Rangers had made a good start to the season winning 3-1 at Wrexham on the Saturday with two goals from Clive Allen and one from Andy King. As I cut through Batman Close, I was surprised at the length of the queue leading to the Loft turnstiles. The official attendance that night was 18,703 and this larger than average crowd was partly due to the introduction of the controversial Omniturf pitch in the summer at a cost of around ¬£350,000.The main reason for this innovative experiment was that it could be utilised on non-match days for revenue generating events. It has to be said that the Loftus Road pitch did at times resemble a mud bath, but the main problem with the new pitch was the erratic high bounce of the ball. Funnily enough Manager Terry Venables was the co-author of the book, ‘They Used to Play on Grass’ which was published years earlier when he was a Rangers player.
Team: Burridge, Gregory, Fenwick, Waddock, Hazell, Roeder, Flanagan, Francis, Allen, King, Stainrod.
‘QPR proudly showing off their new ¬£300,000 weather-proof artificial playing surface for the first time, found out the hard way that visitors to Loftus Road are likely to enjoy the experience. What is more, Luton showed that visiting teams can play better on it than Rangers ! David Pleat, Luton Manager said: “If teams come here wanting to play, there will be some great games on this pitch. We loved the experience.” Bert Millichip, the FA Chairman said: “I would not write off the pitch on what I have seen tonight.”
The synthetic surface called Omniturf, certainly favoured Rangers in the first half, but Luton clearly learned many lessons from their only mistakes, and their performance after the interval was a joy. Once they had mastered the pace it was simply a question of when the speedy Hill would escape the clutches of Gregory and Waddock, with Horton and Aizlewood masterminding things from the back. Luton took a firm grip of the game – a situation which had seemed unlikely during Rangers’ dominance of the first half.
Findlay in the Luton goal was kept busy as Francis and Flanagan kept a steady stream of passes towards King and Allen, but apart from having to save from Roeder and Allen, the goalkeeper was largely able to watch the QPR strikers squander their early chances. Luton were hardly in contention at that stage and it was no real surprise when Rangers went ahead after 35 minutes, Hazell, their big central defender, chipped an immaculate cross to the far post where King went into the record books by heading the first league goal on a synthetic pitch. Allen might have made it 2-0 after an hour, but Findlay made a brilliant close range save from his header. From then on, it was Luton who showed all the composure, complimenting their intricate one-touch play with a series of sweeping counter-attacks.
They equalised after 70 minutes with a fine goal, which perhaps, might not have been possible on grass. Hill accelerated down the right and hooked a diagonal cross over the Rangers defence to Aizlewood, who was able to take the ball on the half volley and beat Burridge. Few would have begrudged Luton their winning goal six minutes from the end. Aizlewood and White pressured the previously composed Francis into losing possession on the edge of the area – and there was Hill, streaming in behind them, to fire an unstoppable drive past Burridge.
Luton who had survived the artificial pitch without mishap, suffered a major injury in the entrance to the Players Lounge, when Mark Aizlewood walked into a plate glass door and gashed his head, face and arm. He needed attention from the QPR doctor, and although he went home with the rest of the team, Manager David Pleat said: “It looks a pretty serious gash and he must be doubtful for Saturday’s game.”
In the 40p match programme, the Bush Telegraph reported, ‘The programme for our last game of the 1980/81 Season is now a collectors’ item, reputedly changing hands at 50p a copy. Why ? Well only 4,000 were printed but apparently the main attraction was that this programme was the last one issued for a Rangers home game on grass. If that’s the case, we suggest you also hang on to tonight’s programme for the occasion is no less historic. You are present when the first ever Football League game takes place on an artificial playing surface – Omniturf, a name you’ll be hearing a lot about from now onwards.
We predict that Omniturf will drastically change – for the better – the manner in which the nation’s clubs use their stadiums. However, it does not necessarily follow that it will also change the way in which teams play soccer. We have no doubt that losing teams will leave this stadium this season blaming their misfortune solely on our new pitch. We shall probably have more to say on the subject at a later date but, for the moment, we shall listen more closely to those teams who examine their results here from the point of view of their own players’ abilities and efforts. For the record, Rangers have played one or two practice games on Omniturf before this evening and the general verdict is that the surface produces a fast and highly entertaining match which can only delight all spectators who watch it. We can expect thrills galore at Rangers Stadium this season.’
Luton were one of the other clubs to adopt it until eventually the FA banned them in 1988. Despite the success we had during this period, I also remember a superb 2-2 draw against Tottenham in January 1985, when I think all the other games in the London region were postponed because of the weather. Over 27,000 attended the match and Gary Bannister scored both our goals. However, there was a universal sigh of relief when Rangers played their first competitive match back on grass in the Mercantile Centenary Credit Trophy against Arsenal on the 31st August 1988.
(This article wouldn’t be complete without including the classic pic of Mick Ellicott shown above with his chunk of souvenir turf !)