Inverness Caledonian Thistle Football Club in deep water

Lee Williamsin Football

Inverness Caledonian Thistle Football Club began life in 1994 and came to prominence, or perhaps notoriety, when the still considered minnows took on the might of Celtic at Celtic Park in the Scottish Cup, running out 3-1 winners. The Scottish Sun's headline the following morning read; "Super Caley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious". Lee Williams packed his umbrella and headed up to the Highlands to meet the club's Head Groundsman, Dale Stephen.

Inverness Caledonian Thistle Football Club was first founded as Caledonian Thistle F.C. in August 1994 by the merger of Highland Football League clubs, Caledonian and Inverness Thistle, and adopted its current name two years later. They compete in the Scottish Championship, the second tier of the Scottish Professional Football League, and host home games at the Caledonian Stadium with a capacity of 7753.

Tasked with keeping the stadium pitch in tip-top condition is Head Groundsman, Dale Stephen. "The stadium pitch was first constructed in 1994 and, since then, it has always had problems with holding water," Dale explains. "The way I look at it is there wasn't much of a pitch construction; at least not what you would talk about in the modern sense. There are things out there that you would never do if we were to rebuild the pitch now. It was built on a gravel raft, and the rootzone was mixed out on the car park - three soil, two sand and one peat! Why you would ever put that down, I don't know? The pitch has a 400mm camber from the centre to the sides. It originally had four main auxiliary drains and is meant to drain laterally into the gravel raft, but every time I take the manhole covers up in heavy rain to check the flow, nothing is running through them."

"The pitch has had umpteen drainage solutions tried out over the years by different contractors. Eight new drains running the full length of the pitch, which has never really worked or hit their full potential. After this, the pitch had fifteen sand slits put in to help pull the areas in between the drains together, and it has also been sand banded in four different directions. But none of these solutions, so far, have helped significantly improve percolation through the surface."

Head Groundsman, Dale Stephen

Unfortunately for Dale, this is not the end of his problems when it comes to drainage of the pitch. The undersoil heating pipes that were laid in 2003 as a requirement by the Scottish Premier League, when the club gained promotion, have not made the situation any easier to manage. "The pipes were laid in December of that year and the pitch was like porridge, the tractor wheels were spinning when they were trying to pull the pipes in. The pipes are all up, down, left and right. They are not uniform and are meant to be down at a depth of nine inches across the whole pitch. But there are many areas where we are lucky if they are six and a half inches down. We are unable to go any lower than a depth of five inches when using a verti-drain or the Toro ProCore. Ideally, I would like to be going in a lot deeper to try and get a link from the surface to the drains below. Another problem we are having with the pipes is they are baking the heavy content of soil we have in the pitch. So, three to four inches around the pipes is like concrete, which I am unable to try and cure due to the restrictions of depths we can aerate."

In the 2017/2018 season, the club had to call off five first-team games and two youth ties, which was costing the club money. This set off the alarm bells and Dale was asked to come up with a plan to help improve the drainage and overall quality of the pitch. "We had to put our thinking caps on, as money is everything. We can't afford to put in a custom-built rootzone or Fibresand pitch. After much thought and obtaining outside advice from a long-term consultant, we put a plan in place. We started by Koroing off the pitch to remove all the Poa Annua which covered at least 90% of the surface and removed the heavy thatch layer that had accumulated over the years. We located five heating pipes going the full length of the pitch and excavated them out and installed 100mm drains right down into the gravel raft. Then the pitch was rotavated to relieve as much compaction as we could and dressed with 540 tonnes of sand. The pitch was then power harrowed to try and improve the water retention of the surface. Gravel bands were then installed across the pitch to help connect the new drains and hopefully link in to some of the old drains. The Graden box was then used to re-level the surface and reinstate the camber. Finally, we overseeded with a 100% perennial ryegrass mix and applied a pre-seed fertiliser. I can't wait now to see if what we have done this pre-season will pay dividends this year. I have already seen some slight improvements in the percolation rates since we completed the work six weeks ago."

Dale took advantage of the significant work done this year to help improve his dated irrigation system. "The system was installed when the pitch was built and comprised hydrant points and hosepipes. At a later date, but I'm not sure when, there was a ring main installed with valves and outfield Rainbird pop-ups fitted, but no sprinklers were installed in the middle of the pitch. This has meant that we have had to pull hoses on to the middle of the pitch connected to hydrant points situated at the side of the pitch. When it comes to a matchday, it's a nightmare. You have coaches asking you an hour before kick-off and at half time to get the water on, and we simply can't do it. So, with all the work being done on the pitch, I saw the opportunity to approach the club and explain that this would be the ideal time to add pop-ups into the middle pitch because we are digging trenches for drainage anyway. I was luckily permitted to add eight Rainbird pop-up sprinklers into the middle of the pitch. So, we can now do what the coaches are asking on match days, and it also gives me more control to water the pitch correctly.

Dale talks me through his current regime. "I cut the pitch using an old Dennis G860 and a Triple mower, setting them up at the same height of 25mm, at least four times a week in the growing season. A lot of the time with me working on my own at the stadium I will use the triple, but I do try my best to alternate between them to balance out the weight. If I have a tight schedule with a game Saturday then Tuesday, I will divot the pitch on a Sunday and pick up any debris with the Toro Timemaster rotary on a Monday. In summer, I will cut with the triple as I can double cut the pitch in the same time that I can single cut with the Dennis, but I will use it before a game. When I have more time between games, or in winter, I do tend to use the Dennis. With the pitch being koroed off, I plan on making use of the scarifying cassette I have for the Dennis to lightly scarify the pitch once a month to help keep the surface clean."

Ongoing drainage issues

Since I visited, Dale has reported that the pitch has come on leaps and bounds. "The weather has been rather rainy; I can't remember a week without at least a day or night of rain. We have had some numbers in the gauge ranging from 5mm, to the gauge overflowing at 30mm plus. This has given me numerous headaches, as I'm sure groundspersons and greenkeepers all over the country have experienced. I've lost at least two feeds due to heavy rain that's not been forecast."

"At the end of August, I had a game which was changed to a Friday night for TV. I planned to feed that week with a 15:5:15 slow release and, due to different things, I couldn't get it applied. The forecast for that evening said rain so, I decided to stay late after the game to get it down.

This would give me the two days of the weekend to give it the best chance to wash in. I'm pretty sure it rained for the next twenty-four hours! Hence, I've been pretty unlucky with some feeds."

"It's not been all bad though! The pitch is handling water very well after the renovations and, a few weeks ago, a fellow groundsman was good enough to loan me a Blec dimple seeder and I managed to get nine bags on the pitch. I have also earthquaked the pitch going down to a depth of 5 inches - which is as deep as I dare to go with the undersoil heating pipes in at various depths, some as shallow as 6 inches. It was badly needed after we had a community fun day with five hundred children on it plus parents!"

"The pitch has been getting some great comments from the team, coaches, opposition, directors and fans. So that's always good to hear. It's been a pleasure to work on and is in pretty good shape going into winter."

Dale has an average fertiliser budget for the pitch, so he likes to make use of slow-release granular products and liquids. But he expects the inputs needed to maintain the pitch this season will dramatically increase with having a clean surface to work with, plus the extra drainage work. "Last year, I used applications of ICL Proturf, Sportsmaster and Sierrablen. I found I got great results using these products and they gave me the longevity I was looking for. I will continue to use them this season. The pitch is only six weeks in, and I have applied two granular feeds and one liquid feed, which includes seaweed and chelated iron. This leads me to believe the pitch is leaching nutrient through a lot quicker than in previous seasons. It is a good indicator that the work done in pre-season is working, but at the same time, my fertiliser budget will increase."

The machinery Dale must work with is getting dated, and he would like to be able to update it in the future. "I have inherited everything I have got; the Jacobson T3 ride-on mower was bought in May 2016 on hire purchase a few months before I started. The Dennis G860 is from 2002 and was bought secondhand and is in desperate need of replacement, and the cylinder cassette has only one or two more regrinds left in it. I have an Iseki tractor which is around ten to twelve years old and was bought on hire purchase at the time. A piece of kit I wouldn't be without is the Toro Pro-core, which was also purchased secondhand, and I have a sprayer which I don't even know how old it is." I asked Dale what would be first on his wish list if he was able to replace a piece of equipment and if there is one piece of kit he believes would help improve the surface. "I would love a new Dennis G860; this would enable me to hand mow the pitch a lot more often as our current machine is on its last legs. For clean-up, after a game, I would like a Dennis Pro 34R. I believe these are the business."

Dale was inspired to start a career after finishing school in the sports turf industry while playing golf with his dad and his godfather, who was a greenkeeper. "I just liked being out on the course. So, in January of 2003 whilst still at school, I applied for an apprenticeship at Forest Golf Club. I got an interview in April and, by the time I had cycled home from the club, they phoned my house to tell me I had got the position. I hadn't even sat my high school exams, and I already knew before I got my grades that I had a job to go to, which I started in June of that year."

"I spent seven years at the Forres GC gaining my qualifications at Elmwood College in Fife. I then applied for a Deputy Head position at a new build 18-hole golf course with a little par three course, as I didn't feel my career would progress if I stayed at Forres. After a year at the new build, I got the opportunity to move to Kinloss Golf Club, a small family run course, and become the Head Greenkeeper. In my time at Kinloss, I helped improve the quality of the course and it allowed me to do things I would not have done at my previous clubs. I first heard about the role I'm in now through my old Head Greenkeeper at Forres GC, whom I remained good friends with. He knew I was looking for a new challenge and he was aware that I had always been interested in moving into groundsmanship. He had heard that the Head Groundsman was retiring and told me I should get my CV in. Between Ross helping and my mate Peter knowing Tommy, I was lucky enough to end up getting the position. I have not looked back since, even when things have got tough in the winter months. I must thank Tommy Cumming, the former Head Groundsman, for his support in my time so far at the club.


Inverness Caledonian Thistle was formed in 1994 by the merging of two Highland League clubs, Caledonian and Inverness Thistle. Between 1994 and 1996, the new club played their home matches at Telford Street Park, which had been the home ground of Caledonian. However, one of the pledges made to gain entrance into the Scottish Football League (SFL) was that they would move to a newly built ground by August 1995. Four sites were considered until finally, early in 1995, the Highland Council approved a site called East Longman, next to the A9 road and the Kessock Bridge. This site had to overcome concerns of the local Harbour Trust that the stadium floodlights would interfere with traffic in the Moray Firth and the need for an access road to relieve traffic from the A9. Inverness District Council approved the plans and authorised £900,000 of public funds to cover a funding gap.

The SFL extended the deadline for a new stadium to 1996, but the District Council was given legal advice that the public funds could only be provided under set conditions, which caused further delay. The club threatened to resign from the SFL if the funds were not forthcoming, but eventually, the District Council granted the funds in December 1995. The new stadium opened in November 1996 and hosted its first SFL match, a 1-1 draw between Caley Thistle and Albion Rovers. The stadium held 5,000 supporters at the opening and cost £5.2 million. This was partly funded by selling the old grounds of Caledonian and Inverness Thistle for £1.1 million, the grant from Inverness District Council, £500,000 from the Football Trust and the rest was provided by the Inverness and Nairn Enterprise Board, sponsors and supporters. The local authority retained ownership of the ground, with Inverness Caledonian Thistle being given a 99-year lease on the site.

When the club won promotion to the Scottish Premier League (SPL) in 2004, they faced a problem in that the Caledonian Stadium did not meet an SPL requirement for stadiums to have 10,000 seats. At that time, the Caledonian Stadium had a total capacity of 6,280 and only 2,280 seats. The club agreed to ground share with Aberdeen at Pittodrie. The SPL initially rejected the ground-sharing application, but accepted it on appeal. The SPL also voted to reduce the 10,000-seat requirement to 6,000. Inverness CT played at Pittodrie for the first two rounds of fixtures of the 2004-05 season, whilst redevelopment works were carried out at the Caledonian Stadium.

The redevelopment in 2004-05 included the construction of two new stands at either end of the ground, which made the stadium all-seater and increased its capacity to over 7,500. These stands were built in a remarkable forty-seven days by the Tulloch Construction Company who are also the club's biggest shareholder. As Tulloch also paid part of the development cost, the stadium had the Tulloch name added to it on completion of the work and the lease on the site was transferred to Tulloch. The lease reverted to the football club in December 2017, except for the stadium car parks. In February 2019, the stadium was renamed the "Caledonian Stadium" after long-time sponsors Tulloch gifted the stadium to the club.

In 2007, the club added a very small stand opposite the Main Stand - called the West Stand. It has a capacity of around 400 and was initially intended to be a 'singing section'. The highest football attendance recorded at the Caledonian Stadium is 7,753, set on 20 January 2008 against Rangers.

In mid-2018, Inverness CT swapped out the original manned turnstiles for more modern barcode scanning ones, becoming one of a handful in Scotland to use these turnstiles, and the first in the Highlands. The ground hosted the 2019 Scottish Challenge Cup Final, played between Highland club Ross County and Welsh side Connah's Quay Nomads.

What's in the shed

Jacobsen TR3 triple mower
Iseki compact tractor
Dennis G860 cylinder mower
Toro timemaster
Toro ProCore
Farmer 600l sprayer
Spray jet linemarker
Transfer wheel linemarker

Read Getting Personal with Dale Stephen here

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