The Suncorp Stadium pitch for Brisbane Roar’s last two home matches has come under the spotlight. Players, coaches, supporters, media and Roar Management to their credit have been united in their criticism of the stadium’s playing surface, with one male player telling the PFA it was the worst A-League pitch they have played on.

It is true that the pitch was subject to a deluge of rain immediately before Friday’s fixture against Western Sydney, which was delayed by nearly an hour as a result. Players accept that such events are beyond anyone’s control and welcome the APL’s decision to delay the match in the interests of their safety. 

But the downpour on Friday was not the catalyst for the state of the playing surface. The PFA’s post-match pitch ratings, supplied by players and exclusively shared in this PFA Post, reveal that the pitch was just as bad the week before, when Brisbane hosted a Sunday double header against Perth Glory men and Adelaide United women. Players from all three visiting teams in the past two rounds have given the pitch the lowest possible overall score of 1/5.

The PFA accepts that pitch quality is not under the direct control of the APL and Brisbane Roar and that the club and league has taken steps to address the situation since becoming aware of the state of the playing surface ahead of the Wanderers match. 

The issue of poor surfaces is not contained to Brisbane. Newcastle’s McDonald Jones Stadium received an overall score of 2/5 following the Jets’ ALM match against Melbourne City on Sunday.

If all parties agree that a quality playing surface is a precondition to the best possible product, all football stakeholders should be aligned in pursuit of solutions, for the benefit of all. A safe workplace is paramount to ensure players do not suffer an otherwise avoidable injury.

It is impossible to ascribe any one injury to a single factor, but it does bear mentioning that four players have come off injured across the two ALM matches at Suncorp.

With the condition of the playing surfaces at Suncorp and McDonald Jones Stadium well below what is deemed acceptable to the players, swift action needs to be taken before the next fixtures at these venues, which are scheduled for December 21 and 16 respectively, or else alternative arrangements should be made.

Whilst this challenge is not new, the latest episode is also a symptom of medium- and long-term challenges facing the A-Leagues.  

Pitch ratings put player criticism of Suncorp in context

The PFA has been collecting post-match pitch ratings from A-League Men and Women players for 14 years and ten years respectively. After each match, the PFA surveys at least one player from the away side about the quality of the surface, the atmosphere, the match officiating, performance standards (for ALW players), and any extreme weather. 

The pitch is rated in terms of pace, hardness, smoothness, and overall quality. 

The visiting players from both Perth Glory Men and Adelaide United Women rated the Suncorp pitch for the double header on the 26th of November as a 1/5 (the minimum score) for both overall quality and smoothness. The pitch was deemed too hard and too fast by both respondents. 

The respondent from Western Sydney Wanderers gave Friday’s pitch the same four ratings: 1/5 for overall quality and smoothness, and too hard and too fast.

Whilst the players are rightfully demanding in relation to the quality of playing surfaces, they do not give out harsh scores lightly. It was the first ALM pitch to receive a 1/5 rating this season and the second for ALW. Ballymore Stadium received the same score from Brisbane’s women’s match against Western United a week earlier, highlighting the challenge posed in seeking a suitable playing surface in Brisbane.

Under new management, the Roar have made improvements on and off the pitch, and to their credit, continue to engage with the PFA and other stakeholders regarding the playing surface.

In 2022-23, only five 1/5 overall ratings were awarded across both A-Leagues competitions. These were City Vista Reserve (twice), Cromer Park, WIN Stadium, and Central Energy Trust Arena. 

With respect to those venues, Suncorp Stadium is much better resourced and usually does not score so low. Last season it was rated twice, with scores of 3/5 and 4/5 for overall quality, although both times the players said it was too hard. It has held one other fixture this season, Roar’s Round 2 ALM clash with Sydney FC on 27 October, and it received a perfect score on all four metrics. 

So, what happened? 

Multi-use venues not the sole factor

One factor of blame has been the Paul McCartney and Mötley Crüe concerts held at the stadium on the 1st and 8thof November respectively. However, the evidence suggests that these alone should not have created such a stark problem. 

The Mötley Crüe concert was 18 days before the A-Leagues double header on November 26th, which is a longer turnaround than several other post-concert matches at A-Leagues venues during this and last season. The table below shows that other venues have managed to recover their surfaces far more effectively, in less time: 

StadiumConcert/sFixtureDays betweenPitch rating (overall quality from 1-5)
Allianz StadiumBruno Mars
14 & 15 Oct 2022
Sydney FC v Adelaide United (ALM)23 October 202284
Sky StadiumSix60
29 Oct 2022
Wellington Phoenix v Macarthur FC (ALM)6 November 202293
Allianz StadiumJustin Bieber
29 Nov 2022
Sydney FC v Macarthur FC (ALM)24 December 2022254
Sky StadiumGuns N’ Roses
8 Dec 2022
Wellington Phoenix v Adelaide United (ALM)17 December 202295
McDonald Jones StadiumElton John
8 & 10 Jan 2023
Newcastle Jets v Western Sydney Wanderers (ALM)22 January 2023123
AAMI ParkElton John
13 & 14 Jan 2023
Melbourne Victory v Sydney FC (ALW-ALM DH)26 January 2023124 & 4
Suncorp StadiumMötley Crüe
8 Nov 2023
Brisbane Roar v Perth Glory (ALM)Brisbane Roar v Adelaide United (ALW)26 November 2023181 & 1
Allianz StadiumRobbie Williams
16 Nov 2023
Sydney FC v Western Sydney Wanderers (ALM)25 November 202394

Allianz Stadium before Paul McCartney’s concert in October. Photo via X

Still, multi-use is an issue that the PFA will be monitoring closely. There are several more concerts scheduled at A-League venues this summer. The Foo Fighters are on a one-band mission to perturb A-League groundskeepers with shows at HBF Park, Coopers Stadium, AAMI Park (x2), Suncorp Stadium, and Sky Stadium. Some of these are less than two weeks before the next A-League fixtures. Newcastle’s McDonald Jones Stadium will host P!nk 11 days before the Jets’ ALM fixture with Macarthur FC in February. 

Newcastle’s Supercross events jump the shark

Concerts are only one type of non-football event our venues host. Dirt bikes and monster truck events involve the dumping of thousands of tonnes of dirt onto the (covered) playing surface. The Supercross event at McDonald Jones Stadium on the 11th of November caused the men’s F3 derby fixture on the 25th of November to be switched to Gosford, with the decision made on the 17th.

The club returned to the venue on Sunday, 22 days after the Supercross event, and was scored by the visiting player as 2/5 overall, 1/5 for smoothness, and too hard and too slow. The player commented that the “grass was newly laid and therefore negatively affected the surface consistency”. In the Jets’ last match before the Supercross, the pitch was rated 3/5 for overall and smoothness, too soft and too slow.

McDonald Jones is set to host the ‘Freestyle Kings’ Moto X event on 9 March 2024, just six days before the Jets men host Adelaide United. It’s unclear how six days will be sufficient recovery time in March when two weeks was not enough in November, and the pitch was still struggling after three weeks.

McDonald Jones Stadium on 11 November 2023. Photo: Josh Lynch via Newcastle Weekly

Weather to blame?

Back to Suncorp, and another possible factor. Brisbane had slightly more rain this November (100.4mm) than the long-term average (93.7mm). Between the Mötley Crüe concert and the double header matches, there was one particularly wet day on the 21st (33.0mm) and 61.2mm of rainfall in total. 

In Sydney, where Allianz Stadium recovered well from the Robbie Williams concert only nine days before the Sydney derby on Saturday, November 25, there was 32.2mm of rain between events including 14.8mm on the day before the match, plus another 6.0 on match day.

Sydney FC’s ALM match on Saturday against Perth Glory was delayed at half-time by thunderstorms which involved a significant downpour. But the Allianz pitch was rated 4/5 overall and for smoothness, with pace and hardness also deemed ‘about right’ by the player surveyed.

So, while it was a wet few weeks in Brisbane last month, it was not outside the bounds of normality nor beyond the capacity for other venues to manage. 

The PFA understands that Suncorp Stadium has also cited a lack of sunshine as hindering its recovery. It’s true that this November’s daily average of 7.2 hours is slightly less than the long-term November average of between eight and nine hours a day

The PFA does not have a deep enough expertise in groundskeeping to understand how the above factors might interact with others such as grass seasonality. However, the evidence does not seem to suggest that Suncorp was subject to unmanageable external factors in the month that it degraded from five stars to one.  

Brisbane was indeed smashed by significant rain in the week (and hours) before the Wanderers game, but the degradation had already occurred. 

Heat policy as a template for progress

Given that the player feedback for some pitches was so damning, but the matches received the green light to proceed, there is clearly a gap between what different stakeholders deem as acceptable playing conditions.

A similar dynamic has existed at times with regards to extreme heat. It is a challenging task to draw the line at an acceptable level for all parties and even different players may disagree about where the limit should be.

To take the subjectivity out of the equation, the league has a clear heat policy which is bargained with players. The methodology for assessing conditions is objective and pre-agreed. To APL’s credit, it has consulted with the PFA on the issue and adjusted this season’s schedule to remove early afternoon kick-offs during the summer months altogether.

A similar approach could be taken regarding playing surfaces, to give players understanding and comfort around the process by which pitches are signed off for play.

Positive examples of mitigation

Last week, Melbourne City announced its AFC Champions League fixture against Zheijiang Professional FC on the 12th of December would be played at Princes Park (Ikon Park) to allow AAMI Park time to recover from other events. The Foo Fighters played two shows there on the 4th and 6th of December. 

While the A-Leagues draw can work around such concerts, which are planned long in advance, the AFC draw is done closer to the season and such clashes may be unavoidable. 

AAMI Park will already be under pressure to deliver a pitch that can withstand four A-Leagues matches across the weekend of December 15-17.  

The decision to shift the Champions League fixture appears to be the well-thought-out product of proactive consultation and fans have been given maximum notice of the change. 

The aforementioned decision by the league and clubs involved to flip the men’s F3 derby hosting duties this season is another positive example of mitigation. It is not ideal for supporters to have to change plans, and the best solution is to avoid the situation in the first place, but rearranging matches is better than the alternative of compromising player safety and the football product. 

The long-term view: time for renewed strategic focus on venues

Of course, the panacea to this issue is for all A-League clubs to have their own exclusive, bespoke, fit-for-purpose home venues. 

This is not attainable overnight, but it is disappointing that the game would be bogged down in a new low rather than at least outlining a plan towards the ideal. 

Football is becoming more bullish in its demand for fair government funding in comparison to other sports. That’s a good thing. Better yet will be aligning all stakeholders behind a common strategy to strengthen our case-making. 

Having achieved separation and survived the pandemic, the A-Leagues now enter a strategic phase where resolving these long-standing challenges and optimising the product is the key focus. 

Last month, the PFA released its 2022-23 A-League Men season report, which includes pitch ratings for all venues used across the previous season. Access the report here. Coopers Stadium in Adelaide was rated the best atmosphere in the league with an average score of 4.8 on a scale of one to five. It also had the best surface of all the league’s regular home grounds, with a score of 4.5 (Mars Stadium, where Western United hosted three matches, scored a perfect 5.0 for pitch quality).