Altrincham FC's Moss Lane playing surface has improved so much over recent years that, following a pre-season friendly, Manchester United reckoned it was one of the best surfaces they had played on.
The work was carried out with the assistance of former Old Trafford Head Groundsman, Keith Porter, agronomist David H Bates, a resolute board and a part-time groundsman. Pitchcare investigates how the transformation was made.
Altrincham Football Club play in the Blue Square Premier (the Conference) and have managed to maintain their status over the past few years thanks, in part, to the shortcomings of other teams, notably Canvey Island, who resigned from the league, Scarborough, who had their total points deducted due to a breach of ownership rules, Boston United who were denied promotion from the Conference North and Halifax Town who went into liquidation.
Whilst this almost charmed record of survival has been to the club's benefit they are not resting on their laurels. Altrincham steadfastly stick to their policy of remaining part-time, and playing within a fixed budget.
This has been rewarded as they continue to compete at national level, whilst remaining one of a just a handful of part-time clubs in the division. The current board have steered the club away from near financial ruin five years ago through hard work and determination.
The current manager is Graham Heathcote and, during his time, not a single player has cost a transfer fee. In addition, historic debts have been paid off and this, in turn, has meant that the club operates on a much lower budget than virtually all of its competitors.
When Graham took over as manager in October 2002 he inherited a poor quality pitch at the Moss Lane Stadium, something that didn't suit the style of play he was intending to coach. Certainly the muddy conditions would not only produce a slow game, but also detract from the players and spectators enjoyment of the game.
With Setanta Sports televising the Blue Square matches Graham recognised that a high quality pitch and good grounds maintenance was going to be critically important.
To help achieve the standards he wanted, Keith Porter, the former Head Groundsman at Manchester United, was approached, back in 2002, to advise on upgrading the pitch.
Keith immediately recognised the need for drainage and soil amelioration. He believed it was essential that an adequate drainage system was installed on the heavy soil pitch. However, with the financial constraints at the time, he accepted that this might not be possible.
So, he investigated new techniques, along with improved natural products, to improve the soil structure and drainage without undue disruption to the existing turf until the end of the season.
Planning the renovation was to be a key factor and, between them, Keith and Graham implemented a rolling programme of work that would take them up to 2009.
Once the 2002/03 season had finished, Keith removed the surface using a Koro Field Topmaker. This removed over 500 tonnes of vegetation and soil material to level up the surface. Five metre centre main drains were installed at one metre depth running the length of the pitch. These were back filled with clean washed gravel to within 100mm of the surface and topped off with Whitemoss Latymer soil.
The surface was topdressed with 1500 tonnes of medium fine sand, which was blended with five tonnes of Earth-Tec humic powder and five tonnes of zeolite. This was then chain-harrowed into the top 150mm of the surface. A laser grader was used to produce the final surface prior to applying a 6:9:6 pre-seed fertiliser.
Eighteen 20kg bags of TT4 grass seed, a blend of perennial ryegrass, were then sown.
Two water tanks were installed along with a self travelling sprinkler.
The cost of that work totalled £70,000 and, although the club were strapped for cash, it showed that the management were totally comitted to upgrading the pitch from a muddy mess to one worthy of the Blue Square Premiership.
After two weeks germination was good and an application of biostimulants and carbon was given. Mowing was programmed for twice weekly for a period of two months using sharp rotary mowers set at a 50mm.
Neil Brown, the club's part-time groundsman and former reserve team manager, and current manager of Abbey Hey in the North West Counties League, undertook the day to day work within the programme. He took over the overall maintenance two years after the initial work was carried out in his first ever job as a groundsman.
Being part-time Neil could only spend around twelve hours a week on the pitch, and that included preparing it for match days and repairing any subsequent damage.
Growth was clearly observed throughout the 2004/05 season. At this time the work undertaken was weekly aeration, mowing and re-marking.
Over the following three years, at an approximate cost of £10,000 per time, the pitch had remedial work carried out, which included additional sand slits, fraise mowing, yearly applications of 80 tonnes of topdressing and biostimulants, overseeding and liquid feeds.
With the pitch now looking the best it has done in years, all that is now required is the weekly maintenance. Neil takes up the story from the start of the current season:
"After completing our summer renovations the following couple of weeks were mainly about getting as much water on the pitch as possible. We have two large tanks at the end of the pitch to which we attached our self travelling sprinkler and kept it on throughout the day.
When the new seed and grass started to grow it was a case of cutting it with my rotary mower, usually a minimum of three times a week, sometimes four, depending on whether we had put on any fertiliser. As soon as I had cut a third of the pitch the self travelling sprinkler went on again and followed me up pitch!
Two and half weeks before the first friendly I then got out the Dennis cylinder mower to flatten any bumps and to start putting in the shadings for a better appearance. About four days before a game I marked out the pitch with the help of the manager, Graham Heathcote - if it goes wrong I can then blame him (ha ha).
As the season progressed my duties altered but, after a Saturday match, I usually divot the pitch. I can put it back to Monday morning if required, as I also manage a team on Saturday. Usually I get it done in under two hours as it generally only scars now. However, if the weather has been bad it can take up to three hours.
I then cut and roll the pitch with the Dennis on Monday if I have time - and definitely if we have a Tuesday match. If it's a Saturday game I would cut and roll on Wednesday and then again on Friday to make sure it is always ready in case off any bad weather etc.
Because I am part time my available hours working on the pitch can be limited. If have any time off from my regular employment in a week I do other work that is required. I have a SISIS slitter attachment which I use whenever I can, as this leaves minimum unsightly wear on pitch.
If I have a week or more off, I usually use the rapid-core attachment which is like a mini vertidrain with six inch solid tines but no heave. Once the bad weather starts I usually use this machine once a month at least, as it is ideal for opening up the large vertidrain holes already in pitch. We only purchased this towards the end of last season and saw the benefits straight away.
When I have done my last cut on the pitch and the grass has stopped growing over the winter, I fit my brush attachment to the Dennis and brush and roll the pitch after every game to clean up the surface and for better presentation. Occasionally, I put on the sarrell roller attachment, which goes into the soil about 1/2 inch, just to help out and aerate the pitch slightly.
We have a feeding programme which involves granular and liquid fertiliser, the granule type being put on by myself with a mechanical spreader attached to the tractor. The liquid is put on by Martin Porter, Keith's son, as he has the necessary qualifications.
The pitch has improved so much over the last couple of years. The more I learn the better I understand and, consequently, the more the pitch benefits. I would not have been able to do as well if it had not been for all the help and advice I have been given by Keith. He has been a massive help since I took over and always compliments me on how the pitch has come on.
The fans and visiting teams compliment me on the pitch all the time now. One thing I don't think the fans realise sometimes is that it is not just about what I do on the pitch, but also the fact that the current board has eradicated all the clubs debts which, in turn, means we have more funds available to set up fertiliser programmes and purchase equipment such as the rapid core. It all helps massively."
Whilst it has been a steep learning curve and, having previously been reserve team manager and now groundsman, Neil certainly appreciates the hard work and commitment required to maintain decent playing surfaces.
"Manchester United reserve team manager, Ole Gunner Solskjaer, came to look at the pitch at the end of last year. He liked it so much that, the next morning, we were asked if United could play Bolton there the following day. With the pitch in good condition, and no Altrincham game scheduled, we obliged ... and they then asked to stay until the end of the season!"
The club is currently in negotiations with Manchester United for them to use the pitch for reserve team matches next season also. Praise indeed for the standard of the playing surface.