0 Balancing Oldham’s needs with finance

The orientation of the Oldham Athletic ground is a little unusual, with the South stand being the old main stand, housing the changing rooms and offices and the players tunnel. This means that there is a large shade pattern throughout the autumn to the spring, creating some serious light issues.

The new North stand was constructed in 2014 and, during construction, the main outlet drain from the pitch was damaged and this has been a major issue in recent seasons for the groundstaff, trying to cope with the higher than national average rainfall that Oldham endures. The ground (aka Boundary Park), is the second highest ground above sea level in the country and sits amidst the Pennines. I must admit it's the first ground that I have worked at where there are permanent electronic snow warning signs on the surrounding roads in winter readiness.

The club has a long history and was one of the founder members of the Premier League but, in 2003, it had fallen on hard times, went into administration and was eventually saved by an American based consortium. The club has had to live strictly within its means ever since under the direction of Chairman Simon Corney.

There are four groundstaff looking after four pitches at two venues; the stadium pitch and the training pitch (known as Little Wembley) behind the 'Chaddy End' West Stand, and two pitches at Chapel Road, about four miles up the road.

Lee Williams (left) and Paul Flynn

Lee Williams is Grounds Manager and works with, and oversees, his deputy Paul Flynn, Warren Caine and Daniel Doherty. Paul and Warren are primarily based at Chapel Road and Lee and Daniel work on the stadium and Little Wembley pitches.

Usage is quite high, with the youth team also using these facilities for training and games.

I was asked to help by the club at the end of last season and initially looked at the pitches to ascertain the problems. With the help of Lee and the lads, we looked at the issues and took some samples out of the pitches, sending the stadium rootzone off for PSD (particle size distribution) and broad spectrum nutritional assessment.

The stadium pitch was extremely compacted and there was a thick black layer below the surface. There was very little grass coverage by the end of last season. Due to these issues, the drainage was inherently poor. The training pitches were primarily poa but, in discussion with the club, there was little finance available to do major work on any of the pitches in the shorter term. It would be fair to say that the lads have had a very difficult time of it.

Over the years, usage and end of season renovations have reduced the depth of Desso fibres in the pitch as they have either become brittle and broken off, bent over and been buried with dressings and, in some areas, been ripped out altogether by overzealous Koro operators. One area running up the south side of the stadium pitch was replaced with fibresand after all the Desso had been inadvertently removed one year!

As I said, the stadium pitch was very anaerobic and the Soil Reliever had been out of action since the previous September (2016) as funds had been unavailable to get the repairs done. This, coupled with the main drain outlet issue, had conspired to bring about the compaction and subsequent black layering.

Left: Topdressing at Chapel Road in May, and righ: Little Wembley

So, on the 5th May, I got our contracts team up to scarify and verti-drain the three training pitches at Chapel Road and behind the stadium, followed by seeding, fertilising and topdressing with 60 tonnes of sports sand to each pitch. We used 250kg of our LM4 rye grass per pitch and each pitch had an application of full rate slow release 20:0:5 and pre-seed 9:7:7.

We knew that we would still be dealing with a poa surface, but there is virtually no irrigation available at Chapel Road and Little Wembley, certainly not enough to take a chance on koroing the existing vegetation and starting afresh. With pre-season training starting again around six or seven weeks later, we would need an automated pop-up system to ensure quick germination and establishment, rather than rely on the weather. As it turned out, the weather was pretty hot in June and July.

Although there were a few corporate games still being played out on the stadium, Lee and Daniel had worked the grass height of cut down and cleaned the base of the sward prior to our lads renovating this one on the 12th May.

Given that the pitch is Desso, there was very little we could do within the budgets available, so we opted to double vertidrain the pitch on full heave to try and get it decompacted and re-aerate the rootzone as much as possible. This was followed by dimple seeding with 360kg of Johnsons Premier J seed and applications of organic and inorganic slow release fertilisers, as well as a standard pre-seed fertiliser.

The pitch was then topdressed with ninety tonnes of sand and, due to some heavy rain coming in on the afternoon, Lee then brushed and matted this in to a final level the following afternoon.

Stadium pitch on 31st May towards the Rochdale Road stand

So that was all four surfaces renovated before mid-May and, apart from some irrigating, we couldn't do much more for the time being.

Towards the end of the following week, the training pitches were topped using Toro Timemaster pedestrian rotary mowers. We already had a good population of existing grass on these areas and it was important to get the sward to thicken up quickly.

The first cut on the stadium took place on the 22nd May using the LawnFlyte rotary mowers, but it wasn't more than a few days later that we were able to get the Dennis G860s on to firm the pitch up and cut the tips of the establishing grass. We were getting some monsoonal downpours now and

Lee 'pro-cored' areas on the pitch on the 30th, as well as doing some overseeding and dressing in a couple of spots that were slower coming through.

The soil analysis had come back and showed the stadium containing around 65% medium/coarse sands and very little silt and clay, which was encouraging. The broad-spectrum results were less so. pH was 5.2, phosphorous was high and iron was over 2000mg/l.

We sprayed the pitch with 40kg Soluble Sol Control 24:8:12, 20 litres of SeaAction Seaweed, 40 litres of Biomass Sugar and 5 litres of Bullet Calcium on the 5th June. The pitch needed to be sprayed twice as the calcium doesn't mix well with other products.

The pitches were all now being cut daily, including weekends generally, and on the 9th June we applied 200kg of Maxwell Premier 12:0:6 to the stadium. We were following a slightly more basic nutrition programme on the training pitches, but they were all being trickle fed half rate Maxwell Premier spring/summer feed (12:0:6) at fortnightly intervals.

On the 14th, we sprayed the stadium pitch with seaweed and Humimax to help improve biology and root growth. We boosted the pitch with another application of 12:0:6 on the 20th as well as a liquid feed of 26:0:26 the next day. On the 28th, another application of calcium was applied.

The players returned from their break and were back in training between the Little Wembley and Chapel Road venues. The three pitches had been set out and marked in anticipation and I'd also sent the lads up some Plifix carrots to use at Chapel Road for their mowing patterns. Vandals had been at Chapel Road and managed to destroy one set of portable goals, so we ordered some more, plus some sets of nets.

The pitches were standing up well to pre-season training and the stadium pitch was also starting to come good. We had a touch of leaf spot which, given the hot, humid conditions, wasn't too surprising. We sprayed it with 10 litres of Interface on the 1st July.

On the 5th, we applied 10 litres of Humimax, 5 litres of Bullet Trace elements, and 5 litres of Phosphite and, with the pitch responding well to the nutrition and recovery from disease, Lee and I decided to go with a first application of 800ml Primo Maxx on the 8th, sprayed on with a 26:0:0 liquid feed. All four pitches were vertidrained on the 10th and an application of 12:0:6 spread on the 11th.

We welcomed contractors in, week commencing the 17th to excavate a new drain line from the pitch to an existing manhole, just outside the stadium.

The work took the guys about a week, but it was great for us to see that a major problem was hopefully now rectified.

The lads now worked on getting the pitch ready for the pre-season games, the first against Spanish side Girona on the 27th July and then another on the 1st August against a Manchester United XI.

You would expect the pitch to play well at this time of year, and it stood up well. The only real issue was the surface dried out too quickly during the games, with the sunshine and warm temperatures.

Lee pro-cored the whole pitch again on the 29th, prior to spraying the surface with 10 litres of Humimax.

After the pitch was repaired following the United game, 200kg of 12:0:6 were applied on the 2nd August.

We had left the grass a little longer for the two pre-season games, but now we brought the height of cut down to 24mm for the opening league game against Oxford on the 5th.

Lee noticed disease again on the pitch on the 8th August, but the rain was set in for the day and we were unable to spray a fungicide. Although match day, the forecast for Tuesday the 9th was bright and sunny, so the lads were in early and sprayed the pitch with Interface, before marking out for the evening's EFL Cup game v Burton Albion.

The pitch again played well, although the fungicide appeared to have stained some of the players shorts, something I'd never seen before. I subsequently spoke with Bayer about it and they are still looking at the issue, although they said they have no recorded instances of staining from this product either.

The next day, after a walk over and repair, the pitch was pro-cored again at 2.5" centres to a depth of 4".

On the 11th, the lads put down 180kg of slow release Lebanon 25:0:5 and overseeded the goalmouths and touch lines. The next day, Lee sprayed the pitch with 20 litres of SeaAction seaweed.

On the 15th, the pitch was pro-cored again, before applying 5 litres of Bullet Phosphite and 10 litres of chelated iron the next day.

Lee was worried that the Interface hadn't worked so well the previous week and we took the decision to spray the pitch again, this time we used 3 litres of Instrata Elite.

The team were not faring too well at the start of the season and had lost their initial games. We prepped the pitch for the visit of Wigan on the 19th, but the team lost 2-0.

After games, there are usually four or five lads who stay to walk the pitch divoting and hoovering the surface using the LawnFlyte mowers. This helps to get the grass stood back up quickly and remove any debris that collected during the game. It also means that more meaningful work can be undertaken the next day.

On the 21st, we put down 200kg of Maxwell Advanced 12:3:9, followed by another 800ml of Primo Maxx with a 25:0:0 liquid feed on the 22nd. Roots were doing okay and compaction had been largely alleviated. There was still some evidence of black layer, but this was certainly being broken down with the increased aeration programme that was in place.

This summer, when the rain has come, it's often been monsoonal and it has been really pleasing to see how well the pitch has taken these downpours. On one occasion in August, Lee and I were having a coffee in the dug outs, watching as Daniel finished off marking the centre line ready for one of the games. It started to rain, then pour and we all stood under the stand for about ten minutes, I videoed it on my phone, as water was cascading off the stand roofs, down the concrete steps. There were a few claps of thunder as well but, as soon as the rain eased up, Lee and I walked straight out to the middle of the pitch and then down to the west goalmouth. The water had gone straight through; no puddles, nothing and you could see Lee's happiness. We walked around to the rain gauge and we'd just had nearly 5mm of rain in about ten minutes, we were both delighted.

On the 31st, the pitch was sprayed with 10 litres of Humimax and, as we moved into September, we continued with summer feed, this time using 200kg of Maxwell Advanced 12:0:15.

On the 5th September, with the club's own Soil Reliever fixed and back working, Lee vertidrained the pitch at 4" centres, and again on the 14th. Lee and myself are also grateful for the help and support we receive from Steve Halley from Cheshire Turf Machinery through out the season. Steve is a life long fan of the club and a season ticket holder.

We had now raised the height of cut at the stadium to 28mm to provide some protection during games. With the club struggling to get results, there was an influx of loanees and we were asked to make training pitches available for some additional, behind closed door reserve matches, which we did. However, we have already had one of these games played on the stadium pitch (19th September) and, whilst it will take it well at this time of the year, our hope is that these games are played elsewhere going into the autumn and winter.

Despite the training/game schedule, Lee managed to get another vertidrain on the stadium, working into the evenings of the 19th and 20th around inclement weather.

Whilst inevitable, it was sad to see the Manager, John Sheridan, depart on Monday 25th after a bad run of results, but the lads carried on to get the pitch ready for the game against Peterborough the next day and, as is often the case, the team dug in and won 3-2!

We do have a lack of resources at the club and the weather is certainly likely to be more extreme than at most grounds I've worked at over the years.

When I've said to people that I'm working with Oldham, they say it's the coldest ground in the country.

We don't have any lights and there's no undersoil heating either. We have some frost covers and we're keeping our fingers crossed that a local technical college, in association with the local constabulary, will be able to fabricate some small lighting rigs in the next few months - similar to what we built at Shrewsbury Town the year before last.

The shade issues created by the South Stand will certainly be a challenge in the coming months but, with improved surface and land drainage and a healthy crop of grass, the pitch should hold up better than it has done in the last few seasons.


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