TWO of the most important men in English football were in Hereford this week to talk up the importance of artificial pitches.

Football Association chairman Greg Clarke and the FA’s chief executive, Mark Bullingham, said the 3G surfaces soon to be built in the city are vital to stop declining participation numbers.

The pair visited the Herefordshire Football Association (HFA) headquarters off Widemarsh Common on Tuesday shortly before building work begins on a new artificial pitch at the site – while Pegasus Juniors will also soon have their own all-weather surface at Old School Lane.

Mr Clarke said good facilities were key to keeping people in the game – and also to improving the skills of youngsters.

“We are way behind other countries in terms of the number of pitches we have,” he said.

“The Spanish, for example, looked at irrigation but decided instead to go down the artificial route.

“They had previously been playing on dirt and gravel but the new pitches meant kids did not have to worry about a bobble or how the ball would roll.

“It is no coincidence that Spain has produced so many talented and skilful players.”

“Back in the day, councils maintained pitches but their priorities in terms of funding have changed. We are trying to stem the breach.”

Simon Panes, the HFA chief executive, said the new pitch could be used 80 times a week - and hoped it would act as a focal point for football in the county.

“On a grass pitch you get one game on a Saturday but on a 3G facility you can play matches all day,” Panes added.

“I want to max this facility out in the week and we are looking at initiatives to do that.”

Panes sees similarities with a project during his time at the Gloucestershire FA and said the development would be a “massive game changer” in the way people perceive the HFA.

“Prior to them having that facility they were heavily criticised and people thought they were only there for the income which came from fines,” he added.

“Overnight the perception changed when this new facility went in and everybody started talking about how fantastic the new facility was and that it was used 24/7 and everybody could access it.

“Suddenly the image of the organisation changed despite it being the same staff and offices – that’s what we will do here.

A number of county sides have already expressed an interest in using the new pitch on the site, which is the home of Lads Club.

But Panes says that it could also be made open to “business leagues and schools” – and that he wants to “look out of the office window and see activities on the pitch every hour of the day”.

He said the HFA is now waiting on news from the council about pre-commencement times. "The funding is there, the planning permission is there," he said.

“We are just waiting on the green light for the construction company to get on with it.

Panes added that the plan is to have the pitch completed by the start of this coming season.

“You’ve got to make sure you don’t rush it as I’ve seen pitches that have been laid not very well and on things they shouldn’t," he said. “I have seen them done and finished in six weeks but I don’t know if that will be the same here."

The FA admits the decline in the numbers playing traditional 11-a-side football is a concern but Bullingham said some of the reasons behind the drop, such as lifestyle changes and an increase in weekend work, are beyond their control.

“But there are two big areas where we do have an influence to keep people involved in football and that is the quality of coaching and the quality of the playing experience," he said. “Pitches like this one in Hereford will play a major role in addressing these two key issues."