Stadium Team Craig and George show off a sample of the new surface to youth players Ross and Liam (middle)

Raith Rovers are today revealing significant underfoot changes ahead of next season, as the club prepares to become the first side in Europe to use a special type of grass as their playing surface.

Fans will remember the damage that was caused to the Stark’s Park turf last season, as the park was afflicted with Black Layer disease.

Black Layer affects the soil, preventing drainage and restricting the aeration of the turf, which eventually kills the grass. The affliction is difficult to remove, and despite expensive treatments, is always in danger of returning due to its ability to lie dormant in the lower layers of the soil.

Keen to avoid the problem occurring again, the club initially looked at installing an artificial pitch. However, aware of supporters’ desire to keep the game close to its roots, informal conversations began with botanists at Edinburgh University with the aim of finding the best natural surface available for the longer term.

After an extensive review of over 800 different sporting grass types in use around the World, the experts at Edinburgh University recommended a genetically-enhanced version of a rare Japanese super-grass known as Floral Poi. This has all the features required to thrive in damp conditions, as well as being able to sustain regular use as a playing surface. An usual side effect is a lack of green pigmentation, and thus it appears almost white.

Stadium Manager Craig Surgeon, who first contacted the experts in Edinburgh, explains the white pitch may raise some eyebrows from fans and visiting teams, but the huge number of positives make it worthwhile. “We have costs associated with re-laying the pitch each season, but they were far greater last summer due to the issues we had. We’ve kept it under control this year, but there’s no guarantee the black layer will stay away. This type of super-grass appears to be the solution, and we’d expect other clubs to follow if it’s a success at Stark’s Park. The real question is how it will adapt to the Scottish climate, as it’s not been used been as a playing surface here before and things like the cold sea-air may affect it.

Floral Poi roots go far deeper than normal grass, meaning the soil will get a lot more air than it currently does. It’s also much thirstier than most grass variants, which will help with drainage, and is far more resistant to frost. The grass has already been used to great effect in South America, where its been a success in areas that have excessive rainy seasons.

Craig went onto say, “It’s strong, but safe to slide on, and its ability to recover quickly between games means it takes less of a battering from players’ boots. I’m looking forward to working with it.

The first of the Floral Poi seeds have already arrived.

Rovers Chairman Turnbull Hutton admitted he was initially reticent when he was first presented with the new alternative, but he warmed to the idea. “My first thought was, how on earth will you see the ball? Of course, it was pointed out that in some northern-European countries it’s not unusual to play on snow-covered surfaces, and the SPFL have confirmed that orange balls are within the regulations.

The markings on the park are another issue, but we’ve been given permission to paint these black, so nothing will really change – just the aesthetic of the pitch. As much as I’m a traditionalist, the benefits to the club in terms of costs are huge, while the fact that the grass is hardier means the park will still look great, even during a harsh winter. The chances of a game being called off is now minimal.

“It will even reduce our electricity bill, as the amount of sunlight reflected will mean we don’t have to turn on the floodlights so early in the winter months. An exceptional pitch makes it easier to play good football, so while a white and black playing surface at Stark’s Park may take a bit of getting used to, it’s really a tremendous solution for us.

The relaying of the pitch will begin as soon as the final match of the season has been played, and the new look Stark’s Park surface will be ready to play on by the time the pre-season friendlies come round in July.

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