Circumstances that can change a season?
This season, up until the New Year, the pitch had behaved very much as in previous seasons. In fact I felt that up until that time it had looked as good as I could remember. It's difficult to put your finger on the precise moment that the problems start to compound, but I think that ours really started in November. We had a run of four games and a training session in ten days. This included two Premier games, one Worthington Cup match and a Champions league game and a training session with PSV Eindhoven. The weather at the time from the 6th to the 16th was very wet, probably the wettest time of the month and, although there was little visible damage, the pitch was moving towards dormancy and recovery was slow.
We got through to Christmas and the pitch was still holding up very well. The next fixture was against Liverpool on Sunday the 29th, this was a day after the rest of the league programme and again the weather was appalling. Visibly the pitch again held up to the rigours of the match and the only serious damage was where the opposition team had warmed up prior to the game.
I knew full well that the games continually being played in wet conditions would be detrimental to the drainage percolation rates. As nice as it would be to go into work and say 'sorry lads, games off today'; when
Just three days later, we were due to play Chelsea on New Years Day, and I remember checking the forecast right after the Liverpool game to assess the situation. The forecaster told me that there was heavy rain……. with more rain to follow! At times like these you have to wonder if lady luck has completely deserted you.
The following morning there was surface water across the pitch but, on New Years Eve, there was a slight ease up with the rain and we were lucky enough to open the surface with the Multi-core solid tines. However I knew I was now caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. As the forecast stood, not to spike was suicide, the pitch simply couldn't take any more water as the top inch was now acting like a sponge, and the game could be postponed. But while to spike meant 'game on', the cost of opening up more air space for the water to get into could mean the risk of the surface emulsifying.
This sat consciously on my mind because of the amount of wet games we had already hosted. Ultimately decisions have to be made on financial grounds; in an ideal world you would leave the pitch for a few days to drain and dry, but with another fixture so close you have to deal with the situation as it happens. In the commercial world of the Premiership, the loss of a game now runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The pitch held out for Chelsea, but fixtures were coming at us thick and fast, and another three days later we played host to Oxford United in the third round of the FA Cup. The weather now changed and we suddenly found the temperatures plummeting for the Oxford game. It just seemed to be worst-case scenario for every game!
Again the pitch held up and we enjoyed a two week break before the West Ham game that was played on Sunday 19th. Sub zero temperatures were then replaced suddenly with torrential rain on the Saturday evening and night; this game was played on a heavy pitch. Damage was now apparent, something we now had to live with and only six more days before the next home game, an unscheduled fixture against Farnborough Town. The game itself was preceded with what seemed like everyone who lived in Farnborough warming up on the pitch at half past ten in the morning, the game itself was a melee.
The following week we had snow and, just to make matters worse, the undersoil heating decided to pack up, a problem with the software. It took 48 hours for this to be resolved which was a disgrace and, while the soil temperatures were rising with the heating back on, I had no choice but to remove the remaining snow using the irrigation system. The quantity of water on the pitch just added to the problems and the pitch was again heavy for the match against Fulham.
Two weeks later, the next Champions league game against Ajax was due, and we enjoyed the preceding evening's training session. Unfortunately my understanding of the Dutch and Russian languages isn't what it should be and I found it difficult to explain to the relevant parties where I wanted them to train. They chose to train right through the middle of the park!
On the second of March we played Charlton, and by this time our hard work was showing results. The pitch was starting to get back to where it should have been, and the verti-draining, over seeding, top dressing and multi-core tining were aiding the pitch's recovery. We generally spend a lot of time after matches getting the grass back up standing straight, instead of letting it become buried in the surface; this always helps for a quicker recovery when the spring sunshine starts warming the pitch again.
Since then, there has been constant improvement, and the pitch is getting back to its best.
One of the main problems for us is that Arsenal games are often shown live on TV or as the highlighted game on 'The Match'. The games against West Ham and Ajax were live TV games, whilst the Farnborough and Fulham were the main recorded matches.
In two years the club move to the new stadium. Some may think that we have an unlimited budget, but the reality is, like the rest of football, the purse strings are kept tightly pulled. In fact I couldn't buy a Fiesta for the money available to renovate the pitch at the end of the season.
The pitch was constructed back in 1989, and has lasted very well as a sand ameliorated root zone with drainage incorporated. There is little point in spending large sums of money on the surface if we're moving, so my priority lies with providing a flat and level-playing surface for the players. Our keeper Dave Seaman has always said that he'd prefer to play on a stable surface devoid of grass, than an unstable turfed surface. Obviously I want Highbury to look the best, but the underlying concern is to make sure that the game goes ahead. The funny thing is that on New Years Day, everybody was full of praise for us getting the game on; I should have asked for a pay rise that day-because I'd have got what I asked for. One month later I was hero turned villain and questions were being asked. It's a funny old game!
The club invested less money in 1989 to build the pitch than it costs clubs to re-turf their surfaces nowadays. The pitch owes the club nothing and has stood up well to the last fifteen years. Both the undersoil heating system and the irrigation are outdated and I can live with that for two more seasons. In many ways I'd rather not have either of these systems in place; the undersoil heating provides a false environment for the plant, where soil temperatures make the roots think it's the height of summer, while the leaf may as well be sitting in Siberia. The trouble with having the system is that you're expected to get games on, irrespective of the damage that it causes to the plant.
At Highbury the water arcs of the irrigation pop-ups overlap and, where there is overlap, then there are problems created with different percolation rates. It is clear to see that the first damage caused on the pitch is where the watering overlap takes place, and the water holds for a little longer.
In my experience, pitches that host European games and training tend to look worse than those that don't. The success of a top club, inevitably leads to more fixtures, as cup runs become prolonged in all competitions. This fixture build up allows no rest and therefore recovery of the playing surface; to that end the pitch surface condition can only remain intact if weather conditions are reasonably kind as well. With warmer temperatures in London, and lower stand roofs on the east, west and south stands, the Highbury stadium is favourable and the pitch has a better chance of survival than some of the other top venues. For that I have been thankful.
As I write this article I am also aware of the recent debate regarding the Groundsman of the Year Award. People have been surprised to see Arsenal and Southampton nominated for the Premier League award this season. I was not surprised to see our nomination because, up until the New Year, the pitch had been very good. The marks awarded by the referees and managers will only have included two poorer games at Highbury when Premier League matches took place after the New Year. By the time our third Premier game took place this year in March, the pitch was already getting back to its former quality.
To a large extent, I can't understand why the choices have been made this year, but since they have, then it's interesting to look closely at the circumstances surrounding each one of those choices. Because every football stadium is so different, and there are so many conditions to take into account, it is a difficult award to judge correctly. I know that when I lost the surface at Highbury this season, it was at the expense of not losing a game. Should we be penalised for that? If the Award in its present set up causes problems for people then perhaps it should be scrapped or at least reviewed.
To finish off, I have two slight bug bears, the first is about some of the anonymous comments left on the Pitchcare website, I am more than happy to discuss and help anyone, but I can't and don't see the point of replying to the Nosey's of this world-whoever Nosey is! I am contactable through the club, and if someone needs help or advice, and I can help, then I will. In our job it works both ways and if I need help or advice I ask, but I don't use a pseudonym every time I make an enquiry. If I need help in the future I won't be ringing Nosey.
The website is great and should be used as a tool to help each other. It doesn't matter where you work, we all do the same jobs so please put your name to your comments and I'm sure people using the site would take queries more seriously and offer their constructive help and advice.
Nowadays I don't worry nearly so much about the keepers as I do about the other twenty or so squad players and the damage that they are causing by putting out cones and doing short sprints and doggies. Much to my amazement, even the referee Jeff Winter came out with cones to do shuttle runs, so I believe that I have seen everything now!
This needs to stop, because the damage caused in warm ups is always worse than the game played. There needs to be standards set by the governing bodies and we need to be petitioning them to get standards enforced. Just watching the TV you can see where teams have warmed up these days at other grounds. The pressure to produce a quality surface is high, stadiums grow in height, reducing light and air flow, and players taking longer and more intensive warm ups. The job isn't getting easier. There is a renewed call for artificials, but there wouldn't be the need if some aspects of the game were better regulated.