Mitre have again pushed the boundaries of football technology by launching the 10-panel Tensile ball for use in The Football League and the Scottish Premier League.
To celebrate its introduction, we spoke exclusively to Mitre's Director of Development, Duncan Anderson who heads up the team at the forefront of ball design.
Football League: Hi Duncan, thanks for joining us. Visually, the Tensile is hugely different from any football we've seen before, how radical is the change this season?
Duncan Anderson: I think that this is the most radical change in a ball since we introduced the Ultimax in 1994 which first saw the use of synthetics instead of leather. We introduced a ball that was approximately 25% faster than other balls at that time and it had an impact on the way players thought it was possible to play the game. We are hoping that this ball will do the same.
FL: Why has there been such a significant shift in the design?
DA: The idea came from our desire to go right back to basics. We've been great promoters of the 26-panel ball over the years and we have produced fantastic balls which have had tremendous control.
The inspiration for this came from firstly the desire to introduce more power into the ball and in order to do that, we had to reduce the number of panels and decrease the amount of stitching on the ball.
But the stitching brings stability to the ball so we had to find a compromise. We decided to see how much we could get away so went right back to a five panel ball, then gradually introduced more panels bringing stability back, eventually ending up at ten panels.
The stitching acts a bit like a shock absorber on a car. When you compress the ball it changes shape - an all-rubber ball will change shapes a number of times when compressed until it is stabilised but the stitching reduces that.
We have done high speed filming of the new ball to ensure that it will return to a true sphere before it has gone one ball diameter from the foot after it has been kicked. This means it returns to its true shape within a millisecond. The ball will also not resonate which is important because if the ball resonates then the player doesn't have control over where the ball will go and it starts to wobble.
FL: So the Tensile is easier for players to produce a controlled shot or pass with greater power?
DA: Yes, the ball will be truer in the air. This factor has been one of the guiding lights for Mitre ball development over the years - ensuring that the ball will do what the player expects and wants it to do. Our philosophy is all about giving the player the maximum control.
FL: What is the development process for ensuring that increased control?
We have many features built into the ball to make it predictable from the player's point of view.
The surface texture on the ball is vital to its aerodynamic properties - if you produce a smooth sphere, the ball has high drag at high speed. The speed is affected by how rough the surface of the ball is - that is why golf balls have dimples, to reduce drag and ensure the ball stays in the air longer. Footballs either have to have surface texture, or seams, or both.
The Tensile has been designed not to wobble, we have got both longitudinal and lateral panels to ensure that whichever way the ball rotates, and however you strike it, it is consistent.
Also, one of the benefits from the reduction of the amount of stitches is the increase in efficiency, meaning you don't have to hit it so hard to achieve maximum speed. The maximum speed of a ball from a standing position is pretty consistent - around the low 80s [mph]. Because it is more efficient, you can put less energy into the shot with more balance and control meaning the shot will be better.
Shooting with a machine, we can hit an A4 sized piece of paper from 25 metres and bend it 15 degrees. We can do that time and time again, but stick a player in front of the posts for a penalty and a lot miss. We know that the ball can be incredibly accurate, but the question is how do we convert that into the accuracy of the player on the field of play? There was a lot talked about the ball during the World Cup and I think a lot of the problem there was the player/ball interface, not the ball itself.
FL: What is the next step once the design has been approved and the laboratory tests have been completed?
DA: We take the ball to a number of clubs at various stages of the development. These can be clubs that have had some issues in the past with the ball or others that are particularly good at giving us access to certain players. Some clubs will also get their junior sides to use the ball giving us long-term feedback. We use all of the feedback and then go through a process with other clubs with the final product to see if they would be prepared to play with it.
FL: What was their reaction to the Tensile?
DA: I have introduced many new balls during my career and this is the one that you can't get back from the players - they say that this ball is better than the last one. Players don't like change, they spend a long time practicing with the old ball, but it is great to hear them saying that they like the new ball.
Every player that we have been out with on trials with the ball has sworn blind that it is lighter but it isn't. It feels lighter because it is more efficient. To a player, the sound of kicking a ball is very important, knowing that you have struck it right and a lot of them said they get a better feeling when they are heading this ball compared to others. Therefore they are more likely to do it.
This factor increases the likelihood of players trying something new or different because they have confidence in the ball and hopefully that will increase the incidents around the box this season.
A lot of the goalkeepers are saying they are getting more distance on their goal kicks and if the players have confidence in the keeper it releases the defence further forward and produces a more attacking game. There are a lot of things a good ball can generate in terms of style.
FL: In yours and Mitre's opinion, how important is it to ensure control rests with the player and not the ball?
DA: For us, it is all about switching the control from the ball to the player so that, with practice, a player can achieve the same degree of accuracy time and time again. This will ultimately develop more player skill. We all go to football matches to watch what players can do and not what the ball can do. We want to see a great shot and a fantastic save to give fans of both sides something to cheer about.
FL: We've explored how much this ball differs both aesthetically and scientifically, but where do we go now? What is the next step in football development and how will it be achieved?
DA: At Mitre, we have got 200 years of heritage and there are a lot of things that we know work - we don't build in something just for the season, everything that is included is fundamentally sound and it is there for a very good reason, so we wouldn't take it out.
But, development is ongoing. We will refine the Tensile ball over the next few years following feedback from everyone at the clubs. But at the same time we are already thinking about what will follow on from the Tensile.
We are always challenging the way we are doing things. For us, it is all about performance and we are constantly seeking out things that could increase performance. There are lots of avenues to go down to increase the performance of the ball, for example when the weather is colder the ball behaves differently so overcoming that is an area to be explored.
We can go down a scientific route to identify a physical aerodynamic property of the ball that hasn't been thought of yet and improve it during the construction process. For example, the swimwear company, Speedo , went down the route of changing the nature of the way the surface of the water interacts with the body and they found a property which revolutionised thinking in the sport.
FL: When would a new ball be introduced? Is there a minimum life cycle for a ball before it is changed?
DA: We would only introduce a new ball as and when we identify something that will improve the performance.
But, if we found something that was radically different that would improve the performance of the ball, we would not hold back, but at the same time we wouldn't change it for changes sake. What we're really looking for are things that players are demanding from the ball.
FL: And finally, other than the obvious, how different is the new ball from the original 'pig-bladders' used in the first ever Football League match in 1888?
DA: The power and performance of the ball and compressibility are the major differences between today's balls and those of the 19th Century. In those days, a player would have been able to maybe hit the ball a maximum of 50mph but now from a standing position you'll get 75/80mph.