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SPFL promotion challengers face March deadline to prove they are turf at the top

PROMOTION-chasing championship clubs who play on artificial turf will have to apply to the SPFL board by March 31 for special permission to use their surface in next season's top flight.

Hamilton Academical have spent almost £1 million ripping and relaying the plastic surface at New Douglas Park

Contenders Hamilton Accies and Falkirk, both of whom have spent large sums installing state-of-the-art synthetic pitches in recent seasons, are joined by Queen of the South and Alloa in the list of second-tier clubs who currently play on plastic, but the league governing body retains the right to veto their attempts to access the Premier League if their facilities are deemed unfit during an inspection.

All top flight matches in Scotland have been played on grass since Dunfermline Athletic were forced to tear up their artificial surface when the SPL ruled against its continued use in 2005.

"In respect of this season, the board gave a blanket ratification because - given the timescales - there simply wasn't any alternative, prior to the merger, to doing that," said SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster. "But ahead of next season any club who has a synthetic pitch and wants it to be available for use within the Premier League has to go through an application process.

"By March 31 they would have to apply to the board, and the board would set out the conditions as they deem fit," he added. "Fifa two-star is the standard, and I believe they are all Fifa two-star, but the board can impose certain conditions in terms of how that pitch is looked after as well. Upkeep is one of a number of issues, but there is no limit to the conditions the board can set, it has never had to do it before."

Hamilton and Falkirk are adamant, of course, that their pitches are more than adequate to grace the top flight. The Accies, who actually ripped up their previous artificial surface upon winning promotion to the top division, have now spent around £900,000 removing and relaying their surfaces over the last decade, while Falkirk director of football Alex Smith last night said the £400,000 state-of-the-art pitch at the Falkirk Stadium was bettered only by the facilities of Rangers and Celtic. Smith declared: "It is by far the best pitch in Scotland at the moment other than maybe the Old Firm, who have the facilities to keep their pitches in pristine condition. Our park is always perfect and we use it to play and to train. It's better than grass because you don't go over on your ankle, you don't into wee ruts or trip over divots. The ball doesn't bounce off awkward spots - it comes true to you.

"For a footballer it's ideal - and it will get better. It will cope with any conditions other than heavy snow or a severe frost. No amount of water will affect it. In fact, a bit of water makes the ball move better.

"It's a new league organisation but Fifa and Uefa both recognise this surface so I would think that if they approve then our league should too," Smith added. "I would think they would find it difficult to tell us we are not getting in because of the surface we have."

In a wider sense, championship clubs face a Hobson's choice of sorts this summer, where failing to get promotion would at least carry the compensation of contesting next season with Hearts and Rangers in a beefed-up championship, but Smith for one feels there is no time like the present to win promotion.

"This is the year to get out of the league and if we could hit a run of form we are definitely capable of getting there," said Smith. "Next year it's obvious Rangers will come into it, it's looking likely that Hearts will be in it and there is a fair chance that Dunfermline will join.

"So we would have six full houses there and maybe four of them would be televised, so it would be a great league to be part of financially. However, if you don't get up this year then it could be two or three years before you get the chance again. We have been down for three years now and we wouldn't want that. We want to get up now."

Neil Doncaster and Alex Smith were speaking as the SFA, SPFL, Scottish football managers and coaches association, launched a new security and integrity hotline in conjunction with Crimestoppers, the independent charity organisation.

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