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Monday, February 20, 2012
With a public consultation to consider overturning the ban on artificial pitches, Peter Hucker recalls the days of QPR’s plastic surface
Not many people are better qualified to offer an opinion on the merits of artificial pitches than former QPR goalkeeper Peter Hucker.
Hucker (pictured right) played on Rangers’ controversial Omniturf surface, the first of its kind in England, more times than any other keeper, and has the bruises – and worse – to show for it.
Yet, with the Football League announcing a public consultation to consider overturning the ban on artificial pitches, Hucker believes a return to plastic is certain to happen.
And the 52-year-old is by no means opposed to such a move, pointing out that the quality of synthetic surfaces has vastly improved since 1981, when QPR installed their revolutionary plastic pitch.
Hucker has run a successful coaching school in Essex for some years now and, although the main site at Wanstead has grass pitches, they also use a 3G surface at Dagenham.
“I have played on the latest Astroturf and dived about on it a bit without many problems, even at my age!” Hucker told the Times.
“There’s give on it and I’ve even seen people playing in studs without a problem, which you’d never have been able to do at Loftus Road. It’s a totally different animal now.
“We were the guinea pigs – someone was always going to experiment with it – but I think we’re now in a transitional period where I can see more teams going to artificial pitches.
“I wouldn’t be totally against it and I think it’s inevitable, especially for the smaller clubs that need to get their revenue up. If they can use the pitch 24/7 that can only be good for them.
“Don’t forget artificial pitches are allowed by UEFA. The only problem I can see is that, if the Premier League didn’t allow them, clubs would have a problem if they got promoted and had to rip up the pitch and start again.”
Rangers eventually tore up the Omniturf surface in 1988, the same year that the FA decided to outlaw artificial surfaces, and the similar pitches at Luton, Oldham and Preston were phased out over the next six years.
But, when Hucker broke into Terry Venables’ QPR team midway through the 1981-82 season, the experiment was very much in its infancy and, in the keeper’s opinion, came at a long-term cost.
“It was basically a bit of carpet over two feet of concrete,” Hucker reflected. “Knees, elbows, anything that came into contact with it was burnt or bruised.
“My knees were shot to pieces and I’d say seven or eight of the players who played regularly on that surface ended up having serious back operations.
“I had to go out with tracksuit bottoms and a tub of Vaseline, and Flamazine cream for after the game. I’d have close to third degree burns because the pitch would totally rip the skin off.
“At least opposing players wouldn’t slide into you because they didn’t want to get burnt. And the bounce of the ball was much truer for the goalkeeper, it came straight through.
“But the wear and tear was much worse, with that constant banging on a hard surface and I don’t think anyone could honestly say they enjoyed playing on it.”
Critics of the Omniturf frequently claimed it gave Rangers an unfair edge over visiting teams during a period in which they reached two major cup finals and won the Division Two championship.
Terry Venables’ team also qualified for Europe by finishing fifth in Division One but, at the time, the Rs were not allowed to play their home UEFA Cup ties on plastic and ‘borrowed’ Arsenal’s Highbury stadium instead,
And Hucker, who made 188 appearances for the club before joining Oxford United in 1987, has mixed views on whether the Loftus Road pitch made a significant difference to the team’s fortunes at that time.
“The year we got promotion I think we won almost as many away games as at home, so I don’t think the pitch affected us too much – and we trained on grass all week anyway,” he pointed out.
“With that said, it was a massive advantage that it played so differently from wet to dry. Man United would come down and train on the Friday before the game and it’d be bone dry.
“Then Terry would get about 15,000 gallons of water put on it – come the next day, the pitch was soaked and United couldn’t pick up the zip of the ball. They didn’t know what had hit them!”
n For information about the Peter Hucker Soccer Schools, visit www.peterhucker-soccer.com