Brandywell Stadium 3G pitch could be unfit for Derry City beyond 2023: warns FAI

THE FAI has advised Derry City Football Club that the 3G pitch at Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium is 'unlikely to be fit for elite level soccer beyond the 2023 season'.
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A report released by Derry City and Strabane District Council ahead of a meeting of its Health and Community Committee this afternoon (Thursday), revealed the growing concerns about the existing Brandywell playing surface, including player welfare and potential health and environmental issues.

The Council-owned pitch, which is tested annually, was officially opened in March 2018 at a cost of £929,000 and has achieved the necessary FIFA certification which remains valid until April 20th this year. However, the most recent test report stated that the yarn was 'showing signs of wear' and identified a 'tuft loss problem across the entire field, especially around halfway'.

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As an anchor tenant, Derry City FC made the case to revert back to a natural grass pitch or, alternatively, install a hybrid grass surface at Brandywell during discussions between club chairman, Mr Philip O'Doherty, senior members of the FAI and Council Officers regarding facilities at the ground last month.

PITCH PROBLEMS . . .  A view of the Ryan McBride Brandywell StadiumPITCH PROBLEMS . . .  A view of the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium
PITCH PROBLEMS . . . A view of the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium

Making the case for replacing the synthetic pitch, the Candy Stripes reported increased player injuries since moving from grass to a 3G surface in 2018 while the FAI have further advised that UEFA has established a working group concerning the future of all 3G pitches amidst growing concerns over possible health and environmental impacts of micro-plastics which are created through play on the rubber crumb infill.

Football’s European governing body are considering a six year transitional period, at the end of which 3G surfaces (with rubber crumb infill) will no longer be used for competitive matches.

The proposed replacement of the 3G pitch, the creation of an additional, covered standing area at the Brandywell Road end of the ground and the development of a funding strategy for completing the extension of the Mark Farren Stand will be discussed by Council members this afternoon. Members will be asked to approve the formation of a multi-disciplinary team of officers to further investigate the club's three requests.

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The report suggests a much more detailed investigation into the various options for replacing the existing playing surface, including their respective advantages and disadvantages, would need to be commissioned by Council before definitive advice on the matter could be given to members.

And to undertake such an options appraisal, officers would require the services of a specialist sports surface expert, experienced in designing all forms of playing surfaces, including natural grass and hybrids, along with a cost consultant with suitable experience in pricing all the playing surface types covered by the appraisal. Therefore Council members will also be asked to approve a budget of £7,000 for developing such a report.

‘The Brandywell pitch is currently in use for over 35 hours per week and since its introduction, has generated an average income of £80,000 per annum for Council, compared to the previous income from the former grass pitch of approximately £11,000 per annum (pre-2018),” revealed the report.

"There are a range of stakeholders playing and training on the Brandywell pitch on a weekly basis,” it continued. “In addition to Derry City FC Senior Men’s team, these groups include Ballymoor Football Club, Derry City Women, Foyle Belles, Derry and District Youth, Derry City Youth, Trojans FC and Institute Football Club, playing in the NIFL Championship.”

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As the pitch was funded by the Social Investment Fund Programme in 2018, written permission from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister would be required before any physical change to the pitch surface is agreed.

There are a number of options available to replace the current surface of the pitch including a like-for-like replacement, new grass surface or semi-synthetic (grass hybrid) pitch. All options have positive and negative implications, however there would be a period of “set-aside” to complete any works, meaning clubs are likely to be displaced for a period of time, with no alternative facility.

The Council report states that opting for “lift and lay” turf replacement, i.e. laying grass sods that have been grown off site, is likely to be the most expedient method of replacing the surface with the least disruption.

"This method may however be costly, and the turf would require complete replacement within a significantly shorter timeframe than the current 3G surface," read the report.

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"As such, a traditional sand mattress natural grass surface does not need replacement if it is adequately maintained but does take a period of six to 12 months to establish post construction, which would require all the existing pitch users to decant to alternative facilities for this establishment period.

"The cost to change the pitch surface remains unclear and is highly dependent on which option is chosen, however a replacement of the 3G surface with traditional sand mattress construction is likely to cost in the region of £600,000-£800,000 and yield limited income," continued the report.

"A like-for-like replacement (3G surface) would be likely to exceed £1 million, and further investigation would be required in terms of the governing body and legislative implications concerning the future of rubber infill (micro-plastics).

"A third option includes a semi-synthetic or hybrid surface, similar to the Aviva Stadium and Windsor Park, however there is reportedly a limited lifespan to these surfaces (requiring replacement approximately every four years) and their construction cost may be significantly higher than that for a conventional grass pitch."