TWENTY years since the last artificial football pitch was dug up at Preston North End, there is talk of a return to synthetic surfaces in the upper echelons of the English game.

Times have changed in those two decades – we are not talking about players having to wear trainers and keepers forced to wear jogging bottoms for fears of burns on their legs because the modern designs are more like real grass than ever.

You can even wear boots to play on them as many who have ventured out playing five-a-side on them around Bolton and beyond will have done.

The only down side is the collection of small black rubber pellets that seem to find the dark corners of your socks to hide in for weeks – even after the rigours of the washing machine.

But the advantages for football clubs – particularly those down the league ladder – far outweigh the negatives.

Debate has been raging in non-league circles after Maidstone United were told they would not be eligible for promotion from the Ryman Premier League because the Football Conference and its member clubs are not in favour of teams who have 3G pitches.

But the Football Association board have an open mind on the subject and are looking at ways to embrace 21st-century technology with artificial surfaces that would expand clubs into the wider community and benefit both.

Maidstone are a good case in point. Renting use of the pitch at the Gallagher Stadium means they will have paid off the installation costs inside 12 months and a well-attended academy is also helping to nurture talent.

Football clubs down the leagues are coming under ever-increasing financial strain, and having a multi-purpose pitch can ease that. Then there is the bonus of far fewer postponed matches which hit clubs in the pocket.

It may upset the traditionalists but when you consider most top clubs now have pitches that are already part synthetic, would it be such a huge direction change?

We are not talking the old-style plastic pitches that left many a youngster like myself in the 1980s and 1990s with legs that were red raw after the odd slide tackle during a game of five-a-side.

Just ask former Wanderer Alan Gowling what he thought of the old-style artificial turf at QPR’s Loftus Road and he will recall a nightmare 7-1 defeat in 1982 – which he puts largely down to the unnatural bounce.

But the modern 3G versions are FIFA approval and of a standard that can be used, like the one at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium in the Champions League.

In Scotland, there are nine clubs who have artificial pitches and they is widely accepted a decade on from Dunfermline Athletic being lambasted for introducing one at East End Park.

It has aided those teams – maybe it could be the answer to the financial well-being of England’s smaller clubs as well.