Sunderland's long-term pitch problem explained - and why it isn't easy to fix

"We're going to need to invest in pitches," Lee Johnson said.

Wednesday, 12th January 2022, 4:00 pm

Sunderland had just suffered a costly home defeat to a team labouring in the lower mid table of League One, never able to get going on a Stadium of Light pitch that was not in the least bit conducive to fluent attacking play.

This was January 2021, the opponent Plymouth Argyle.

So it is clearly of some concern that one year on, it's an issue that continues to affect Sunderland.

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The Stadium of Light pitch was in poor condition on Tuesday night

Johnson that day labelled the ground staff as the man of the match, hailing the efforts to get the game on in the aftermath of Storm Christopher.

This is a long-term issue and then, as now, the issue was not with the work of the groundsmen who Johnson says 'are as good as it gets'.

Clearly, there was an error made on Tuesday night, which led to the pitch being heavily watered for an extended period in the build up to kick off.

Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman had contacted Johnson before the game, alarmed by what he was seeing and wondering whether it was the directive of the head coach (whose baffled response suggested it was not).

With some areas of the pitch still carrying puddles through the early stages of the game, it was an additional hurdle for a Sunderland side labouring in search of their best attacking form.

But the watering of the turf is far from the biggest issue, nor is it an excuse Johnson is merely reaching to in defeat.

After a thumping 5-0 win over Morecambe in early December, he said: "The ground staff are fantastic, but if you gave me a million pounds to spend in January, I’d spend it on the pitch.

"It’s hard to play ice hockey on a cabbage patch.

"It’s not that bad, the groundstaff are the best I’ve worked with, but in the long term, we want that pitch that really gets us fizzing the ball around and at the moment, we haven’t got it.”

It was an issue that was expected to be addressed following Kyril Louis-Dreyfus' takeover of the club, with reports suggesting that he had sanctioned a new £500,000 turf.While there was some investment, and the pitch did look in superb condition during the opening weeks of the season, it appears not to have been to the scale required (this is why clarity over the ownership structure is important, as it allows for more direct communication on issues like this and means decision makers can be held accountable).

Johnson addressed the issue at length not long after that win over Morecambe, and explained why it is the turf itself rather than the work of the ground staff that is the issue.

Similar pitches at the Academy of Light are in outstanding condition, which reflects the different environment to that at the Stadium of Light.

Correcting the issue now is not straightforward, as it clearly cannot be done mid-season and the club have already committed to bringing back summer concerts, which is of course a major revenue boost not just to the club but the local economy at large.

"I have to be careful because I certainly don't want to disrespect anybody," Johnson said.

"I said that our ground staff are as good as it gets, both at the Stadium of Light and the Academy.

"I've gone into the history of this because the pitch is one of the most important aspects for the way I want to play.

"It is so important that the ball moves with backspin rather than like tumbleweed, which slows the game down and means we can't play the one-touch football that our number tens and our forward players are suited to.

"However, we are where we are.

"Historically, many moons ago, the club probably laid the wrong pitch," he added.

"I heard the story where the players were asked, in Premier League days, which pitch they would prefer, and one game they won 2-0 and another game they lost 1-0, and they decided to choose the pitch based on the result.

"So there was a lot of money spent initially on probably the wrong type of pitch - not necessarily a bad pitch, but you have to remember that the Stadium of Light is a big stadium.

"It doesn't get a lot of air through it, and it doesn't get a lot of light, and that becomes a problem.

"Our training ground, for example, is in absolutely A1 nick and it has exactly the same surface as the stadium pitch. That's because it gets a lot more light at the academy, and the airflow is constant because the breeze is there all year round!

"So you need to now move into your Desso-type stuff, which comes at a big cost.

"You can't do it in January, and there are concerts and all that happening [in the summer].

"I know the club will invest in the right things and they have done, there has been a lot of money spent on the training ground pitches so that we can develop young players.

"I'm not griping at anybody in particular, I'm just saying that for us to truly play the top entertaining game that everybody wants to see, a good pitch is a very big part of it.

"When we went to Crewe, for example, you could see how good that pitch was on the day, but a lot of that is to do with the way the stands are structured and the light gets in and the air gets through."

There has without doubt been considerable investment in the footballing infrastructure at Sunderland over the last year, but this remains one area where long-term improved is required and for now, it risks hampering the home form that has been the bedrock of the push for automatic promotion.

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