By Keith Brookman
During the 1980’s four Football League clubs, namely Queens Park Rangers, Preston North End, Luton Town and Oldham Athletic, laid plastic pitches at their grounds.
However, artificial surfaces were banned from English Professional Football in 1995 over issues with ball roll and bounce and fears over long term injuries.
Whilst still not allowed in the English Football League or the Premier League, many non league clubs have now installed artificial / 3G pitches which are a vast improvement on those early plastic surfaces and Rovers will find just how good they are on Tuesday when they travel to play on Bromley’s two year old FIFA Quality Pro 3G pitch in their FA Cup first round replay.
More of that later but just how did Rovers fare on the old plastic surfaces? Well, they never played at QPR’s Loftus Road ground which had a plastic pitch from 1981-1988. The last league games between the clubs were in 1980/81 and we haven’t met in the league since then, though we did play at Loftus Road in last season’s Carabao Cup.
Oldham Athletic’s plastic surface was installed in 1986 and that lasted until 1991, the last game on the surface being a 3-2 win against Sheffield Wednesday that saw The Latics promoted to the top flight of English Football. Rovers played on that Boundary Park surface just the once, losing 2-0 on 9th March 1991.
Luton Town installed a plastic pitch in 1985, and a second one replaced it in 1989 before the club reverted to playing on grass. Our one appearance on that surface ended in a 4-0 defeat in a fourth round FA cup tie on 25th January 1986.
The plastic surface at Deepdale, home of Preston North End, lasted from 1986 until 1994 and, as far as I can tell, Rovers played on it on three occasions. They were beaten 3-1 on 8th April 1988, drew 1-1 on 11th February 1989 and won 1-0 on 10th February 1990.
The fact that Bromley, Tuesday night’s opponents, play on a 3G pitch at their Hayes Lane ground has prompted many to wonder about the last time Rovers played on a surface other than grass and, to be honest, it wasn’t that long ago.
On Sunday 14th July 2015 Rovers paid a visit to the wonderfully entitled Gander Green Lane, home of Sutton United, and became the first side to play on their brand new 3G surface.
The day before the match Rovers boss Darrell Clarke had taken a side to his previous club, Salisbury, and watched them get their pre-season campaign off to a winning start with a 4-1 win.
The side that travelled to face Sutton was made up of Clarke’s remaining first teamers, with a few younger members of his squad.
The game was a scrappy affair, though Rovers did win 2-1 thanks to goals from Chris Lines and Ryan Broom, with Jamie Collins scoring for the home side from the penalty spot.
Lines opened the scoring in the first half with a well placed free kick from the edge of the area and Broom, who was brought on at the start of the second half, added the second ten minutes from time when he beat goalkeeper Ross Worner after dispossessing central defender Simon Downer.
The home side’s consolation goal was scored on 84 minutes when the referee decided that a Dan Wishart cross had been handles in the area. Collins saw his first attempt from the spot saved by goalkeeper Kieran Preston, but he converted at the second attempt.
As well as Preston in goal, former City player Jennison Myrie-Williams was in the Rovers starting lineup and another former City (and Torquay) player Toby Ajala also started, as did two members of the current squad, Ollie Clarke and Alfie Kilgour.
The side was as follows; Kieran Preston, Daniel Leadbitter, James Clarke (Alfie Kilgour, 66), Tom Parkes, Lee Brown, Jennison Myrie-Williams, Chris Lines (Dominic Thomas, 73), Ollie Clarke, Toby Ajala, Ellis Harrison (Jay Malpas, 52), Matty Taylor (Ryan Broom, 46).
That wasn’t the first time that Rovers had played at Gander Green Lane as Gerry Francis was in charge when Rovers visited the venue for a pre-season friendly on Saturday 28th July 2001, though this game was played on grass.
Rovers trailed 2-0 until 12 minutes from time as home striker Matt Fowler netted in the 55th and 63rd minutes. Nathan Ellington pulled a goal back for Rovers on 78 minutes and Kevin Gall equalised five minutes later.
There were some in the side that Rovers fielded that afternoon who were never heard of again, at least not in a Rovers shirt. Ville Viljanen, for example, was in on trial. He had won a solitary cap for Finland in 1999 and had made 34 appearances for Port Vale.
James Morrow was another in, on trial from Crewe Alexandra I think. Neither he nor Viljanen appear to have gone on to play pro football in this country though Viljanen went on to spend three years playing in Sweden for GAIS.
The side that afternoon was; Scott Howie, Che Wilson (David Prichard, 46), Andy Thomson, Steve Foster, Mark Foran (Trevor Challis, 65), Rik Lopez (Scott Jones, 46), Kevin Gall, Ronnie Mauge (Vitalijs Astafjevs, 65), Lewis Hogg, Alvin Bubb (James Morrow, 46), Ville Viljanen (Nathan Ellington, 46).
No doubt Rovers will have trained on a 3G surface prior to their first round replay to familiarize themselves with the type of surface they are likely to play on in Tuesday’s FA Cup replay. Fingers crossed for a victory to send us through to a second round tie against Plymouth Argyle at The Mem!