Wednesday morning 3.00am...

Jake Barrowin Football

It is commonly believed that The Wednesday Cricket Club was formed in 1820. The club was so named because it was on Wednesdays that the founding members had their day off work. In 1867, a meeting was held to establish whether there was interest among the members to form a football club to keep the team together and fit during the winter months. The proposal proved very popular, with over sixty members signing up to form Wednesday Football Club.

Andy Thompson

One hundred and fifty years later, Sheffield Wednesday remain one of the oldest English league football teams, with the current team playing in the EFL Championship along with its city rivals Sheffield United.

Clearly, this club is fond of its logic-driven nicknames - they're not only called 'The Wednesday' but also 'The Owls' because they play in the city's suburb of Owlerton. Indeed, the club's crest has featured an owl for many years, with the latest version being a return to one similar to that first used in 1956.

The club's Head Groundsman doesn't take many days off these days, and certainly not midweek! Andy Thompson, 35, is the hard-working chap, based at Hillsborough Stadium, the close to 40,000 capacity home of The Owls since 1899.

His tenure is just approaching four years. He took over from Steve Kiddy, having handed in his notice at Doncaster Rovers as Steve handed his to The Wednesday.

He'd been working for Rovers since 1998, at Belle Vue initially, then at the Keepmoat Stadium from 2006 until 2014. By nineteen years old, he was already head groundsman.

Fresh ideas and new responsibilities needed to come from somewhere, so they looked to a very young man for help, and never reversed the decision.

He had wanted to be a policeman, and even took an eighteen month Public Services course, but helped a friend in collecting leaves at Belle Vue and that stuck instead. That was at 3.00am, even before he was familiar with the fact that many groundspeople start at such times, and he said he was raised to work hard by his father (who looked almost exactly like him).

Andy's dad was a scrap man, then a rail company worker, and Andy accompanied him on some of this work whilst as young as eight years.

He passed away in early 2015, and Andy clearly holds him in very high regard. Photographs of them together are posted on the wall of Andy's shed.

Although Andy's accent doesn't reveal it, the family is from Bishop Auckland, County Durham, and all are fans of Sunderland AFC.

When scheduling the pitch's consumables and purchasing equipment, Andy said he doesn't "have a plan written down, i.e. I keep spending on the most important things until they tell me to stop."

"I have some parameters to work between, but I largely go off what was necessary the previous year, by adding 10%, and other than that it's partly improvised."

"We also have an Operations Manager, whose job role overlaps with mine to some extent, and he has a set budget, but it works best for me not to."

The staff is currently six-strong. Andy, Pete Needham (Assistant Head Groundsman) and Elliott Bashford work at the stadium, whilst Tim Watt (Senior Groundsman) Leighton Lindley and Ewan Doman work at the training ground. Tim has been at the club for over twenty years - with the other staff all joining in 2017 after a restructuring by Andy to improve standards and progress the department. There is also volunteer aid on matchdays for divoting, some mowing and the like.

Left: Pete Needham. Right: Elliott Bashford

Pete was Head Groundsman at Doncaster Knights Rugby Club and served his apprenticeship under Andy at Doncaster Rovers prior to that.

Elliott joined from Doncaster Rovers after starting his apprenticeship there. He will complete his NVQ Level 2 in 2018.

Leighton worked on the grounds team of Sheffield University for over twenty years, plus a short stint at Rotherham United before joining SWFC.

Ewan joined from Hallamshire Golf Club where he started an apprenticeship NVQ Level 2, which will be completed in 2018

The staffing levels are enough to scarify and topdress at renovation, and they only hire help when in need of specialist equipment, although this is somewhat frequent, because the main pitch has been Desso Grassmaster since last season.

Andy inherited an old Fibresand pitch with limited if no working drainage. The first year he top drained the pitch, which added needed drainage.

However, the destabilising of the surface made the pitch difficult to work with during the season. This was the motivating factor to install a Desso Grassmaster construction.

He said: "When I got here, the Chief Executive asked me what we need to improve the state of the pitch, and I immediately said 'Desso'. He agreed, because he'd been involved with West Ham at one point and seen how much better their pitch was."

"Then a new Chairman bought the club and asked the same question. He invested needed funds into a training ground that had seen little improvements over the past fifteen years and completely transformed the place."

"He's put a lot of money in and wants success like everybody else. He sees that giving the players and the staff the right tools to do their job is the way to make a football club successful."

"I'm here because the manager wants the pitch to play right. Otherwise, what's the point? There is no point in having a pitch that plays like a dud, even if it looks great."

"When I was younger, I did quite a lot of fancy cutting patterns and always made sure it was looking perfect in case the Chief Executive would walk down the stairs or what have you."

"But then I realised: why? They only care if it works on matchday, because that is what the business is. So, we do the maintenance on the other days, and just make sure it's in its best condition on Saturday. That's all they want."

The main training pitch is of Fibresand construction from the 1992-93 season, and had drainage installed for the first time around three years ago.
Were the club to reach the Premier League within the next few years, they have indicated they would be likely to upgrade this to Desso also.

This would be part of an announced development project, which aims to have Hillsborough safely increase its capacity to nearly 45,000. This would make it the second largest-capacity English football stadium outside of the Premier League, after only Sunderland's Stadium of Light.

This is quite conceivable, as the club has reached the play-offs in two consecutive seasons, and are [at time of writing] hovering within a few wins of the top six again.

The club has a strong following, perhaps due to being one of the oldest professional association football clubs in the world, and their attendance varies between 25,000 and 35,000.

Their local rivalry with city-sharing and also-ancient Sheffield United was contested recently for the first time in five years. The pitch provided a quick passing game and six goals were scored.

Secondary training pitches are more difficult as the profile contains some unwanted materials one might expect in a city environment.

The club also has a Tiger Turf synthetic surface under a dome, which is used up to seven days per week by the club's academy, so cannot be hired out due to time constraints.

However, this pitch is occasionally used by those organising major and regular fixtures important to the area, such as charity matches and the university varsity match.

Along with the Desso, the club has further shown willingness to invest in quality by purchasing four LU440 lighting rigs eighteen months ago.

These are powered from the corners of the grounds, and Andy said they can cover most of the pitch over the course of a typical week, although not usually all of it.

They emphasise the turf underneath the South Stand, however, because the famous stand (the one with the triangular outcrop featuring a clock) was built in an era when protecting the fans from rain took priority over allowing light onto the pitch.

This stand provides shade even in the summer. In fact, when visited by a representative of a company selling amenity products, The Wednesday were told they had "the darkest pitch in the Football League".

Andy said: "We also AerCore a lot and put a lot of sand profile down on that far side. We also brush for water often; try to limit the amount of surface water. And, finally, we try to thin that area out more by verti-cutting, to try to get airflow around it."

"As always, you have to avoid taking measures too far. That can result in a problem on matchdays if that side gets too dry."

In terms of lighting for spectator benefit, the ground lacks floodlight pylons, and the rooftop lights are almost exactly on the light level requirements for the use of Hawkeye tracking technology.

The investment in new infrastructure also extended to new heating pipes just before the Desso was built. Now, the club hopes to also replace the linked boiler, which is ageing, having been installed even before the Fibresand training pitch, in 1991.

The Desso also received new drainage when the Fibresand did. Andy said: "Before, a little bit of rain would result in a lot of surface water. Now, we water it even after it's rained sometimes."

"I think the way they've built the Dessos has changed over the years. I worked with one at Rovers, and it was a lot harder than this one."

"It's better softer, because we can tell it'll probably last longer. The trade-off is that we have more divots, which can have a negative result on grass coverage."

"Looking at Rovers' pitch now, under the same conditions etc., they get scars, whereas we get divots - and they can be big. Obviously, that's more work too."

One of the club's chief concerns is during periods of extreme rain, as the stadium is built on the banks of the River Don.

That is: beneath the western edge of the concourse, there are supports instead of foundations, because the drop to the river is immediately underneath the stand. This means that, if the river ever overflows, that floodwater heads straight into the stadium.

Before Andy's arrival, the water level once rose to around the fourth row of seating. Bronze plaques line the walls inside the concourse commemorating the record levels, recounting dates and consequences.

During the summer, the team cuts twice daily, seven days per week. For this, they tend to use Dennis G860s, but opt for 20-inch walk-behinds wherever possible, or 30-inch Dennis Premiers when preparing for matches.

This is at 25mm usually, with the manager requesting 18-20mm for matchday performance. This, of course, puts strain on the leaf, and last season resulted in quick reduction of coverage in the lead up to Christmas.

This year, in response, Andy has emphasised the use of Primo Maxx II Growth Regulator to achieve lateral growth and maintain the turf's thickness for longer, which appears to be working well.

The main pitch is verti-drained every six weeks. They own their own, which is kept at the training ground, although contracting this out is so affordable that it's sometimes more cost-effective than simply fetching their own and taking it to the stadium.

The club also owns a Toro ProCore, which they use as often as every ten days, varying between 13mm and 19mm tines as matches dictate.

Andy's team Koro the pitch each September, and tend to rake and verti-cut alongside this, to complement the action.

This will be accompanied by ten bags worth of overseeding, repeated after six months. They also seed the goalmouths after each match, all with Johnsons 100% rye J Premier Pitch.

Their only disease issue is leaf spot, and they don't suffer from any notable pests. In summer, they feed the fungus out, and in winter, they tend to perform a single spraying of Banner Maxx fungicide, which handles the problem efficiently.

Andy has intimated, however, that if troubled by fusarium due to damage, he will most likely use Instrata Elite 50/50 if budget allows.

When taking samples, Andy checks for calcium levels and ways to improve pH, which is currently around 4.7. He recently aimed to discover the natural nematode levels too, but is currently awaiting the results of this test.

Andy said: "It's hard to know whether pH is inherently dangerous, though. Because, we're at 4.7 down at 100mm, and we've still got healthy grass."

"And I figured out, even though that's the norm, that our roots don't go down near 100mm. So, I decided we could take some at 40mm instead. They were at 5.2."

"You can have a company come in and tell you the figures that's supposed to be between, but that doesn't necessarily mean those are the figures we can achieve, or even that they're the figures we need to achieve."

"You can end up being a number chaser, which is good in some ways, because it gives you a way to quantify what you're achieving, but clearly the numbers aren't the only thing that matter."

"That was early on. And since I've been here, we've hovered more like 5.3-5.4, and we've always had grass cover. If grass is growing and no other issues are presenting, how can it be an issue itself?"

What's in the shed?

Dennis G860 cylinder mowers x 3
Dennis Premier cylinder mowers x 2
Toro ProCore 648
John Deere R54RKB 21" rotary mowers x 3
Honda Pro54 21" rotary mowers x 4
Stihl strimmer
Stihl hedgetrimmer
Spray linemarker
SGL LU440 lighting rigs x 4
Kubota RKV utility vehicle
John Deere 3730 tractor
Team Vixen sprayer

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