A working diary

Dave Saltmanin Editorial

Aston Villa a working diary


By Dave Saltman

'Any chance of covering a one-week holiday?' A question I was asked by the Midlands contracts manager of Sportsturf, John Calderwood.

'No problem at all' was the obvious reply, given that it would be at Villa Park. A great chance to write an article, start on my tan and lose a few of those pounds that have been gradually attaching themselves to my person for the last twelve months.

Having worked with Sportsturf for nearly fifteen years I should have been wiser, because one week became three months due to other staff holidays and the prolonged process of finding, interviewing and employing a new member of staff to help John in the Midlands. Now I'm not complaining as I find myself now almost back to my previous fighting weight and look and feel suitably tanned and athletic again-ah those great days of old!

Now that I have finished, I can relay my working diary of the last three months.

Let's start at the point where Mallinsons renovated the pitch, back in May. The renovation had included stripping the surface vegetation and top 20mm of root zone with a Koro.

The Villa pitch is a Desso construction and over the last few years much of the plastic Desso strands have been buried due to general maintenance and end of season dressings. The Koro machine helped re-expose these strands, enabling reinforcement and protectiondessosewfull.jpg

Once all the vegetation had been removed the root zone surface was fluffed up and then seeded with Bar stadia seed, approximately 14 x 25kgs were used. A pre-seed fertiliser (9:7:7) was also applied. The only other operation was deep aeration in the form of a Vertidrain.

Two weeks after the renovation finished, Sportsturf took on the contract to maintain the pitch. At this stage the seed had emerged, although it was a little patchy and John was monitoring the grass progress and keeping the root zone moist. At the point that I came in to start (one week later), the pitch was due its next feed.

It was Saturday 15th June, the wind whistled around the stadium and I decided to get in the first cut. There are two very oldtrustymastiff.jpg

After about four minutes, I felt desperately in need of an oxygen tent and a lie down, but decided that going up and down twice wasn't going to get the pitch cut and I forced my way through the pain barrier we call work. However, at this stage I felt fortunate that there was very little if any, grass coming off the pitch.


Another day became the next day. I cut the pitch across from touchline to touchline, this time I only took one box of grass off the pitch. The wind had died down, so once cut, I set up the spreader and some poles to fertilise the pitch.

I laid ten bags out by the pitch, five along one end and five along one side. I had four poles, two at each end of the pitch. The two poles at each end were placed twelve feet apart (twice the spreading width of this particular spreader) from each other and mirrored the poles at the other end.

With the first bag of fertiliser safely emptied into the hopper of the spreader, I started from the first pole, aiming for the corresponding pole at the far end. When I got there, I placed the spreader by the next pole and moved the two poles over twelve feet at a time. I continued this process along the length, keeping a steady speed. Once the first five bags had been applied lengthways, I repeated thecornerwaterback.jpg

With the feed on and no sign of rain, I set the times on the pop up irrigation system and gave the pitch a good soaking (about ten minutes per area-two hours worth in total).

The following week, I continued to cut/ roll the pitch, once each day and watered in the evening to wash the fertiliser in. It was also time to start a program of summer aeration.

As an Industry we have come full circle in maintenance techniques, many years ago, aeration was the key to success, and for a long time rolling became the normal method of producing a surface. Please don't ask me why, even today I still get the general public, players and managers saying 'are you going to roll the pitch'. The only rolling we do is with the mower, and to be honest, any regular work done with the mower is then counteracted with some spiking to open the surface back up. The roots require oxygen to live and flourish, so a balance needs to be found, aerating the ground without causing surface disturbance.


By Friday, I was expecting the grass to have picked up with the feed, but it seemed to be yellowing and there was now wide spread evidence of leaf spot. I rang the local spraying contractors (ALS) and they agreed to come in early Saturday morning to spray Rovral Green (16 litres) on the pitch.

With the pitch sprayed with fungicide, I now expected to see a rapid improvement, but by the following Tuesday, there was little progress. I rang Andy Cole, an agronomist from PSD (NW) Ltd, and we met on the Wednesday morning. Soil samples were taken, although we already had an inkling of the problem. The tell tale sign being the old pitch markings; the grass immediately around these old lines was much greener and healthier than the rest-in fact these areas were now showing up like a sore thumb. However we needed to gain a full picture of the deficiencies that may have been in the pitch.

We had to wait a week for the results to come back and confirm our suspicions of low ph. The pitch was as acidic as vinegar, the index averaging 4.5 from the samples taken.

There was now only three and a half weeks to go before the first scheduled game, the pitch looked ready to curl up and die, but at least we now knew what we needed to achieve. A hurried order was made for some 'Microcal' a granulated form of dolomitic limestone. By Friday afternoon the first application (400kg's) was on. The next day I fertilised the pitch again with a slightly over the full rate, (350kg's) of 12:0:9 granular fertiliser.

Within two days there was a response, the pitch seemed to green up slightly, and I took about four boxes of grass off when I mowed.overseeding.jpg

The following weekend I had another stint on the spiker prior to another dose of lime being spread across the pitch, we had now put on three quarters of a tonne.

Two weeks to the first game, it was now a question of patience, waiting for the grass to pick itself up as the lime dissolved to sweeten the root zone. I carried on mowing the pitch most days, lowering the height of cut every other day until the mower was prism2.jpg

The sward though was still struggling to make rapid improvement. Andy Cole came back for another look on the Thursday; we took some more samples from the pitch, but also filled a bottle from the irrigation tank to check that there was nothing untoward with the water. Both the samples and the water were sent off for analysis.

There was evidence again of a Leafspot type pathogen on the plant, and we now had no time left to waste. Serious decisions needed to be taken. More hurried phone calls and overnight orders were arranged.

One week to go before the Inter Toto game against FC Zurich. It was 6am Saturday 20th July. True to their word, ALS sent Steve, one of their lads in to spray the pitch again, this time with 23:0:0 (Scotts liquid feed), some Amino-sorb (to help unlock any possible phosphate lock-up, and a dose of Roots 2 with Iron. Fortunately the rain stayed away and John and I managed to put on anothersprayleafspot.jpg

We put the trusty irrigation on and left the pitch with a day of rest on the Sunday.

I can hear you thinking 'you'll need chainsaws to cut the pitch next week'. I can tell you, we really hoped so!

Monday arrived and with eager anticipation I drove over to Villa Park to view the scene. The liquid feed had started to work its magic, and the lime was obviously now shifting the balance away from acidity. John and I cut the pitch with a smile, knowing that although some way from perfection, the pitch was at long last responding. Each day that week there was a 100% improvement. We started to double cut the pitch, and now we were taking off six to eight boxes of grass each day. The results were amazing as the thin areas disappeared and the sward thickened and greened. John found the time to get the Ryan on again; all of these holes that we were creating were hopefully encouraging the roots to establish and go in search of water further down.

Although the game was due to be played on the Saturday, the Villa team wanted to train on the pitch on the Thursday, FC Zurich markingout12.jpg

The game was played, and although the pitch was still not as good as we'd like there were no adverse comments from the players-mind you they did win.

The win meant the next round and another game, the pitch was repaired and the normal regime of mowing continued. The pitch continued to improve and by the time Lille flew into town on the 6th August, it was starting to look like a Premiership surface. Very fortunately, Lille had arrived late the night before and passed up their opportunity to train on the morning of the game, preferring instead to gain a feel of the pitch with a walk around, basking in the sunshine. This enabled us to double cut the pitch without the added work of training repairs.johnmowing.jpg

Villa lost, I can't say hooray, but at least we had a little more breathing space to work the surface. The following Sunday, Villa ladies played host to Bayern Munich ladies, there was very little damage to the pitch, but we now only had one week to go before the start of the premiership-Liverpool, live on sky (good starter to test our nerves).

The week started well, we vertidrained the pitch to help alleviate some early compaction, and used a Sisis Litamina to brush some of the older dead leaves and debris from the sward. One of the problems with the late establishment of the sward meant that we hadn't been able to do some of the routine operations. We would normally have been verticutting on a weekly basis to clean out some of the Poa seed heads and weaker grasses, aiming to improve the welfare of the stronger grasses.

It should be said at this point, that the Koro does not eliminate Poa; annual meadow grass as it's termed, is a prolific seed producer that seeds from the spring to the autumn. My personal feelings are that as the Koro strips off the vegetation, many of the Poa seeds are thrown back onto the freshly produced seedbed. Without quick establishment of the Rye grasses, the Poa soon infests the sward. Good management techniques will help to slow its spread, but unless an army of volunteers could be employed to hand pick this weed grass, it fights to live another day, rapidly growing in numbers.

By Friday we started to double cut the pitch each day, the double cutting helping to thicken the sward, but more importantly at this time of the year to improve the presentation-well the TV were coming!!bandingoff.jpg


The previous evening after we had finished mowing, we had given the pitch a good dose of water, so now we were just topping up the moisture levels in the pitch. With sand based pitches it is important to maintain uniformity of moisture.

The roots provide stability, and in the case of Villa Park, the Desso also provides good stability. But ultimately, the root zone needs to be consistent with moisture, otherwise the pressure of a players boot turning can create shear. Shear will occur where the drier ground and the wetter ground meet, a natural weak spot.

The damage after the Liverpool game was superficial, just some scars where studs had ripped the surface grass away. We deliberated on the pitch performance and felt that the grass was perhaps too thick now, particularly with the previous over seeding. On the Monday we brought over a Turfmech scarifier and proceeded to clean out the sward with one pass. The debris left on top was amazing, and some of the other staff at the stadium thought we were barmy!

Once scarified, we used the litamina to sweep the bands in the opposite direction, removing the grass and rubbish produced. We then used a small 21" Honda rotary mower to vacuum up any bits left in the sward. Time consuming but well worth it.Vgoodmatchday3.jpg

By Wednesday the pitch was clean and we ran the vertidrain back over the pitch on a 4" (50mm) x 4" (50mm) pattern. The pitch was then left for two days to recover a little from the machinery operations. We cut the pitch once on Friday, and then fertilised with 8x 25kgs of 12:0:9 granular feed. The pitch was starting to lose a little of its colour, and with Manchester City as the next opponents the following Wednesday, felt that the pitch needed the boost.

It should also be noted that we didn't put the irrigation on for nearly a week after the Liverpool game. Up until this point we had had no choice but to water to get the lime and the feeds to break down into the root zone-not helpful in encouraging roots to go down. The week was hot, and there was no rain, by Friday there were a few small areas starting to burn up, so as soon as the feed was on, the pitch had its much-deserved drink. Vmatchday.jpg

The pitch had another cut on the Sunday, a healthy 12 boxes produced. Then we started the route march again, double cutting on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in readiness for that evening's game. By two pm the pitch was ready, and all that was required was getting the right quantity of water onto the surface.

Watching the game, there was a distinct point of interest, there was clearly less damage than there had been for the previous match. The roots were now thickening and deepening, and with the thickness ofVmatchday1.jpg

Hopefully the weather will be kind this winter, and the hard work put in through this summer will reap the rewards of a surface still reasonably intact next spring.

So that leaves me to say 'Good luck' to John, only another eight and a half months to go before the season ends-boy will I miss it!

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