Hawks boss Doswell: Why laying a 3G pitch will be a game changer at Westleigh Park

Paul Doswell has enthusiastically welcomed the news that Hawks are to join the growing band of non-league clubs who have ripped up their grass pitch and laid a 3G surface instead.

Monday, 6th July 2020, 6:46 pm
Updated Monday, 6th July 2020, 6:48 pm
Pompey's Ronan Curtis in action during this season's FA Cup first round tie on Harrogate's 3G surface. The Yorkshire club will have to rip the pitch up if they win promotion to the EFL via the play-offs. Photo by Daniel Chesterton/PinPep.

The Westleigh Park boss is confident the move will be a ‘massive game changer’ and lead to the club placing themselves firmly at the heart of their community.

Hawks will play their final home games on grass in the forthcoming National League South play-off campaign, before work on installing the top-of-the-range artificial turf starts immediately afterwards.

A group of four investors - not of all them club directors - have agreed to stump up the money for the pitch project. The amount is believed to be over the £450,000 mark.

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Hawks midfielder Nicky Bailey makes a sliding tackle during his side's win on Dorking's 3G surface in March. Picture: Kieron Louloudis

Work starts on August 3 and is expected to be finished by the end of September, or the middle of October at the very latest.

The club have already spoken to the National League who have agreed they can play their first few matches in 2020/21 away from home if the pitch revamp is not completed in time.

Doswell is a confirmed fan of 3G, having seen at first hand the impact it had at his previous club Sutton United.

The Surrey club installed it in the summer of 2015, and reaped the rewards - on and off the pitch - in the years that followed.

Paul Doswell pictured on Sutton's 3G surface ahead of their FA Cup fifth round tie with Arsenal in 2017. Now Hawks are going to be laying a similar surface from the same company S & C Slatter. Pic: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images.

A National League South title in 2015/16 was followed by a memorable FA Cup run the following year, and a place in the National League play-offs in 2017/18 - all against the backdrop of rising attendances.

The 3G surface also brought financial benefits with Sutton able to hire the pitch out, as well as let all the club’s junior players train on it.

Doswell enthused: ‘It will make an amazing difference if you want to be the hub of your community.

‘At Sutton we ended up with over 1,000 children, boys, girls, parents coming through the gates every week. It was a massive game changer.

‘It was the secondary spend as well - some of them were coming back to watch our games and spending money on burgers and programmes.

‘It helped Sutton more than double their crowds - from around 700 to over 1,500.

‘At the moment we already average close to 1,500, and there’s no reason why in a year or a season’s time we can’t get that up to 2,000.

‘Every child that comes through the doors will get a free season ticket, and they’ll be able to bring mum and dad for £6 each. A family of four - two kids, mum and dad - can watch a game for £12. We have to make football affordable.’

Prior to the pandemic, a 3G pitch wasn’t on Hawks’ agenda with club chairman Derek Pope a firm believer in grass.

But the financial woe of life in lockdown altered perceptions and brought the issue very firmly to the top of the board’s minds.

Moving forward in a post-covid climate, a 3G pitch is seen as a major source of potential revenue.

‘This is the top end of technology, we have gone for the best one we could have had,’ said Doswell.

‘We’re using the same company that we used at Sutton, S & C Slatter in Newbury. They are the best quality firm around.

‘They’re not the cheapest, in fact they’re one of the most expensive, but with artificial pitches you get what you pay for.

‘The club aren’t paying for this, we have four investors willing to put the money up. They will get their money back, and a return on their investment.

‘For me, this is a no brainer.’

At present, the EFL do not allow 3G surfaces - meaning Harrogate would have to rip theirs up and put grass down if they won promotion via the National League play-offs in the next few weeks.

Doswell, though, feels the EFL will change their mind - sooner rather than later - and artificial pitches will return for the first time since 1994.

‘I do genuinely feel that 3G pitches will be allowed in the Football League soon,’ he explained.

‘Clubs have got to go this way for their own survival.

‘That’s partly why we’re doing it. The club has had no income in April, May and June, so we had to do something.

‘The club is fantastically well funded by the chairman Derek Pope and his company, but even with that we had to act before we reached a danger zone.

‘This will be the bedrock of the club, it’s the way forward for every non-league club. I appreciate they will have to find the money, but it’s the way forward.’

Many of Doswell’s current squad are well versed with 3G having played regularly on it at Sutton - the likes of Ross Worner, Nicky Bailey, Josh Taylor, Roarie Deacon, Simon Walton and Dean Beckwith.

Even ex-Pompey striker Ian Baird - Doswell’s assistant at both Sutton and Hawks - was won over after initial concerns.

‘Bairdy is an old dinosaur,’ said Doswell. ‘I can’t tell you how much he was against having a 3G pitch at Sutton, but within a fortnight of it being installed he told me it was the best thing the club had ever done.

‘Most players these days will train on a 3G - grass pitches just don’t allow you to train on them.

‘If you could give me a pitch like Wembley every week, I’d be happy to play on grass.

‘I am a traditionalist in that respect, but I’m also a pragmatist.

‘I admit these pitches, if they’re dry, can be a bit too slow but if you water them then they are as good as anything you’ll find.

‘They have played World Cup qualifiers on 3G pitches, the Women’s World Cup in Canada was held on them (in 2015) and that was a brilliant spectacle.

‘If it’s good enough for World Cup games, it’s more than good enough for teams at our level.’

Hawks director Trevor Brock said: ‘Dos (Doswell) was the initial driver of this idea, but recently the driver has been covid.

‘We’ve had no gate money coming in, the pub has been shut, sponsorship is harder to come by.

‘We have had to look at new revenue streams - that’s what has driven this now.

‘Not everyone on the board was for it at the start. If you had asked me two years ago I would have been dead against it.

‘But there have been continual improvements in technology, and you have to live and learn.

‘I have spent time recently setting up the Hawks Community Foundation and that and the new pitch are intrinsically linked in terms of getting more members of the community to use the stadium.’

With regards to the fact that 3G surfaces are currently banned above National League level, Brock added: ‘I have seen on Twitter some people saying we’re lacking ambition in not wanting to play in the EFL.

‘But I’m sure the EFL will be looking at this again. A lot of League 2 clubs were keen a few years ago but they got outvoted.

‘We have had a few games on 3G pitches this season and you forget the technology is so good, it’s not like the QPR and Luton pitches 30 years ago.

‘For clubs at our level, it’s a no brainer once you start looking at it.

‘I liken it to tennis. I used to play a lot and mainly on grass courts. Now there are hardly any grass courts around, they’re all hardcourt.

‘It’s a slightly different type of game - nobody’s kidding it’s exactly the same.

‘I know the purists won’t like it, and we have a few of them at the club. But the benefits more than outweigh the non-benefits.’

Hawks are certainly no strangers to playing on 3G, as divisional rivals Slough, Dorking Wanderers, Oxford City and Eastbourne Borough all have that surface.

Billericay are currently in the process of laying a 3G pitch - installed by the same company Hawks have chosen - while only last week Hemel Hempstead announced they were ditching grass as well.

That means over a third of the South division - eight clubs out of 22 - will have a 3G surface in 2020/21 if Weymouth, Bath or Dartford win the play-offs.

There are currently three 3G pitches at National League level - Sutton, Bromley and Harrogate - while Solihull Moors will be playing on one next season.