When, in 2003, Frank Boahene, the then Head of Corporate Grounds at Fulham FC, was asked to act as a consultant to the Ghanaian Sports Ministry in the run up to the African Nations Cup neither he, nor the Ministry, realised just how much work was required to get everything ready for the tournament.
I first got involved in the project in 2003 having been invited by the Ghanaian Minister of Education, Science and Sport as an advisor on all football pitch related issues. My initial brief was to give the Ministry an assessment on the stadiums and pitches that they had chosen and report on how they could best be improved.
With the initial reports completed, the Ministry realised that there was far more work to be done than they had originally anticipated. From 2003-2006 I acted as a consultant to the Ministry on all pitch related issues. During these three years my own club, Fulham FC, allowed me to go on secondment to advise the Ghanaians. The authorities in Ghana paid for my flights and all expenses.
Over the last five years the scope of work has increased. Originally, I was asked to help develop and construct the four main stadium pitches at Sekondi Takaradi, Kumasi, Tamale and the capital, Accra. Following that their was the requirement to build a number of core training centres, in preparation for the African Cup of Nations.
There were sixteen centres in total, seven of which were given to my company, Green Grass Technology, to build from scratch.
At each of these centres we built 'academy style' changing facilities to support all the pitches, which included full medical facilities. These centres were built to a specification modelled on a Premiership facility.
At El-Wak, in Accra, there was a dusty area on an old military site, dating back to the 1950's and used as a football pitch. Very little money had been spent on the pitch over the years and there was no irrigation. The plan was to rip it all out and bring it up to, what we consider to be, a modern pitch standard and install a full drainage system. A fully automated irrigation pitch system had never been installed before in Ghana!
Everything is as basic as it comes in Ghana, unlike the UK (and much of the rest of the world). You can't just pick up the phone to order a specific type of sand soil mix. The rootzone had to be sourced locally and, to do that, I went to visit farms and fields in the forest to find enough of the right soils for the pitches.
I chose a 70/30 soil to sand ratio to obtain the correct mix for moisture retention that was needed to suit the equatorial Ghanaian climate. We had to quarry local river sand to mix in with the local clay soils to make up my desired 70/30 rootzone.
The soil and sand had to be mixed by hand and also sieved by hand to remove stones and larger lumps of clay. Obviously, none of the soils were sterilised so we did have a number of subsequent weed problems.
On each of the pitches we installed sub-soil drainage, then a layer of chippings was spread as a gravel carpet 12" thick. This was blinded over with a sand layer of 50mm before we spread the topsoil to a depth of 150mm over the prepared ground.
Bulldozers and graders spread the rootzone. I employed surveyors to check levels, and engineers from the University of Accra to make sure that drainage pipes, falls and soil met the specifications.
Once the pitch levels were completed we then had to plant the pitches with sprigs. We didn't do any seeding at all, and the Bermuda grasses were grown locally ready for use on the pitch sites. We knew that the indigenous grasses were not going to provide us with the best wear and disease resistance, but at least they would grow well in the local environment.
Due to the lack of appropriate machinery available to us the sprigs were harvested using hoes - how nice it would have been to have had a turf harvester available.
I had never done sprigging before but it was a great experience. For each pitch the replanting took a week and half!
We planted the sprigs at 100mm centres and, initially, the sprigs died back for a few days before new growth appeared. With the cheap labour in Ghana, we had around 100 people harvesting and then planting the individual plants.
It only took a few weeks with the hot weather and the use of irrigation to get the sward growing nicely and, once we had some good establishment, it was
time to topdress the surfaces. There was only one topdressing machine in the whole of Ghana, so we ended up using wheelbarrows and shovels to disperse the sand. We spread 250 tonnes of topdressing per pitch, spaced over a two-month period.
There were also no cylinder mowers available. All we had were old rotaries. In the eventuality I had to come back to England and purchase some pedestrian Hayter Harriers mowers, with the knowledge that I could produce a good striped finish with them.
We cut the pitches and established a stripe with the rotaries and then rolled the pitch with hand rollers.
With the pitches established all cultural work was done by hand. For example, when the pitches needed aerating this was done with hand forks. I'd employ up to forty people to carry out this work, twice a month to encourage root development.
Nutrition was a bit of a problem as well. We looked at the local fertiliser combinations but, when you considered the watering regimes required to sustain the plants on the pitches, leaching was a big problem. The lowest nitrogen ratio we could apply was a 15:15:15. For the tournament we used straight compound fertilisers with 20% nitrogen.
The hot weather and the irrigation did cause us some problems with disease; we also had something that seemed similar to dry patch. This occurred when we tried to dry the pitches to help develop root growth. Generally, the humid conditions within the stadium were contributory to the disease problems.
We treated with foliar feeds, applying sulphate of ammonia, and carried out a lot of localised spiking. The spiking also helped the root depth of the grasses to well over 150 mm, which was more than adequate for holding the pitches together.
The daily temperatures during the tournament were in the 40Os centigrade, accompanied by a very dry wind, which offered no cooling. Mind you we were very near the equator!
We were watering the pitch surfaces from the very early hours and then carried out a syringing programme at midday to cool the plant. This worked very well.
Water is an issue, particularly for the local populations, so I managed to implement the drilling of bore holes at all the training pitches and all but one of the stadiums.
On the training pitches pumps took ground water to a ring main around each pitch with connectors for sprinklers. We used a similar set up at the main stadiums, but we were able to also install automated systems where we could time the applications. The water quality was excellent and didn't need any filtration or sterilising. Since the tournament finished the watering systems have been used to serve the local communities as well as the pitches. Each borehole provided up to 40,000 litres per pitch per hour.
The only real problem we encountered was that the varieties of grasses planted did not like low cutting tolerances. We were told in advance that they could tolerate cutting at 20-25 mm, however we found that when we cut it at 25 mm the grass went brown, so we had to raise the cut to 30 mm to retain a nice green colour. Once the tournament was over we have now imported some new varieties from the United States and Holland to integrate into the existing swards.
The timeframe of the whole project did give cause for concern. Budgets and timescales were quite tight, but the pitches were completed in six months from start of construction to ready for play.
The African Nations Cup has been extremely positive for Ghana. It has helped the country speed up its infrastructure for all sports, not just football, and the powers that be are looking at the way other sports can be developed. They are keen to use sport to help the country's economy.
For me, the African Cup of Nations has been a dream come true. Hosting the tournament has made a positive difference, not just to myself, but the whole nation.
Prior to the tournament I spent a year teaching people the rudiments of groundsmanship skills and the science behind the cultural practices. Not having specialised machinery such as aerators and scarifiers has meant all these cultural practices are done by hand. We had to ensure the operatives understood what we were trying to achieve.
Even the simple task of scarifying was done by hand using springbok rakes. I'd show the guys how to do an area and a few days later, it was easy to show them what a difference such a simple operation had achieved. All this training brought home to me how much we take for granted in the UK, but also how much we have learned over the years.
Now the pitches are here, I am looking for a number of European manufacturers to get involved in supplying cylinder mowers and sports turf equipment. We need to convince European companies to come to Africa and help us by supplying equipment and services to continue the improvement of sports facilities across the continent.
We need to develop Africa for sport like we did in Europe in the 70s. The Ghanaian government had a dream and it has become a reality by hosting the African Cup of Nations.
As well as more equipment and products we need to invest in more training and I will look at training providers to help move this forward.
I have now set up Green Grass Technology (GGT), the first pitch construction and maintenance company in Ghana and, during the last twelve months, we have employed over 600 people in this great venture.
Although I can't see it happening in the near future, he fails to understand that synthetic pitches would have, in many cases, bigger issues than grass pitches. These surfaces would require a lot of maintenance and large quantities of water to keep them from overheating. Can you imagine playing on a plastic/rubber infilled pitch in temperatures over 40OC?
The main reason why Ghana embarked on natural grass pitches was that it was the preferred choice of the players. The second reason was that natural grass is able to keep the localised temperatures far cooler than a plastic surface.
Playing on a synthetic pitch in such high temperatures would be a frightening experience for the players. We weren't able to get sufficient water onto the pitches in the build up to each match. One of the reasons why we left the grass slightly longer was to prevent injuries, knowing how quickly the surface water was evaporating.
We were watering the night before the game and in the morning. However, with the matches not being played until 5.00pm, the heat of the day soon evaporated the moisture. So, I can imagine playing on synthetics without water the players would soon become exhausted.
GGT owes much to the Sports Council for assisting us through the tournament, as well as the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport and the Local Organising Committee (LOC) for their help and endeavour. Moving forward we hope to continue a good working relationship with the Sports Council for the ongoing upkeep of all the pitches and stadia surfaces.
The impact of this project has been massive for the people of Ghana. We have changed the landscape of football in the country forever. We have proved that natural grass can be grown to an international standard.