2 A triple edged sword for Wigan Athletic!

IMG 6757Whilst the Premier League big boys chase the 'bigger' prizes of a place in the Champions League and the Premiership title, for most other clubs the FA Cup remains a competition worthy of respect. Indeed, it is still held in high regard by supporters.

So, when 'little' Wigan Athletic won the trophy last season, most neutrals were pleased for the club, perhaps even more so because the choruses of 'Blue Moon' had been silenced.

For the club's personable chairman, Dave Whelan, it also went some way to healing the pain of a broken leg suffered in the 1960 FA Cup Final, but nothing could remove the hurt of relegation from the Premier League just a few days later, ending an eight year stay in the top flight. Wigan's annual Houdini style escape had finally escaped them!

If that was a double-edged sword, a third 'edge' was added as, by winning the FA Cup, Wigan qualified for the Europa League, at a time when all their efforts should be being put into bouncing straight back to the Premiership. Mr Whelan left new manager, Owen Coyle, in no doubt about his priority; "I've told him returning to the Premier League is the total and utter priority. It's fantastic that we are in Europe, but that comes second, and he knows that the Premier League is where we have to be."

Dave Whelan bought the club back in 1995 when they were languishing in the third division, with a promise to fans to take them to the Premier League, something that was realised just ten years later. Along the way he financed the building of the club's stadium, which is now known as the DW Stadium.

N IMG 6748ow in his eleventh year as Head Groundsman at the stadium, Ian Forshaw remains stoical about life in the Championship. "Mr Whelan has always kept a keen eye on all activities at the club and is very prudent with the finances," states Ian, "and I'm sure the new manager will have his own take on how he wants the pitch to perform. But, it's not all about the football club, as we also accommodate Wigan Warriors rugby league team as well, so there has to be an element of understanding between all parties."

At the time of his arrival at the then JJB Stadium, Ian was managing a Desso pitch which, he confesses, wasn't really suitable for dual sports use. There followed a period of returfing during renovations which, whilst coping better, lost grass cover in the depths of winter.

So, in 2010, and mindful of the words of ex Villa Head Groundsman, Jon Calderwood, who used to say about his pitch construction that "you can never make a good pizza unless the base is good", Ian set about establishing a more stable foundation for the Wigan pitch.

IMG 6769"We carried out a major renovation, removing the top few inches and replacing it with fresh materials, using a Blec Sand Master to improve its porosity. The pitch was then returfed and I've been pleased with the result ever since. It is probably the best it has been for many years in terms of vigour, less divots and better infiltration rates."

Ian began this year's renovations on 21st May with contractors fraise mowing the top 20mm of the surface to remove vegetation. The pitch was then relevelled and decompacted using a vertidrain. 100 tonnes of sand was applied and oversown with Johnsons Premier Pitch in five directions. The pitch was then procored to key in the sand and seed. Additional materials added were zeolite, micro-nutrients and a pre-seeding fertiliser, with all the work completed by the 23rd May.

Germination took five days and, by week commencing 10th June, Ian and his staff were cutting the pitch with their pedestrian Hayter rotary mowers to a height of 35mm, the plan being to cut three times a week for two weeks and then use the Ransomes cylinder mowers to firm up and produce a finer cut.

Ian had less than five weeks to get the pitch up and running before the first fixture; Wigan Warriors versus Castleford on Friday 28th June.

IMG 6783"In recent years, we've put greater emphasis on feeding and aeration," explains Ian. "Feeding is centred around programmes that include a base feed of slow release granulars, topped up with liquids, micro-nutrients and biostimulants. Costs can run in to double figures, especially when a lot of additives are being used such as growth regulators and water enhancers."

"Catering for dual sports is time consuming," confesses Ian, "especially marking out and changing the goals. I reckon the pitch has around 150 hours of usage per year compared to the forty hours for stadiums catering purely for football."

Between February and September, it is quite frequent for matches to be played back to back. Wigan Warriors regularly play on Friday night at 8.00pm, and these matches are often televised by Sky Sports, whilst Wigan Athletic will play on Saturday. On such occasions, Ian and his assistants prepare and erect the posts, provide all the marking and other structures for rugby league and blanking out the football markings etc.

Immediately following this match, Ian and his staff will remove all the markings, posts and rugby equipment IMG 6734and then repair the pitch divots and scars, before making true and manicuring the surface ready for football the next day. This often requires the team to work into the early hours of the morning.

If the football fixture is on a Saturday, Ian and his team will be back at the stadium at 6.30am to begin preparations. "We aim to have the pitch cut and marked out by 10.30am," says Ian, "double cutting if the game is being televised live. The weather, soil and air temperatures will influence how much water is required, and this is usually completed by 1.00pm, along with putting out the temporary goals and nets ready for the players warm-ups."

There may be time for a splash of water from the perimeter sprinklers prior to the game starting, and then it's a case of going out at half time and divoting. "I've seen a dramatic drop in divots and scars since the feeding regime has been strengthened which, along with deeper rooting, is really helping the surface."

Once the game is over, there will be one final clean up and inspection of the pitch before going home after a long day. During the winter months, the workload increases as the staff spend time putting out the lighting rigs before they head home.

It is not uncommon for Ian to work for over sixty hours a week when back to back matches take place.

IMG 6798"It can be extremely difficult to please everyone all of the time," bemoans Ian. "This is particularly evident when football managers want tight short grass cut at 20mm, watered and groomed to enable slick passing, whilst rugby managers like grass at 40mm long with a dry surface for ideal handling. There is a conflict of interest, and it has become an endless challenge to satisfy both sports."

The club employ nine groundstaff in total, four based at the stadium and five at their training ground. Ian heads up the stadium team of Tony Jump, James Riding and David Grundy, whilst Rob Turnbull is Head Groundsman at the Christopher Park training ground, looking after two full size and one junior grass pitches and two 3G pitches (one indoor) with his team of four; David Barnes, James Hargreaves, Jamie Worthing and Trevor Simpson.

Ian liaises with Rob on a regular basis, often taking the opportunity to share equipment. However, Rob is left to make all the management decisions at the training ground.

Both pedestrian rotaries and cylinder mowers are used on the stadium pitch. The Hayter rotaries are primarily used for the initial cut after germination and for post match clean up. Ransomes and Dennis cylinder mowers are used for final preparation. "I could do with a couple more rotaries to speed up the time it takes to clean up the pitch, and the cylinder mowers need upgrading as well. I'd also like to see the irrigation system extended to the centre of the pitch as this will save time hand watering, but I know that finances are tight and this is simply a wish list.

My main wish though, as a Latics supporter, is to see the team back in the Premiership as soon as possible."

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Contact Kerry Haywood

07973 394037

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