With Shrewsbury Town players and coaches currently using three different venues for training, the need for the EFL League One side to have its own dedicated pitches was paramount. The land was available but, with a tight budget, like so many lower league teams, how was their dream going to become a reality? Dave Saltman explains how, via some inventive trade offs and 'lateral' thinking, the new pitches will be open for use in early 2017
The plot of land, situated just outside the ring road around Shrewsbury Town Centre, has been used primarily as a summer sport venue. It was historically owned and used by the Midlands Electricity Board (MEB) as a cricket ground.
The 6.5 acre ground was purchased by the Chairman of Shrewsbury Town FC in 1996, as the MEB sold off unwanted assets before it became privatised, with its various departments sold to companies such as npower and E.ON.
The ground sits as part of the River Severn flood plain and was fine as a cricket ground but, with a silty clay soil base, was not fit for purpose during the wetter winter months.
When we took on the contract for Shrewsbury Town FC in spring 2015 - for the stadium, the training pitch beside the stadium and the Sundorne Castle training ground - I was told that the training ground was used (useful) for a couple of weeks in the summer, then the training pitch behind the South stand at the stadium would be okay until around the end of October. After that, the squad would train at Lilleshall, Shrewsbury College and Shrewsbury School during the worst winter months.
I wouldn't describe myself as an expert within football, but my experience over the last thirty years, working at various football clubs, told me that the club really needed to have its own base, a permanent training ground facility on which to build the club's future. Shrewsbury Town has a fantastic purpose-built stadium that is not a decade old yet. I was told by a few people that nothing would ever happen at Sundorne.
My remit, as I've written about previously, was to turn the stadium pitch around, which we did with honours last season. I had many conversations with the chairman and we often talked about the training ground becoming an integral part of the club's future. I provided some budget costs for doing this, at least in terms of playing surfaces. One of the sticking points was that the chairman owned the said piece of land, and the club (and supporters) felt that it was improper to spend money on the land until it was owned wholly by the club. In the spring this year (2016), the chairman sold the ground to the football club to allow development to take place.
It would be fair to say that I have fallen a little in love with Shrewsbury Town as our local club and, when you have a good understanding of the tight financial constrictions that most clubs are under, I like to help where I can, especially if there is some mutual benefit.
For the last eighteen months, we have cut the Sundorne training ground weekly through the spring and summer, marked it out for pre-season with two pitches, some 10m square grids and put 100m marks around the perimeter of the field. The coaching staff didn't like the ground as there were no facilities for changing, no toilets and the ground was too hard. As soon as the autumn weather started to get wet, the ground would change from being rock hard to a pudding in a matter of weeks. I put both the Earthquake and Wiedenmann through the field several times, but this did little to help.
I had an offer of a substantial amount of arisings that would be coming off the training ground and stadium pitches of Wolverhampton Wanderers when they undertook their renovations in April, May and June. We also had around 200 tonnes of spoil that we had taken off Shrewsbury Town and Telford United the previous season and stockpiled at Sundorne.
The chairman, CEO and I discussed the scope of works that really needed to be undertaken if we were going to be able to produce an area that would cope with training throughout the season. I took soil samples and had these analysed for the particle size distribution (PSD) within the soil. The results would enable me to work out how much material we needed to import to bring them up to a suitably free draining surface.
The soil analysis returned pretty poor results, over 50% silt and clay, and a further 30% fine and very fine sands. The question was then how much sandy material needed to be mixed with this analysis to turn the ratio on its head.
I have devised an Excel sheet (with the help of my partner - an accountant) that allows me to work out overall tonnage of materials with their PSD breakdown, and then add in tonnage and the PSD of a soil amendment to give me a new analysis when mixed together. I had been led to believe that we could expect to receive around 800 tonnes of Koro'd material from Wolves by their Head Groundsman, Wayne Lumbard. My calculations showed that we would need approximately 2200 tonnes of sand/sandy material to bring pitches (15,000m2) up to a reasonable initial standard. An additional 1200 tonnes of Bathgate sand was put on order.
The club and I agreed on a drainage scheme across these pitch areas, using 80mm perforated pipes laid at 450mm depth at 3m centres. The drains would run across the field with a slight fall from the Rea Valley Tractors site on the east side, to a lower adjacent field on the west. These laterals would empty into a main drain of 150mm diameter, that went down the field (again on a natural fall) at a depth of 600mm to an outlet in a ditch at the bottom north west corner of the ground.
We called in a local company, Wyatts of Whitchurch, to provide a survey for a bore hole and the necessary application was made for this. I also called in Osprey Irrigation to provide the costs for a basic irrigation scheme. Their MD, Jon Jinks, is a Shrewsbury Town season ticket holder and has carried out all irrigation work for the club for many years - usually based on work in return for ticket allocation.
We had provision for a 110-cubic metre holding tank, pump house and a ring main that went down the west side of the field, with seven boxed outlets to attach travelling sprinklers to. Hopefully, in the future, we will be able to persuade the chairman to then put in a main around the pitches and have a pop-up system installed. For now, what we had would suffice.
Osprey also installed an interception tank within the main drain line with a transfer pump, so the holding tank would be filled with a mix of drainage, bore hole and mains water. The bore hole water is quite saline, with a high level of chloride, so this needs to be mixed with mains water and drainage water to dilute it to an acceptable level. The clever electronics system set up with the pump, enables this mix to be managed automatically.
With the final prices in, we were ready to start and our first job was to spray off the vegetation with a total herbicide. With this done, we needed to wait a couple of weeks before the vegetation had died down and the real work could start. I engaged Adrian Cooper of ARC Groundcare to install the drainage, a job that was completed in double quick time; certainly it didn't take much more than a week. We were now receiving the first loads of rootzone from the Wolves training ground at Compton, as Wayne started renovations on some of his early pitches.
The room available at Sundorne in terms of car park space was limited. It is small with a gravel top, built over a thin stone base. Lorries that were coming in had to reverse off a fairly busy road, with only enough room to tip three or four loads in total. This meant that, periodically, we had to use an 8.5 tonne digger to move these tipped piles behind onto the grass and stockpile material as it was brought in. 800 tonnes of material was approximately thirty articulated lorry loads and this constant vehicular movement soon showed the poor construction of the car park area, which became muddy and waterlogged.
With the drains installed, we noticed how many rabbits plagued the ground, as they were digging holes in every lateral drain line. We decided to install a fence around the perimeter of the ground to make sure that we could protect our investment, once the pitches were installed. The three metre high metal mesh fencing was secured in place, with round posts every three metres, and the mesh was buried to a depth of approximately 6" (150mm) below the soil line.
We started to move some of last year's spoil down the field onto low areas using the digger and a dumper, but the persistent heavy showers made this difficult and we returned the hired dumper. We tried, rather unsuccessfully two or three times, to cultivate the field but, every time it rained, it put us back 10-12 days whilst we waited for the soils to dry out sufficiently again.
By mid June, we had taken in all the Wolves material, the weather had stayed reasonably dry and we had cultivated the field two ways with a 3m power harrow. We organised a local farming contractor to come in and spread the imported rootzone, that was a mix of sand, fibre and fibrelastic. The contractor used a GPS controlled tractor and a large macerating muck spreader to evenly disperse what turned out to be just over 1100 tonnes of material.
Work stopped again as we encountered a few weeks of occasionally monsoonal downpours.
We then started to take in the sand from Bathgate's - another forty-one articulated lorries and, as they averaged around eight lorries a day, I spent my time moving sand and stockpiling it again where the previous rootzone material had been. On the 10th August, our ALS team descended mob-handed with tractors, power harrows, spreaders and graders to take advantage of the settled dry weather. We spread 1200 tonnes of sand across the same area that the rootzone material had been spread (primarily the 15,000 square metres that would become the three training ground pitches). We had now added approximately 5" (125mm) of sandy material to this area. Once spread, we cultivated the top 175mm to mix the indigenous soil with the imported sands and sandy rootzone. We had spread some slow release fertiliser (Lebanon 25:0:5) across the field during cultivation, so this could be mixed into the profile.
We also cultivated the rest of the field outside of the 'three pitch' area and the whole area was then consolidated and graded using a Harley box rake and 4m stone rake. The lads worked the field until we were happy with the overall and local levels, before seeding commenced.
In total, we used about 1.25 tonnes of Limagrain's Action Replay dwarf perennial Rye mix, that was sown using a Blec slot seeder in two passes. We then firmed the field with a ballasted roller, before spreading 42 x 20kg bags of 9:7:7 pre-seed fertiliser.
With the ground seeded, all we needed now was some of rain that had been persistent throughout the spring and early summer. Alas, it didn't arrive, and we purchased three Rollcart sprinklers and 300 metres of 1" tricoflex hose with couplings. With the new pump and system, we could run three sprinklers at the same time and could water most of the field in two ten-hour sessions. We set the sprinklers up first thing in the morning and then moved them over for the second run last thing in the afternoon to water during the evening/night.
Within a week or so, the field was showing a nice green hue across it and the new seedlings made good progress with the August sun and warmth, coupled with a regular drink of water.
We managed a first cut with a small Iseki ride-on tractor at the end of August, and then started using a tractor mounted McConnel 3m rotary deck thereafter to keep the grass tipped off and tillering. Mowing averaged around four days each week through September and we also spread another 840kg of Maxwell Premier 3:3:12 during this month.
October remained quite warm and dry, the sprinklers had been little used after the initial few weeks of germination and establishment, but we would perhaps get them on once every week or so to perk up the grass. Again, we fertilised the field towards the end of October with another 3:3:12 application of straight release fertiliser.
All the work had been to meet a deadline of 'fit for play' by mid to late October. This deadline was supposed to tie in with other work at the training ground, including the new clubhouse and car park. Unfortunately, due to planning hold ups, the work on these has only just started and it looks likely that the pitches will come into play perhaps by the end of January.
As I write, nearing the end of November, the pitches are doing very well, although growth has all but stopped. There is the odd rabbit that has made it out onto the field, but we have a resident fox who seems able enough to pick these off at will.
We hope to set out and mark the three pitches in December, and carry out any remedial work that is still required on them in readiness for the players. Interestingly, with the recent arrival of Storm Angus, we recorded 65mm of rain. There was some lying water on the perimeters of the field, outside of the drainage matrix, but the pitches themselves were firm and had drained quickly.
In the spring, we will look to finish the construction with a sand slitting operation from north to south, a 90-degree angle to the drain laterals.
The progress that has been made in around twelve months to secure a long term suitable training ground facility for Shrewsbury Town has been excellent and, from a pitch perspective, we have a great starting point from which to build upon. In the years to come, we will continue to improve the three pitches, but also look to bring the surrounding areas of the field up to a similar standard.
This will, of course, mean continuing to work within a tight budget but, for now, the new training ground has been installed with three very useable pitches for less than £188,000 inclusive of VAT. A small budget indeed.