotion, or dropping down a tier.

Both Sutton, who are fourth in the National League table, and Maidstone, five points outside the play-offs places, have described the rule as "vindictive".

Part-timers Sutton, who spent around £500,000 installing their Fifa-approved pitch and hosted FA Cup matches against Leeds United and Arsenal last season, could choose to appeal to the Football Association to allow them to play in the EFL if they are promoted.

"If the rules don't change, we have a simple decision to make," manager Paul Doswell told BBC Sport.

"You either go into League Two or end up in the National League South. I think most clubs around the country would look at that and think it's unfair.

"It would be a massive shame if we had to take our 3G pitch up and go into League Two next year with a grass pitch."

Rules should 'evolve'

Sutton manager Paul Doswell
Last season Sutton manager Paul Doswell led the U's to 12th in the National League, their highest finish since 1990, and the FA Cup fifth round

The National League, who have allowed artificial turf since 2015-16, say their rule would cease to apply if the EFL accepted clubs with 3G pitches.

As all clubs in the division have to sign an irrevocable agreement to abide by that particular rule, Dover chairman Jim Parmenter, who also sits on the National League board, says dissenting clubs "do not have a leg to stand on".

With artificial pitches prevalent in Scotland and allowed in FA competitions, Maidstone co-chairman Oliver Ash believes English football's governing body have a responsibility to step in and help change National League and EFL directives.

"Rules are not always fair or sensible, and all rules evolve in a civilised society," he told BBC Radio Kent.

"The football authorities cannot always expect clubs to vote to change rules because clubs don't always vote for rules that might be against their own specific interests.

"I believe that in 10 years' time people will look back on the attitudes of conservatives towards 3G today, and think 'how did they not see the light?'"

Wenger 'didn't complain' about artificial surface

Meanwhile, Sutton and Maidstone have defended their pitches from recent criticism by fellow National League clubs.

Ebbsfleet vice-chairman Peter Varney described them as "inconsistent surfaces" which encourage "a more direct and less attractive" style of play, while Parmenter has said "most clubs don't like" 3G surfaces and thinks they are of a "varying standard" and "play differently".

Ash described Varney's comments as "absolute nonsense", while Doswell said Parmenter was "speaking without any knowledge".

Arsenal's Rob Holding and Sutton's Maxime Biamou challenge for the ball during their FA Cup tie in February
Arsenal beat Sutton on the artificial surface at Gander Green Lane en route to winning the FA Cup last season

"The view you can't play good football on a 3G pitch is ridiculous," Doswell added.

"We had no complaints from [Arsenal boss] Arsene Wenger or [former Leeds manager] Garry Monk last season.

"Teams can go and play Barcelona tippy-tappy football if they want to - we just choose not to.

"If they are going to point to the quality of the pitches, then I'd argue that most League Two pitches aren't fit for purpose."

EFL clubs 'would benefit' from 3G

All National League clubs hoping to be promoted have to outline how they would meet the EFL's criteria by the end of December.

Sutton and Maidstone say the artificial surfaces boost community engagement in their clubs and, in turn, improve attendances.

"We would adhere to the rules but we would make a big play between now and the end of the season to lobby about it and keep talking sensibly about it," Doswell said.

"Most League Two clubs are drowning in debt. They would benefit from the model of getting more people into their club."

An EFL spokesman said the league were "aware of the commercial and financial opportunities" provided by artificial pitches, and added that clubs were debating the issue as part of their ongoing stadium criteria review.

Football League clubs voted against allowing artificial pitches in February 2015 after a ballot about their introduction in League One and League Two the previous November ended in a tie.

Top Stories