A baptism of snow!

Laurence Gale MScin Football

OldhamWeb6.jpgFor many football club groundsmen the period between Christmas and the New Year is usually a busy time, with a glut of fixtures to accommodate at a time when their pitches are most vulnerable due to the poor weather and low light levels.

This winter has been even more challenging, with the arrival of the worst snow falls and heavy frosts experienced for decades.

The fixture programme was decimated and those clubs reliant on frost covers, and little else, simply had to grin and bear it. One such club was Oldham Athletic who, under the leadership of newly appointed Head Groundsman, Lee Williams, was faced with over 150mm of snow on the stadium pitch and training grounds.

The 'Latics' were unable to train on their Chapel Road or Little Wembley training ground pitches, having to resort to indoor facilities - not a favourite surface for professional players! Latics manager, David Penny, admitted that it was "an absolute nightmare. Training is, obviously, vital and being stuck indoors is about as far from ideal as you can get."

"When the harsh weather arrives we have four basic options open to us" said Lee. "One, to leave the pitch alone to thaw out in its own time; two, to clear it ourselves with shovels and then leave it to thaw; three, to clear it and then cover it with heated frost covers to try and get the frost out; and four, to bring in a heated dome to defrost it and clear the snow all in one go."

OldhamWeb2.jpg"The ideal option is four, but the reality is the cost of that is pretty prohibitive, so we are left with one, two and three. Two and three carry a risk, in that you have to be on the pitch, digging, walking, dragging covers and pushing barrows and that, obviously, puts a strain on the pitch that we would like to avoid. Then, the heated blankets also come with a financial cost."

The cost-benefit analysis is a far from simple one, and Lee has been in constant communication with a host of specialists, both local and national, to determine the best course of action for the future.

I caught up with Lee on Friday 15th January. At that time there was still 150mm of snow on the Boundary Park pitch. His priority was to get the pitch ready for the Wednesday night game against Tranmere Rovers.

OldhamWeb3.jpgAs luck would have it the 'big freeze' became the 'big thaw' as the forecasted rain came to his rescue. By Monday morning all the snow had melted, leaving the pitch ready for match preparations.

Being a free draining Desso sand based pitch helped enormously, leaving Lee with the job of brushing, firming up the pitch and marking it out. 3000 spectators watched a less than thrilling 0-0 draw, but the revenue to the club, who hadn't played a home game since 12th December, was very welcome.

The snow cover had incubated some fusarium, but Lee managed to catch it early and spray with Eland, which soon cleared it up.

Lee has only been with the club since October, coming back into football after trying his hand at contracting, working for Greendale Field Maintenance. Lee had previously worked as a head groundsman at Manchester City's Carrington Road training ground under Roy Rigby, who he has total respect for; "I learned a lot from Roy during my six year spell there."

Before that Lee worked at Haydock Park Golf club and attended Myerscough College, where he gained a diploma in Horticulture along with NVQ levels 2 and 3 in sportsturf.

OldhamWeb4.jpgMoving to Oldham is certainly a challenge Lee is looking forward too. He inherited a good pitch and experienced staff. Lee's two assistants are Warren Cain and Chris Bailey, plus a trainee, Daniel Doherty, who work at the training grounds but assist Lee with prepping the stadium pitch when required.

"Some of the machinery needs attention and, when funds become available, I hope to replace them and add some new equipment" said Lee. "We currently have two old Ransomes Mastiffs, two newer Dennis G860 Cassette mowers (which definitely don't need replacing), a Toro 2000 triple mower, a small tractor, a sprayer, a Bowcom line marker and two Lawnflight pedestrian rotaries."

One of the first jobs Lee did when he started in October was to get a full soil analysis of the stadium and training pitches to assess their make up, current nutrient status and thatch levels.

As soon as the results came back, it was a case of agreeing a suitable fertiliser programme tailored to meet the needs of the pitches.

The stadium pitch required a general feed and some trace elements to bring back calcium and magnesium levels. A granular feed of NPK 12:0:6 was applied in November, followed by a dose of turf hardener NPK 3:0:3 and trace elements (Cal-Form, Mag-Form and Magnet Rapide).

"I like to aerate as often as possible to keep the surfaces open and free draining. Currently, the work is contracted out to John Grace of GLM Operations, who come in every six to eight weeks to verti-drain the stadium and training pitches. But, my long term goal is for the club to invest in our own aeration equipment, so that I can have a more flexible approach to aeration."

OldhamWeb5.jpgNow the worst of the weather has, hopefully, passed Lee will nurse the pitches through February and March, hoping that, at the same time, soil temperatures rise significantly to help them recover.

As for next year's renovations, Lee has his own ideas of what he would like to achieve, but he knows it will all be about what money the club has available. He is already seeking quotes for the works based on last year's renovation, when the surface vegetation was heavily scarified to help stand up the Desso fibres, topdressed and overseeded with Bar 7.

"It will be more of the same, but with more time spent on the Boundary Park pitch as this is my main priority. I'm under no illusions that it's going to be easy at Oldham. Life in the lower divisions is harder, with less money and resources available."

However, in the short time Lee has been at the Latics, he has enjoyed every minute of the job, and is pleased with the support he has had from the club.

He knows it will take time to move on and improve things. His ambition is to get recognised for producing good playing surfaces and help the club do well in progressing up the football league ladder.

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