After numerous near misses over recent seasons, Cardiff City have won promotion to the Barclays Premier League for the first time in their history, becoming only the second Welsh side to do so and joining their neighbours and rivals, Swansea City, for the 2013-14 campaign.
Premiership football will certainly grace the club's state of the art, 27,000 capacity Cardiff City Stadium which was officially opened on 22nd July 2009, with a friendly against Celtic.
The stadium pitch is managed and maintained by Phil Williams, who joined the club twelve years ago when their former head groundsmen, Wayne Nash, was promoted to stadium manager. The two of them go back a long way. In an interesting twist, Wayne used to be one of Phil's apprentices many years ago!
Phil is probably one of the longest serving groundsmen in Wales, having begun his career with Tredegar Council as a parks apprentice where, back in the mid 1960s, he achieved City & Guild qualifications in Sports Turf, Amenity Horticulture and Nursery Practice.
He then spent the best part of eighteen years working at the British Steel Sports and Social Club, where he looked after a variety of surfaces that included rugby, football, cricket and bowls.
This was followed by twelve years working at Eugene Cross Park in Ebbw Vale where he tended the town's rugby and cricket club surfaces. In 2001, he waas given the opportunity to take over the head groundsman's role at Cardiff City's previous home, Ninian Park, following Wayne's promotion.
When news broke of a new stadium being built to replace Ninian Park, both Wayne and Phil took the opportunity to influence a number of decisions, with the new pitch, irrigation system and storage facilities being built to their specification. The stadium must have one of the largest storage areas in the country, housing all the machinery, materials and water storage tanks within the concourse.
Phil heads up a team of four, with Roy Evans as his assistant. Simon Hancock, Liam James and Will Birch complete the team. Will currently works two days a week whilst studying at Pencoed College.
As well as the stadium pitch, the team also manages and maintains three other pitches adjacent to the stadium, which are jointly used by the club and the local council. The two natural turf pitches and one artificial are maintained on a daily basis to accommodate the busy fixture schedule. The natural grass pitches are mown daily at 25mm using a Toro triple mower, allowing the clippings to fly. Other tasks such as aeration, feeding and marking are carried out as required.
Phil and Wayne's preference for a Desso pitch was rewarded with one of the best playing surfaces in the Championship, and Phil believes it played a huge part in the club's promotion, especially now that it is solely used for football. Until the 2012-13 season, the stadium was shared with Cardiff Blues RFC, but their return to Cardiff Arms Park, adjacent to the Millennium Stadium, has allowed Phil much more time to prepare a footballing surface.
Even so, the Desso has been a steep learning curve for Phil and his team as they came to grips with not only its playing characteristics but also the micro-climate within the enclosed stadium. "It requires a completely different approach to maintenance compared to the old pitch in terms of watering, feeding and aeration," says Phil. "Like most modern sand based pitches they are designed to cope with heavy downpours (plenty of those in this part of Wales), yet still remain playable, but this means they are prone to leaching."
"When the Cardiff Blues were sharing the stadium, we had to cope with around eighty fixtures, and there were often back-to-back games, so changing from football to rugby took its toll on the team as well as the surface. Mind you, we got it down to a fine art in the end."
"Now that the rugby club have gone, we have more time between fixtures, which helps with planning my lighting and maintenance strategy."
"We have four large SGL 1000 watt MU360 rigs and one portable MU160 rig for goalmouth areas but, because of the amount of fixtures, they were not used as often as I would have liked," he explains. "Now, I can get them on the pitch between games and they are certainly making a difference. With four rigs I can effectively cover the pitch in four moves, moving the rigs every forty-eight hours, meaning the whole pitch gets covered within eight days."
Phil knows that end of season renovations will be crucial to the success of the pitch going into the Premier League, but is also aware that the stadium has to involve the wider community.
"It was a busy season, with around fifty matches played at the stadium," explains Phil. "And, through May, the pitch was in constant use from 9.00am to 9.00pm, with all the local schools coming in for various competitions and tournaments. For those, we split the pitch into four junior pitches. But I'm not worried, let them enjoy the experiences" says Phil in a matter of fact way.
Once these games finished on 27th May Phil then had to prepare the stadium for a Bon Jovi Concert on the 12th June, which saw the whole pitch killed off with glyphosate and then covered with protective flooring.
"The next time I'll see the pitch will be on the 17th June," says Phil, "which is when Hewitts Sportsturf will come in to renovate it. My staff and I will be on hand to help out as required but, basically, we leave it to them."
"This will involve exposing the Desso fibres, vertidraining between 200-250mm depth using 25mm tines at 75mm centres, topdressing with ninety tonnes of sand and reseeding using twenty bags of Limagrain MM60 grass seed, sown in four passes."
"It will take about a week to complete the work, depending on the weather, and then it's a case of waiting for the seed to germinate before beginning the mowing programme to thicken up the sward."
Phil will begin the mowing using Kaaz pedestrian rotary mowers, cutting no lower than 35mm, before switching to his Allett Buffaloes, mowing on a daily basis, and sometimes double cutting, to increase the tillering and help firm up the pitch.
A generous feeding/watering programme will be in place to maximise plant growth, Phil will be applying a range of granular and liquid feeds along with some biostimulants. Soil Harmony's Mark Atkins has helped Phil devise the best programme for the pitch and, between them, they have come up with a tried and tested regime.
"I've got about five weeks until our first match, an international between Wales and Ireland on 13th August so, as long as the weather is okay, that should be enough time. If not, then I can use our lighting rigs and germination sheets to help the sward along."
With the Premier League fixtures starting on 17th August, Phil does not yet know when his first home game will be as the fixtures are not announced until mid June.
That Wayne and Phil were able to specify their requirements at the outset means they and the club are fully prepared for life in the top flight.
"The undersoil heating system was a godsend last season," says Phil. "Even with the prolonged cold spell, we were able to keep the pitch free from heavy frosts, whilst the automated pop up watering system certainly helped to maintain the playability and strength of the surface. Both the undersoil heating system and water storage tanks are sited within the stadium, which was another of our requests, which makes access easy."
With all this modern technology, Phil now spends a fair amount of his time monitoring the physical condition off the pitch. "I use a Clegg hammer to measure the hardness of the pitch, taking measurements every four to six weeks, with the aim of keeping between 70-90 gravities; well within the FA guidelines."
"I also take soil temperature and moisture readings, along with monthly soil tests to monitor the ongoing condition of the pitch."
"Presentation is key," states Phil. "With the amount of televised games, it is vitally important that the pitch always looks good and, more importantly, provides the best surface for the team to play well on. We've got new TV cables and rigging going in over the summer, plus a new studio is being built."
"As a team, we put in so much effort to achieve this, so it galls me when teams perform their warm ups and warm downs in sensitive areas. It's one of the hardest challenges to ensure that these take place away from the goalmouths, for example. We put up practice goals, but they still want to use the match ones!"
"Post match repairing of scars and divots, rotary mowing to clean up surface debris and, in the winter months, setting up the lighting rigs before we go home, gives me an opportunity to cast my eye over the surface to ensure everything is okay," says Phil as we conclude the interview.
Phil, like everyone else at the club, is excited about the future; there's even plans in the pipeline for new training pitches close to the stadium if everything goes according to the script.
With average attendance currently around 20,000, Cardiff City certainly have a fan base worthy of the Premiership and it is likely that the stadium's current capacity of 27,000 could prove too small when the 'big boys' come calling, so it's just as well that the stadium has been designed to have that increased to 36,000 with minimal disruption, but perhaps a bit more shade for Phil and his team to contend with.
Phil is planning to work at least two more years, before retiring on his 65th birthday. As he says, all the hard work has been rewarded, and he can go out at the pinnacle of his career.
Cardiff City football club was formed in 1899. At that time they were known as Riverside Albion FC, playing their home games at their Sophia Gardens base alongside the River Taff until, in 1900, they were admitted to the Cardiff and District League for their debut season of competitive football. The club were eventually allowed to change their name to Cardiff City in 1908.
An offer of waste ground between Sloper Road and the railway sidings was accepted after Cardiff Corporation agreed to assist in the preparing of the ground. This important step made the move to professionalism inevitable, and Cardiff City were admitted to the Second Division of the Southern League in 1910.
The ground itself was part waste tip and allotments, and the assistance of voluntary helpers, as well as the corporation workers, was needed to level and prepare an acceptable playing area. Mounds of ash were deposited either side of the pitch to provide banking, and the whole area was enclosed by a white timber fence. The final touches were provided by a small wooden stand and changing rooms.
The new ground was called Ninian Park, instead of the originally suggested Sloper Park, and was formally opened with a friendly match against Division One champions, Aston Villa on September 1, 1910. Villa won 2-1 in front of a crowd of over 7,000.
They won the FA Cup in 1927, during a decade when they were one of the strongest sides in the English league, finishing second in 1923-24, and also runners-up in the FA Cup Final of 1925. They reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup in 1967-68 after qualifying by winning the Welsh Cup.
The club remained at the now legendary Ninian Park until 2009 when, after ninety-nine years, they finally moved into their new state of the art Cardiff City Stadium built adjacent to the old ground. It forms part of a multi-national retail trading estate that not only offers shopping outlets but provided a new home for some council run sports facilities, including Cardiff Athletics Stadium and adjacent pitches, that the club help maintain.
The Welsh capital can now be considered the hub of all Welsh sport, with the Cardiff City Stadium being used for Wales international football matches operating, as it does in tandem with two other international sports venues; the Millennium Stadium and the SWALEC.