Is there such a thing as the perfect football pitch? Anyone who has played at The Oval Stadium, home to Glentoran FC, would say this pitch is as good as they get. Chris McCullough took a trip to Belfast to meet groundsman William Kirkwood to see for himself.
Although badly damaged by aerial bombing during the Belfast Blitz of World War II in 1941, the proud home of Glentoran Football Club, known as The Oval, stands today with what could be the perfect football pitch.
Both the club and grounds are stoked deep in history and have enjoyed their football marriage since 1892, but they have endured several tiffs during their time together.
Since the war, a new grandstand was built in 1953 and the stadium was later refurbished with a stand upgraded in 2000. The total 'safe' capacity of The Oval is just over 6,000 and it has hosted several big name finals of the Irish Cup, the County Antrim Shield and the Setanta Cup.
The Oval pitch measures just over 1.5 acres, part of the overall seven acres site taking in two grandstands, terracing, a steep grass bank and a large car park.
Over the years, both players and managers have hailed the pitch as one of the best playing surfaces in the country, which is a real testament to the groundsmen who have meticulously tended it.
Current groundsman and true Glentoran FC fan William Kirkwood has had the pleasure of looking after the pitch for the past five years, as well as being a gardener at the local Queen's University.
William said: "When I left school I enrolled on a training course in construction, but soon realised it was not for me. I then worked as a trainee groundsman based at Campbell College in Belfast, maintaining the school grounds, which included rugby, football and cricket pitches."
"Attached to the job was a day release course at a local college and I was successful in gaining City and Guilds certificates in horticulture, as well as gaining experience working with lawnmowers and learning the mechanics of how engines work."
"After three years working on the school grounds, I applied for a job as gardener at Queen's University in Belfast. I wasn't initially successful, but the candidate who got the job left, so I was appointed gardener there in March 1993 and, some twenty-seven years later, I am still employed full-time at Queen's. My job at Glentoran is a part-time position of ten hours per week," he confirmed.
Up until October 2019 no-one had really inspired William in groundcare but then one day on the Oval pitch he met Jonathan Calderwood, head groundsman at French football giants, Paris St Germain.
"Jonathan is a native of Northern Ireland," said William, "and a massive Glentoran fan. When he was fifteen years old, he asked the secretary of Glentoran if he could help out around the Oval for his work experience. They told him he could help Sammy Glover, the club groundsman at the time."
"That was Jonathan hooked. He went to study at Myerscough College for three years before going to work as deputy head groundsman at the original Wembley Stadium."
"From there he went on to Wolverhampton Wanderers, Aston Villa, and onto his current position in the French capital. I don't have ambitions to reach the level Jonathan has reached, but I have high ambitions to make my Oval pitch the best on the island of Ireland."
"Listening to Jonathan that afternoon, and seeing how much enthusiasm he had for the job, has given me extra determination to keep on improving the Oval pitch and taking it to a higher level," said William.
William works on his own at The Oval but he does have some assistance if required from the dedicated fan base.
"I am a one man show at the Oval, but a few volunteers will come along and help with grass cutting and watering in dry spells. As my remit doesn't extend much beyond the pitch, for the most part, I can manage that and all the tasks required on my own."
"Problems can occur when we have heavy rainfall close to match day, and waterlogging can put games in jeopardy, but in these scenarios the club can put out a call through their social media for volunteers to come and help clear surface water."
"The Monday club, a group of dedicated Glentoran fans, come down each Monday for a few hours to tidy up around the stadium, carrying out duties such as litter lifting, painting and minor DIY repairs."
"My main source of help comes from contractor Nigel Willis of NE Grounds Maintenance who carries out my topdressing and overseeding renovation works, and also liquid feeds and vertidraining."
There is a piped drainage system under the pitch in the herringbone style which is likely to be quite an old network, possibly installed in the 1970s.
William said: "It does still function fairly satisfactorily, although we think some sections of the pipes have either collapsed or become blocked or broken as two corners of the pitch are very slow to drain after heavy rain."
"The pitch sits approximately six feet below sea level and, with a naturally high-water table, it's easy to understand why flooding is a major issue for me."
"Shade and airflow are not problems at the Oval. It is an exposed site, so there is always a breeze blowing. The main grandstand will cast shade over part of the pitch early in the morning but, as the sun moves towards the south and west, the entire pitch will be in full sun."
William plans his pitch maintenance very carefully as, with only ten hours per week possible, the time goes quickly.
"I must plan my maintenance carefully. For example, on a Saturday match day I can be at the stadium from 9.00am to prepare the pitch, duties that quite often take me right up until kick-off to complete, so that is six hours used up out of my ten hours in total, giving me only four hours to do what tasks need doing during the week," he said.
The pitch is mowed twice weekly in the growing season, increased to three times per week during the summer months if necessary. The mower is a Toro 3100d Sidewinder model with a 72inch cutting width.
William said: "I mow the grass at a height of 25mm, raising the cutters to 30mm in the winter months to retain maximum leaf surface. The pitch is mowed in two directions each time, with each pass taking around one hour giving the pitch a nice chequered appearance."
"I also have a Hayter Harrier 56cm mower which I use for mowing the grass behind both goals. I like the smaller width striped finish that this mower gives me."
"Occasionally I will mow the entire pitch with the Hayter as I find the rotary blade is good for lifting debris. I do not tend to mow the pitch too often with the Hayter though as it is a job that takes five hours of my time!" he said.
William carries out weed control himself using both selective and total weed killer applications. The first treatment is applied in early April to target early growth of dandelion and daisy plants.
"Daises are not present on the pitch, but do grow in the grass behind both goals, as does clover. Greater plantain is the biggest problem weed on the pitch, although their numbers are reducing year on year."
"The chemical is applied through the CP20 knapsack, mostly using the spot treatment technique. It may be more time consuming using this method but it is proving to be effective in reducing weed numbers, and the chemical will last me longer, saving the club money at the same time."
"After the first application of the season, I tend to keep a few selective weed guns for spot treating any new weeds that pop up. I will normally apply another knapsack treatment towards the end of the playing season, just before my renovation works commence, because I know that, when the new seed begins to germinate, I can't be putting chemicals near it."
"I will put another spray on sometime in July and continue to spot treat weeds right through to the end of the growing season. Weeds were a major problem on the pitch when I first took this job and I made it one of my highest priorities to tackle."
"Thankfully, with nearly five years of battling weeds, I have made significant progress in reducing quantities of weeds. As well as pitch weeds, I am responsible for weeds growing on hard surfaces, such as the terracing and car parks and, similar to the pitch weed story, weed infestations on the terracing was pretty serious five years ago. Thankfully, a sustained effort by me has greatly reduced weeds growing on the terracing," said William.
Granular fertiliser is applied to the pitch four times per year using a combination of spring and summer, autumn/winter and slow release fertilisers.
"For spring and summer application I use a 27:6:6 mix from Turfcare in County Kildare, a particularly good one for an early spring growth boost, as well as Pearl 16:16:16. 15:0:30 is my usual autumn/winter use fertiliser. Another mix I like to use is 12:11:18 Yara Mila complex as it gives me up to eight weeks longevity and is supplied to me through Orchard County Enterprises based in County Armagh. I apply the fertiliser using the ICL AccuPro 2000 rotary spreader."
"Last year, for the first time, I introduced regular liquid feeds, mostly nitrogen and iron-based, to give the grass a boost of colour. Some of the products I used were Pearl Mag N and Liquid Iron 7 supplied by Turfcare. Mixed into the same tank as the feed was Primo Maxx, with the aim of reducing top growth and encouraging lateral stem development."
Maintenance and renovations
"Divot repairs are another weekly task and I start this as quickly as possible following a game. It's another time-consuming job but a very important one to help maintain good surface levels."
"Linemarking tends to be done prior to games being played. However, if the team have two away fixtures in a row, I will usually overmark using a weaker mixture, just to ensure that the lines do not fade."
William is very proud of his efforts to have the grounds always looking their best as that is what the players and fans see all the time.
He said: "For me, presentation ranks very highly in my priorities. It doesn't matter to me who is playing, be it the first team, reserve (U20) team, ladies team or a charity match, I want my pitch looking its best for every game, and so every fixture gets my full attention."
"BBC cameras attend all first team home league and cup games so I know my pitch will be seen by a large TV audience, as well as the fans inside the stadium."
"As well as the major impact jobs, such as putting a nice stripe on the pitch and marking bright white lines, I do like to pay attention to the minor details as well, such as clipping the grass at the base of the goalposts."
"On some occasions, BBC and Sky Sports broadcast live games from the Oval so I do put myself under a lot of pressure to ensure the pitch is looking the best that I can make it."
"Fortunately, we do get advance notice of when live fixtures are happening, so that gives me time to plan for a high dose of nitrogen liquid fertilisers in advance of the game to give the grass a boost of colour."
The Irish league season usually finishes in the last weekend of April and, by that time, the pitch really needs some attention from William.
"I try to commence end of season renovations as soon as possible after the last match is played so, in the early part of May, I will take the nets down, take away the advertising boards and leave the pitch ready for the renovation works to begin."
"As this is contracted out, I work alongside Nigel to agree on a suitable date to commence the job, which will be carried out over a two-day period."
"Firstly, the pitch will be vertidrained to a depth of six to eight inches, followed by the spreading and brushing of 100 tonnes of sand. My sand is zone four grade and is supplied by Norman Emerson Ltd based in Lurgan."
"Day two is seeding day. The predominant seed mix I use is Johnsons Premier Pitch which I have used for each of my previous renovation works. Last season for the first time, I added the Limagrain MM60 and MM25 to the seed mix."
"I felt that the central band of the pitch from goal to goal was showing excess wear and tear and I wanted to try and address this problem. I looked at the MM25 seed mixture and, as well as the high proportions of ryegrass, it contained a twenty percent content of strong red creeping fescue. I felt this species, because of its creeping growth habit, would encourage a denser sward, so we only used the MM25 mix up and down that central band of the pitch."
"It is difficult to judge if it has been a successful experiment, but I feel that there has been less wear in the affected areas, and grass coverage in these areas is better than in previous years."
"Once the renovation works are complete, the pitch is handed back to me to manage through the rest of the summer months and into pre-season. The main priority, obviously, is to ensure the successful germination and establishment of the new grass seed."
"It seems to be now, in recent years, that May can be a very dry month and I'm having to irrigate the pitch more often. It is such a critical month as I do not want to risk losing hundreds of pounds worth of grass seed, therefore irrigation is essential."
"I have access to mains water, hose and sprinklers, so I can get water on to the pitch. I also have the benefit of being able to recycle water that flows through the under-drainage pipes, thereby reducing the need to use valuable mains water, should a lack of rainfall mean a hosepipe ban," said William.
Renovation works can be affected by budgets; however, whatever William requests is usually approved by the board of directors.
"I do not necessarily order the same quantities of materials each year as it is usually based on the condition of the pitch come the end of the season," William said. "This year, with the season coming to an early suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic, the pitch still had good grass coverage, so I have ordered less seed than normal."
"I always stick with the 100 tonnes of sand as I believe that the addition of the sand will improve the soil profile and its drainage capabilities. In previous years, supporters clubs have donated funds to allow the purchase of additional materials, be it seed, sand or fertiliser."
William has become involved with quite a unique project at The Oval known as the Groundhopper tours conducted on match days. The tour is the brainchild of club commercial manager, Simon Wallace, and Glentoran historian Sam Robinson, who lead the tours.
The Oval is considered a real iconic stadium in Groundhopper circles and the tours have attracted hundreds of visitors from across the UK, The Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Portugal, USA, Canada, Finland, Japan and Italy.
"The tour is an access all areas match day tour and tells the story of Glentoran FC and The Oval in a two-hour trip around the stadium," said William. "I do not think there are too many clubs anywhere in the world that allows visitors into the team dressing rooms, boardroom, and even to walk onto the pitch a few hours before kick-off!"
"Sam asked me if I would mind talking to his tour party, which I was delighted to be asked to do. It means a five or ten minute break in my match day pitch preparation to tell visitors about my work and what it takes to keep the pitch in good condition."
"I also write articles for the match day programme, The Glentoran Gazette, which is the top match day programme in the Irish League and has won Programme of the Year for the last eighteen years in a row."
"The club that produces the Gazette, the 1923 Supporters Committee, has been very supportive of me so I thought I would give something back by writing articles, providing the fans with regular updates on pitch works and progress."
"It also gives me the opportunity to raise the profile of the pitch and the work that a groundsman does, and that it's not simply about cutting the grass," William said.
Most of the machinery at The Oval was purchased before William arrived, but the GMX Bowcom linemaker was purchased new on his recommendation.
"I hired in the Redexim Vertiquake 2516 during this current season to help with decompaction and to improve drainage," William said. "This was the first time I had hired in this type of equipment and I found the process very useful, particularly with moving surface water down through the soil profile faster."
"Occasionally, I will hire in for a weekend a small pedestrian aerator for use in the goal areas - and generally anywhere on the pitch that needs it - just to perforate the soil to allow water, nutrients and air to penetrate the grass roots, and, of course, to relieve compaction."
"I would love to have the Dennis Pro 34R at my disposal. Not only does it lift debris efficiently, it leaves a great stripe and, with two rotary blades giving it 860mm cutting width, I reckon I could cut the Oval pitch in around two hours. It really would be a great addition to have alongside the Toro."
Pests and diseases
Pests and diseases are a problem at The Oval, like most other sports grounds, but William is on top of anything that crops up.
He said: "Casting worms are a problem, although only in certain parts of the pitch. It's not a problem that I intend to treat as I think the benefits of having earthworms present far outweighs the negatives of not having them, particularly in terms of nutrient availability, improved drainage, and removing dead plant material."
"Yes, the casts provide weed beds when they are flattened by the lawnmower rollers, but using the drag mat before mowing breaks up the casts."
"We have a family of foxes living within the stadium grounds. A few seasons back a small hole appeared in the turf, but I didn't think too much about it at the time and filled the hole with sand and forgot about it, as no similar damage occurred in the remainder of that season."
"We commenced renovation works and, a few days after the work had been completed, a small hole appeared in one of the goal areas. This slightly concerned me and, over the next several weeks, the hole that I filled in was hastily excavated the following night."
"It was quickly established that a fox was the culprit, causing serious damage to the pitch with holes appearing in several places. I brought in a cage type trap and baited it with dog food then played the waiting game."
"After checking the trap for several mornings, nothing was there until one morning, from a distance, I could see something in the cage. He was still alive having eaten all the dog food. I put the fox and cage into the back of my car and released the animal, unharmed, into the fields above east Belfast."
"The digging did stop for a while but did start again, although not on the scale like before. One morning a magpie had gone into the cage and got trapped, and a fox was outside the cage desperately trying to get at the magpie. The fox ran off when I approached and I was able to release the terrified bird unharmed."
"Pigeons are also a real nuisance especially after we have reseeded the pitch. They arrive in numbers, forty plus at times, and they will get through big quantities of valuable grass seed, which absolutely drives me mad!"
"The Oval stadium sits on a large site and maintaining it is not easy. We leave some areas of the stadium uncut and, within these areas, various wildflowers grow, such as Red Clover, Cornflower, Forget-me-not and Marsh Marigold. Other plants, such as willow herb and thistle, are all left untouched to flourish, and they attract wildlife such as bees and butterflies."
William certainly believes the job of a groundsman is undervalued and suggests the task of increasing the profile is for groundcare professionals to stand up for themselves.
"I would say we are undervalued," he said. "If the football pitch is in poor condition, then the quality of the game is adversely affected so we must strive to produce the best playing surface that we can."
"The skills of the grounds staff are vital in producing that surface, but without the resources, without the money being made available, there are limitations as to what we can achieve."
"People will criticise pitches, which they are entitled to do, but they shouldn't criticise pitches on one hand, but not give the grounds staff sufficient funding on the other hand to purchase the materials needed to improve the quality of pitches."
"I think the only way to raise our profile is to do it ourselves. By that I mean pushing for opportunities to promote what we do, and if someone wants to do an interview, jump at the chance."
"I felt that grounds staff weren't getting enough credit for the job that they were doing, often on shoestring budgets, and that we were always at the bottom of the pecking order when it came to budgets and funding."
"Most fans pay attention to the game being played on the pitch, and not necessarily noticing how well that pitch looks or wondering how long the grounds staff spent preparing for the game, or even knowing the name of the person who prepared the pitch."
"At Glentoran FC, I decided to raise my own profile and my pitch. I have already mentioned that I write articles for the Glen's match day programme and that is one way of raising my profile amongst the Glentoran faithful, so I would say that most Glens fans will know my name by now."
"Also recently, I have done interviews with BBC NI, the Belfast Telegraph and now more exclusively with Chris from Pitchcare to explain how we are coping with maintaining our pitches whilst in lockdown, all with the aim of raising the profile of grounds staff," he concluded.
What's in the shed?
Toro Reelmaster 3100d
Hayter Harrier 56
Bowcom GMX Linemarker
Kawaski Mule utility vehicle