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   Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 17:27 GMT
Muddy marvellous

At the risk of sounding like your grandad, footballers today don't know how easy they've got it.

Chelsea's sandpit is a prince among pitches compared to the surfaces of old.

Within living memory at certain grounds, if your boots trod on a blade of grass between mid-December and the end of the season you were either a touchline-hugging winger or very lucky.

Pitches, eroded of grass from October onwards by the chunkier football boot of yesteryear, became glutinous glops held together by wishful thinking once the winter rains and snow (we even had proper winters back then) were mixed in.

Like the Somme, mud was the stage for some epic football battles.

Bobby Charlton and Billy Bremner shake hands
Bobby Charlton hands Billy Bremner the sacred Lost Blade of Grass

Who will forget Ronnie Radford sending Newcastle slithering out of the FA Cup on Hereford's swamp?

Or Nottingham Forest squidging the gnomes of Zurich into the City Ground mud?

Certain grounds revelled in their notoriety; Old Trafford, Filbert Street, White Hart Lane and Loftus Road were all muddy marvels.

But the Grandaddy of them all was Derby's Baseball Ground.

So bad was the old stadium that Body Shop were rumoured to snap up the mud rights at the end of every season.

The pitch had soil and sand, but it didn't have grass and pitch markings.

In one notorious match between the Rams and Manchester City, the referee had to send for a tape measure-wielding groundsman to repaint an obliterated penalty spot.

Mud wrestling action
Is that Archie Gemmill at Derby's Baseball Ground?

After the rains of winter, spring presented a different set of problems.

The swamps dried into Gobi desert-like wastelands, which only needed camels and a bedouin encampment to complete the scene.

Unlike a bald head, a bald pitch is not so easy to cover with a toupe.

Faced with a surface more solid than a frozen TV dinner for a Champions League match, Spartak Moscow's groundsman was visited by a brainwave.

In a flash of inspiration, he covered the pitch with straw, which he intended to douse with petrol and set alight to melt the frosty crust.

Sadly, he only succeeded in burning all the grass off, leaving a giant sized sticky toffee pudding.

Aston Villa's cosmetic attempts involved paint after chairman Doug Ellis's fireworks party left the centre circle looking as if had been recently vacated by a band of tyre-burning travellers.

Burnley's Ralph Coates
Ralph Coates in an early Body Shop photo-shoot

Then there was the groundsman at Cagliari's Sant Elia stadium, who was forced to break out the emulsion before for the 1990 World Cup after the pitch had been scoffed by glow-worms.

Players in the past loved mud more than hippos.

Was there any finer sight than watching the likes of Dave McKay charging through the mire like a shire horse in a ploughing match?

The upshot is, you don't need grass to make great football, as so eloquently illustrated by American gridiron hero Joe Namath.

Asked if he preferred grass or astroturf, he replied: "Don't know, I've never smoked astroturf."

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