Eighty-five years ago, one of the world's worst coalmining disasters overtook the Gresford mine, near Wrexham, North Wales. On 22nd September this year, a solemn ceremony commemorated the anniversary of the tragedy, followed by the official opening of a symbol of the region's rebirth - the £5m National Football Development Centre of the Football Association of Wales (FAW).
FAW chief executive Jonathan Ford spoke passionately of the quality and accessibility of the facility for training elite footballers and enabling the grassroots game to thrive locally.
In the run-up to official unveiling, Colliers Park pitches have come under the care of grounds maintenance manager Dylan Thompson, after the site had been handed over to The Football Association of Wales, managed by the FAW Trust.
Dylan, 23, realises the importance of the position he holds. "This is a great opportunity for me, at my age," he states. "I suppose it is reward for all the hard work and dedication - the will to put the graft in pays off."
With already several years' turf care experience behind him, Dylan is well-prepared for running the high-profile facility. He entered the industry whilst still at school, gaining two weeks' work experience at Doncaster Rovers FC in 2011 - divoting, cutting, marking out, putting out frost covers and clearing snow," he recalls.
"I completed my Level 2 in 2012-2013 before attending Askham Bryan college for my Level 3 horticulture six months later at the start of February. After two months employment at Rovers, I left to join Sheffield Wednesday," he continues, "where I completed my Level 3 sports turf management for two years whilst a full-time member of staff."
After three years as assistant, Dylan departed for a grounds maintenance supervisor post at Country Wide Maintenance. "Fourteen months later I rejoined Wednesday as assistant head groundsman."
Dylan lives just ten minutes from the National Development Centre for the North. "Living close by gives me the flexibility to pop in if anything urgent crops up or to just see how the pitches are over the weekend," he explains.
"This is a new and different role for me - and I realise that technology plays a far greater part in a head groundsman's working life. Running Excel spreadsheets and filling them with data via bluetooth is becoming standard procedure these days, for example."
"There is far more research into products too and we are ever more committed to the job and clued up about the science of turf care," he adds.
Dylan has learnt plenty about the role from working under experienced head groundsmen, in his formative years, including a truism that applies across life, he believes. "Hard work and dedication reaps rewards for you - a massive lesson I took from my earlier jobs in the sector."
Working under his line manager Lucy Scott, Colliers Park Facility Manager, Dylan also has responsibility for health and safety and risk assessments for the pitches and the grounds maintenance team.
Managing staff also comes under his brief and assistant Luke Williams and apprentice Will Parry are now in place to complete the grounds team. Will has started Level 2 at Coleg Cambria, Wrexham. "An assessor comes to Colliers Park periodically to assess their work," Dylan says.
After competitive tendering and quality submission, specialist contractor CLS Sports landed the Colliers Park project, which embraced two natural full-size pitches (1 and 2), smaller off-pitch training area, full-size 3G facility, under-pitch drainage and extensive soakaways, automatic irrigation, perimeter fencing, paths and hard and soft landscaping.
Contract manager Peter Valentine had been involved with the natural pitch scheme from day one, pricing up at tendering stage before moving on site once work began.
"The weather was kind to us right through to seeding time in September," Peter remembers. "We had green across the soil within five days, the irrigation system was already installed to speed growth and we handed the pitches over to the client in March."
Contract manager Chris Stephenson assumed responsibility for the 3G construction in March 2019, laying the carpet and the sand and rubber crumb infill until handover, with the maintenance yard, in May to complete the £2m contract.
Main contractor Read Construction delivered the FAW main reception rotunda, community building open to the public and a training base for staging seminars and other FAW events.
"This was an extensive scheme - delivered on time and budget under a nine-month timeline - and was one of the highest profile constructions we have worked on," confirms Chris.
Quality submission can turn the tide in a contractor's favour, he explains. "It includes written and visual material of previous projects and reinforces our tender by establishing our credentials to handle the work and demonstrating the scope and calibre of what we do."
Tested and FIFA Quality accredited to competition standard by independent consultancy Sports Labs, the Lano (Belgian) synthetic turf carpet is infilled with 74 tonnes of 0.5 to 1.5 mm diameter Genan rubber crumb, applied over 148 tonnes of sand.
Completing the installation, CLS fitted team shelters, LED floodlighting, three camera gantries, two mini grandstands, large maintenance shed and washdown area, also supplying an Iseki compact tractor with dragbrush and drag net for the 3G pitch maintenance. L S Systems were employed to fit a state of the art, computer-controlled irrigation system of twenty-four pop-up sprinklers in Pitch 1 and 2, and a further ten in the 20m x 74m drills training area between the two.
"Given the tightness of the site, we worked extremely closely with the steel fabrication contractor on a plan for the camera gantries that would suit their function," Peter explains.
"The dugouts are positioned either side of the gantries, which are located on the centre lines of all three pitches to give the best pitch views for the training videos the FAW will be preparing."
Commenting on the Colliers Park job, he concludes: "My involvement from tendering stage to completion of the natural turf pitches gave me immense satisfaction for what has proved to be a profile-raising project for the company."
CLS Sports director of operations Brian Dunn oversaw the project. "Certainly our most prestigious job to date," he states, "and showcases our construction teams ability to deliver across both natural and synthetic pitch constructions to world class standards. Our teams worked seamlessly to ensure the project was delivered on time and to budget."
The contractor used much of its own specialist machinery, available through its Self-Drive division, to complete the project. This comprised a GPS and laser guided dozer, low ground pressure dump trucks, AFT Whizz Wheel, Muratori stone burier, Shelton fast flow hopper, Raycam speed dresser, BLEC Rotor Rake, Koro Top Drain 1500, Dakota Turf Tender, BLEC Turfmaker seeder, CLS laser grader, Wiedenmann Terra Spike, Allett self-propelled cylinder pedestrian mower, Vredo super compact seeder and a Toro ProCore.
June deluges delivered a wet welcome for Dylan. "A super-wet month saw 250mm of rain fall - a baptism of fire for me, but we coped with it," he says.
He has started how he means to go on. "We are keeping things simple and discovering what works and what doesn't here and applying no fungicides if at all possible," he reveals, "preferring to adopt cultural practices and disease prevention."
The ICL fertilisation programme runs at key periods throughout the year. "I adapt applications to the weather. Given that the great and the good of Welsh football could be visiting Colliers Park at any time, grounds presentation is key, Dylan maintains. "It's one of the most important parts of the job and that's why team pride across the whole park at all times is crucial."
Both pitches are likely to have to withstand heavy use, he adds, so hardwearing cultivars are the name of the game. "A perennial ryegrass mix, which gives strong shoot density and wear characteristics, was specified. It establishes quickly, handy for overseeding too, with good root development."
Not fast enough to avoid the ravages of local wildlife, however. "This is a semi-rural site," Dylan explains. "Because birds and rabbits could disrupt germination, we have invested in covers to protect the seed until it shoots."
Dylan cuts the men's national training pitch at 22mm and irrigates it before every use. "Pitch 2 we cut to 24mm in summer and 26mm in winter to protect the plant and encourage harder wear. All grass lengths are discussed with coaches a week before they are used," he adds.
A TDR350 FieldScout soil moisture meter monitors pitches. "We take thirty readings across the pitch, twice a day," Dylan explains. From that data, he decides whether or not to irrigate. "Fifty-eight sprinklers are installed across the two pitches and training areas, and I control the Rain Bird system using their IQ platform, allowing me to activate everything from my phone or desktop."
Pitch monitoring of both the two natural and the 3G pitches is important to ensure Colliers Park complies with FIFA and FAW regulations. "The Iseki tractor and GKB brush CLS Sports provided with the 3G are used after every ten hours of play," says Dylan.
"As the 3G pitch is FIFA Quality accredited, we have to test and maintain the surface to pre-agreed frequencies, under their regulations, which includes a reading with a speed ramp to gauge ball roll. The quarterly deep clean picks up rubber crumb, extracts debris then re-applies it."
"I use our Clegg hammer once a week before and after I aerate the natural pitches, then every six weeks verti-draining, and use the Toro ProCore or the SISIS Multitiner in-between if needed," he adds.
Pitch 1 is a Fibresand reinforced surface and hosts the Welsh national first team training and youth sides. CLS Sports supplied the 150-seat grandstand the FA specified, also including a 75-seat stand alongside the 3G area. Pitch 2, positioned end on to Pitch 1, is hired out to local clubs.
Dylan keeps in regular contact with Lucy via weekly meetings. "She's one of the nice bosses and very helpful. If they take a booking, I'll be called about it so that I will have the pitch ready."
He's also relaying information to the FAW ahead of activity. "It's all about protecting the pitches wherever possible. I send information on factors such as grass length, markings required and weather planning through to the coaches, and we have a dialogue before they arrive, ensuring that the pitches are in the best condition for them.
Lucy, who came into the post in January, is herself a seasoned sports facility manager, whose last position saw her in charge of Wrexham Tennis Centre, with its seven indoor and seven outdoor courts.
She was ready for a new challenge, she says. "Colliers Park is a step up for me and is also an appropriate move because I have played football and I am still active with Futsal."
Day to day, Lucy handles long-term strategic vision and planning. "An all-encompassing role", she notes. "The development centre will also function as a hub for the girls' and women's game," she adds.
"The centre is attracting plenty of interest and it presents a massive benefit for the region - the finest facility of its kind in North Wales. Welsh players will aspire to come here," Lucy stresses, "because Colliers Park carries the wow factor locally, regionally and nationally."
"We'll evolve over time," she says, "and the page is open as to how we develop".
The FAW is partnering the University in the latest venture at Colliers Park and approached sports facility design and project management consultancy GEO Turf Consulting to draw up a feasibility study for its National Football Development Centre in October 2016.
"We undertook the design work for the FAW Trust headquarters and training ground at Dragon Park, Newport, which opened in 2013," recalls GEO Turf's Jonathan Smith, "so were delighted to take up this project."
"Colliers Park proved a tricky site to model," he continues, "with not a spare inch of space to spare. We 3D computer modelled it after topographically surveying everything, providing an earthworks balance."
"Detailed design of existing and proposed contours gave spot levels, co-ordinates and elevations. The designs included tie-ins to the new building and footpaths to accommodate wheelchairs."
The Fibresand pitch construction involved preparing level pitch perimeters and creating a 180mm high crown central, with a full drainage system at 5m centres with a gravel carpet placed over the drains.
"The pitches and surrounds had to rest at exactly the correct level," Jonathan explains, "with tie-in to adjacent features to fashion the right aesthetics."
The second natural turf pitch, lying end to end with Pitch 1, has a 1:100 gradient along the line of play to the north, as does the 3G facility, which lies next to Pitch 2.
"Pitch 2 is a more soil-based construction," Jonathan continues, "requiring less watering and fewer nutrients, whilst its drainage rates are not to the level of the Fibresand pitch, although still good."
Pitch 1 construction saw 150mm depth of 2-6mm diameter gravel laid below 200mm of medium fine sand and 100mm rootzone, with 0.25% by weight polypropylene fibres in the upper rootzone to help stabilise it.
"High sand content increases durability and drainage rates but reduces stability," Jonathan adds. "Without stabilisation, the pitch can quicky turn into a beach. Both pitches were sown with R14 seed."
Pitch 2, drainage features include 150mm depth of 2-6 m diameter gravel drainage blanket, 150mm layer of medium fine sand, covered with 150mm of site-derived topsoil, with 30mm of sand cultivated into the upper 30mm of topsoil for the final 60mm.
Sand slit drains were installed at 500mm centres across the width of the pitch, allowing surface water to drain through the topsoil into the underlying gravel layer.
On-site soakaway tests and computer models of the storm drainage flows assisted the design of a sustainable soakaway drainage system. At the northern end of the site, this resulted in the construction of a 60-metre long, 2-metre deep and 1-metre wide gravel soakaway.
"The soakaway has capacity to cope with a once in a century storm event," Jonathan reveals. "and we had to prepare for that eventuality."
Elements of the existing 3G pitch were repurposed for the new synthetic area, which is drained with lateral pipes at 7m-centre pipes that also connect to the sustainable soakaway drainage system.
"All stone removed from under the old 3G pitch was assessed and the aggregate laid thinly under the new 3G pitch, beneath footpaths crossing the park and the foundations for the maintenance yard," Jonathan adds.
"From an environmental and cost-saving perspective, it made sense to reuse as much as we could in the new development," Jonathan says, "as did specifying the environmentally friendly machinery washdown bay, which contains and biologically treats all washdown water on the site."
Controlled from the reception building, the 3G pitch's iillumination system consists of eight LED 500 Lux floodlights, switchable to 250 Lux, whilst Pitch 1 has a system of eight 500 Lux metal halide floods, also switchable to the samended level.
On the east side of the natural pitches, 5m fencing was erected, linked to the main building, with 1.8m fencing at north and south ends. "The western end forms a natural perimeter of trees and bushes," Jonathan explains, "and did not require any."
"Contractors moved on site in June 2018, handing over the pitches this March, before the entire development was signed off in May," he adds. "As designers and project managers for the pitch redevelopment, I can say that everything was completed efficiently. The contractors kept to the programme timeline, were easy to work with and resourced the site well with people and plant."
Machinery and equipment used at Colliers Park
Dennis Pro34R pedestrian rotary mowers x 2
Dennis G860 cylinder mowers with steer seats x 2 c/w cassettes - 8 blade, sorrell roller, TT verti-cutter, MD brush
Toro Workman HDX 2wd utility vehicle including demount legs
Off road 8' x 5' utility trailer
Toro RM3100D mower including boxes/scrapers
Toro Reelmaster 3100D Sidewinder
SISIS Quadraplay with frame, spiker, rake, brush and roller
Kubota G26 gaarden tractor with high tip collector
Kubota Grand L5040 4wd
Kubota LA854 quick hitch front loader
Kubota 2 tonne hydraulic tipping trailer
Stihl 600 backpack blowers x 2
Knapsack sprayer (15ltr)
Toro ProCore 648 pedestrian aerator
Vredo Super Compact 212 disc seeder,
Raycam heavy duty rubber drag mat
Accupro 2000 fertiliser spreader
Toro SR72 deep aerator
Iseki TXG237 tractor and GKB brush (3G)
SISIS SSS1000 sweeper attachment (3G) 1.0m width