2018 - a most difficult year

Dave Saltmanin Football

I've written a few articles about the work that we carry out at Shrewsbury Town FC over the last few years. Generally, as an industry, we all manage to cope with what's thrown at us, a combination of usage, environment and aspect limitations and, of course, the weather.

Given the extremes of weather that most of us have had to endure in 2018, you can probably add to the above, criticism received from spectators, players, managers and, indeed, the media.

At the beginning of the year, I was also involved at Oldham Athletic, so the very wet December, January and February was a constant daily worry of how much rain had fallen overnight, what fixtures were coming and where were the players going to train. Oldham have no drainage at all under their training ground pitches and, with no investment spent on renovations for years, a dominant sward of poa annua. There were weeks when nobody could use the flooded pitches at all for training, either at Chapel Road or Little Wembley (OAFC training grounds).

Whilst Shrewsbury had spent some money on their training ground, as I have previously written about, the renovations of 2017 had only included some sand banding at right angles to the piped drainage. The 2017-18 season was the squads first time at the revamped ground. As we moved through the autumn of 2017, it was noticeable that some areas were becoming softer as the water table rose and, as the precipitation became more regular, those areas became out of bounds for training. This caused some friction with the manager, who, perhaps understandably, expected that a 'brand new' training ground, should not have problems. Whilst I explained that the pitch improvements were work in progress and that it would require year on year remedial work to bring them up to a good level, expectations were already high and clearly unachievable with available resources.

At Oldham, there didn't seem to be too much criticism, since the coaching staff were aware of the historic problems and underfunding. At Shrewsbury, the coaching staff were expecting surfaces to be like Wembley, given that the club had invested money into the drainage. To recap, the Sundorne training facility is on the River Severn flood plain and the soil, when analysed, showed the fines (silt and clay and very fine sands) at 80%. We had installed piped drains at 5m centres over an area of 15,000 square metres, half the training ground area. Imported and cultivated in 2400 tonnes of sand and sandy rootzone and then graded to existing levels. The sand slitting was the final operation included within the relatively small budget that was agreed with the chairman at the time.

Left: Cold December. Right: Keeping Training Ground Alive, Just!

Nonetheless, there was a regular criticism that the surfaces were not being maintained properly and we could do more. Whatever explanation was offered, it didn't seem to matter, even when we vertidrained, water just sat in the holes and wasn't going anywhere. The ground was so soft that we often stayed off altogether with machinery, but again left ourselves open to abuse. With the training ground 'not fit for purpose' on occasions and, as importantly, no other local venues suitably dry, we offered the training pitch behind the stadium and indeed the stadium itself as options for the squad.

However, the weather continued to try us, and I remember waking up to a heavy frost one morning, driving to the stadium in torrential rain, only for the squad to come out and train for an hour and a half through the middle of the pitch. We had around seven training sessions in January at the stadium, and we were losing grass quickly. As the pitch struggled with games, training and the weather that seemed to either be raining or snowing and temperatures were sub-zero.

Given the rapid loss of cover, we overseeded the pitch with a dwarf perennial rye mix, in the hope that spring would start early, as it had in 2017.

At Oldham, despite the pitch holding up far better than it had in recent years, and despite the record amounts of rainfall (even for Oldham), the criticisms and derogatory comments aimed at the groundstaff on the supporter forums was vile. I did expect the club to make a public statement to back the groundstaff, but this was not forthcoming.

The Beast from the East compounded our problems at both clubs, we were having to put frost protection down for training at both the stadium and the training ground at Shrewsbury, but with temperatures dropping to minus 15OC, in addition to a strong wind and wind chill, covers were difficult to secure properly, and the ground started to freeze in places. We lost two games in a week after pitch inspections deemed the surface unplayable. It perhaps didn't help that the team were doing well in both the league and the cup competitions, so we were trying to host far more games than we would normally.

There comes a point where you wonder when it's all going to end, the frustration of not being in control is perhaps the worst fear of being a groundsman, but as you battle the elements, you tell yourself, and each other, that it's only for a few more weeks and the sun will return, growth will resume and recovery will follow.

In February, we had the Beast from the East part 2, with more cold fronts from Siberia and, as we entered March, the cold temperatures remained and the grass stayed dormant. All the while, criticism increased about the state of the pitches, both at the stadium and training ground, like we could just wave a magic wand and fix everything.

Perhaps it was a good thing that, for the first year the training ground was in use, we should have the winter from hell to highlight the underlying issues. With an unhappy manager and assistant manager, directing their criticism first at us and then the chairman, it allowed us to push for some more funding and it was agreed to install gravel bands and pop-up irrigation during the renovation period.

The club also wanted to host another concert at the stadium in June, so there was much to plan for the end of season.

To add to this, the team's fortunes continued to ride high, as they remained promotion hopefuls, battling Wigan and Blackburn for one of the two automatic places. As at least a play off place was secured with a month to go, discussions started on where the training would continue and finalising the timelines for gravel banding the training ground and installing the pipework for the irrigation.

If the team made the play-offs, the manager wanted to continue training at Sundorne training ground, but would move up to use the stadium after the semi-finals if they got through to the final.

Left: Gravel Bands Growing In, Right: Spreading Sand

The different scenarios played on our timelines as there were lots of ifs and buts to consider. The only definite was that Lionel Ritchie was going to play at the MW Stadium on the 13th June.

The worst-case scenario, in terms of pitch management, was that the team didn't make the automatic promotion slots, won their play off semi-final games and ended up going to Wembley - a scenario that soon became the reality.

From our point of view, the gravel banding was very disruptive work and with pre-season training for the 2018-19 season likely to commence around the 22nd June, we didn't have a lot of time to grow in the lines after work was completed; four weeks at best!

The decision to go with pop-ups was made at the 11th hour, again the Manager pushing hard to get these installed, so four days before the gravel banding started, I was contacting Jon Jinks at Osprey Irrigation to see if we could get the pipework in advance of ARC Groundcare's gravel banding Whizz Wheel. To be fair to Jon, he managed to mobilise a crew to get in over the weekend of the 19th May and install the five pipes across the field. They were just left with back filling trenches by the Monday when Adrian Cooper's team came in to start the drainage.

So that was the training ground underway and we had to cater for the team's training at the stadium in their run-up to a second Wembley Final of the season. They had lost to Lincoln in the Checkatrade Trophy Final there the month before.

Cultivating fibresand into rootzone

With the team training up until Friday 26th May at the stadium, the decision was made to only strip off the pitch with the Koro afterwards, replace the three pairs of centre sprinkler heads with three bigger single 360s in advance and leave alone until after the concert. The time between the team' final training session, and the promotors taking over the stadium and pitch on the 6th June, simply didn't allow enough time to renovate successfully. There was a worry, if we had, that new seedlings would be breaking the ground under the spectator flooring and we ran a risk of disease/lack of water that could ruin the yield.

We had terrible issues the previous summer with the Rod Stewart concert and the poor management of the pitch surface by the promotors. So, this time, despite us only then getting five weeks after the de-rig of Lionel Ritchie to the first pre-season game, I felt that we would have a uniform renovated surface that we could better push through ready for the season.

After the Wednesday night concert, the flooring and stage were removed by the afternoon of Friday 15th June, so we immediately brushed off any concert debris and verti-drained the bare surface. We applied 60 cubic meters of Fibresand, added some slow release inorganic and organic fertilisers at full rate (Lebanon 20:0:5 and Myco 2) and cultivated down to a depth of 75mm, mixing the new Fibresand and fertiliser with the existing rootzone.

Left: Nine Days After Seeding. Right: 16 Days After Seeding

Once cultivated, we 'wheeled in' the pitch to consolidate and started the process of re-grading using a Blec stone rake. We passed over the pitch area four times to achieve levels and consolidation that we were happy with and then seeded using Limagrain MM60 at 50g/m2 as well as applying a 9:7:7 pre-seed fertiliser prior to a final roll. All was finished by the Saturday afternoon.

The race was now on to get the seed germinated and up as quickly as possible, and the latter part of the following week, we were looking out for the first green shoots to come through. By the Friday, we could see them emerging, but by the Monday there were two areas on the pitch, primarily both wings, which showed no germination at all. The weather had well and truly turned hot and dry and it was apparent that our irrigation system wasn't reaching these two areas.

We had to go and buy a couple of hundred metres of ½" hose and four small sprinklers that we could operate from taps in each corner under the stands to supplement our irrigation system by moving these up and down the wings. Finding these items involved trips to five different garden centres as the shelves had been stripped bare of any irrigating products!

I called in Osprey to investigate the irrigation issues we had, and they found that the pump was knackered, operating at less than 50%, so was only putting out 4 bar pressure instead of the required 8 bar for the effective use of the pop-up system. Whilst old, the pump had probably been damaged with the two icy bouts endured during the Beast from the East days in the winter.

Left: Spraying Our Concoctions, Right: Regular Mowing And Pitch Thickening Up Early July

Again, due to the current conditions, sourcing a pump wasn't easy, as demand outstripped supply and Jon Jinks had to prove his worth to get one and repair our system double quick. However, the new pump also highlighted issues with some of our pipework and valve boxes, so these then needed to be excavated and replaced. We also had to change the nozzles on the pop-ups to reach the optimum flow rates that the new pump was able to provide. All of this was going on as the clock ticked down to the first game.

Another few days of all-day watering, and with daytime temperatures in the 30s, there was little germination in these areas, so we decided to over sow with a further 100kgs of seed.

By the time this grass started to come through, we were now less than three weeks from the first game.

We had started mowing, first with rotary mowers and then cylinders, to thicken up the grass. Any small patches were seeded by hand and we literally drained our irrigation tank dry every single day trying to keep enough moisture in the surface.

Our problems worsened at the training ground; the sustained hot, dry weather, was making it impossible to keep enough water on and near the surface, we have the same size water tank to irrigate nearly three times as much ground. The gravel bands were working against us and, despite continually filling and overseeding these lines, they just kept sinking and needing redoing.

Aerial Photo Of Pitch 19 Days Before Brentford Game

Following the team's defeat at the Wembley play off final, the manager had decided to up anchor and sail to the new surroundings of Championship Ipswich Town. Our new manager, John Askey, was in place ready for the start of pre-season training, but clearly was not happy with the training ground, as indeed were we. Trying to explain to him that the installation of necessary additional secondary drainage, coincided with one of the longest periods of drought, didn't seem to wash, so we weren't off to the best of starts. With a finite amount of water and ground that sucked up any moisture that wasn't evaporating immediately, made our life impossible.

We took the decision to concentrate our efforts on the first team pitch only, but even doing this didn't soften the ground up sufficiently to warrant us getting a verti-drain on to improve the levels. Topdressing the area again would have helped, but the funds were not availaible. We reverted to getting water across the whole ground, ensuring we could keep the grass alive. All I could offer was to verti-drain once the weather broke and the ground softened up somewhat.

We were throwing everything we could at the stadium surface; in addition to daily mowing and irrigation, we were spraying a weekly concoction of Sea Action Seaweed, Humimax bio stimulant, Biomass sugar and fertiliser. This was working well, but with only two weeks before the pre-season friendly against Brentford, we put on a full rate 20:10:10 to give the grass the necessary boost it needed. It was filling in quickly and, to prevent any incidence of disease, we also put down a preventative dose of fungicide. With such a short window, we couldn't take the chance that disease would knock us back.

We brought in a couple of pallets of thick cut turf from Tillers, using this primarily to repair the drain lines at the training ground, but also to patch around the three pop ups in the centre of the stadium pitch, where the grass had been washed away with the sprinklers coming on regularly.

Root growth was around 35mm by the time we played Brentford, there were still a few small patches, and the pitch sward was still thin. We got the soil moisture in the pitch to around 34% before the game kicked off, but although it dried quickly during the game there was very little damage. Now we had two more weeks to get the grass established towards maturity.

We continued with our regime of seaweed, bio stimulants and sugar as well as nutrition and, although the weather was still testing, we were now able to reduce our watering schedule to encourage the roots to go down.

By the time the first game was upon us, the quality of the pitch was getting to where we wanted it to be and it played equally well on the opening day of the season.

It's always difficult at this time of the year to keep the pitch wet on top, and despite topping up the water throughout the morning and then giving the pitch a further ten minutes water through the middle after the warm ups, the surface dries up after the first fifteen minutes. At half time, we watered again through the middle, but the same happened again in the second half and it prompted the usual complaints that the pitch was too dry.

Pitch Maturing In September

As we moved through August, the weather did start to break, we had recorded just 19mm of rain in the previous ten weeks, so the relief when we finally got some prolonged precipitation was very welcome.

We managed to get the training ground vertidrained towards the end of August, which improved the levels no end; with the ability to also get some granular 12:0:9 fertiliser on as well, the turfed and seeded areas were growing in well and, by the time we started September, everything was looking much better.

As the pitches started to mature and thicken nicely, we were told that the grass length was too long. I have always tried to maintain our height of cut at around 26mm given the issues we'd had in the build-up/start to the season we stayed at 26mm. To accommodate management, we dropped this to 25mm in mid-September, but were told it was still too long. I rang around a few other groundsmen to gauge what they were doing, and the range was mostly around 26mm, though one was cutting at 23mm. The latter has lighting rigs and is much further south than we are but, even so, the difference in height was no more than the width of a ten pence piece. My argument to management is the confusion between height of cut and thickness of sward, but this appears to have fallen on deaf ears as well.

The previous management team had wanted the grass shorter last season and we did keep it shorter for longer than we'd wanted to. I'm certain this was one of the reasons why our grass died back so quickly in January. I will stick to my guns this time and, as our grass naturally starts to thin out, the players won't find the pitch a problem going into the winter. By the end of October, we will probably raise the height of cut back up to around 28mm anyway to help protect the grass going into winter.

Given what we've had to put up with already this year, I'm hoping that this winter is a little fairer on us, but then again…

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