It has been somewhat of a waiting game for Nottingham Forest FC Grounds Manager, Ewan Hunter, regarding the installation of a new pitch.
Ewan has been at the club since 2005 and has seen the same pitch at The City Ground go from League One to the Premier League. Fast forward to 2023 and the new pitch construction is well underway. We caught up with Ewan to discuss developments and what effect Premier League promotion had in allowing the club to invest.
How long has there been a necessity for a new pitch?
The old pitch was twenty-nine years old, and I'd say the last ten years or so we've been struggling during the winter months with drainage. The surface looked decent at certain times of the year but, during heavy spells of rain, it presented a real challenge.
How were you managing the old pitch and what were the main challenges?
During wet weather, we constantly had to Verti-Drain and there were days spent trying to remove water from the pitch. On match days, this was challenging; we would fork holes and squeeze water off the surface.
Out with the old, in with the new
The old fibre sand pitch was constructed around 1994, ahead of Euro 96. It had lateral drains in gravel bands with a non-gravel carpet. The actual rootzone itself was inadequate quality so that had to be removed. We took out about 7000 tonnes of old material and replaced it with the brand-new construction including new drainage, new irrigation, new under-soil heating, a gravel raft and then a sand lower root zone and an upper root zone. We seeded at the end of June, so that is establishing nicely.
How will the new pitch benefit time management, product usage, irrigation and general costs?
The new pitch is a SIS hybrid. Hopefully, once the grass knits into the system and the new rootzone compacts to where we need it to be, the surface will be miles apart from what we have been working with the past few years.
The management will be quite different. It's going to take a lot more water through increased irrigation, plus more treatments and an increased number of fertilisers. The major positive is that we'll have more control - rather than worrying about the weather forecast, we will be able to work with the weather.
Did promotion of the club to the Premier League last year have any influence in the pitch now being purchased?
Obviously, it's an expensive project so being in the Premier League has certainly helped with the financial side of things. Also, the value of the players and the style of football played in the Premier League demands a certain standard. Once established, the new surface will be up there with the best.
Has there been much of a difference from moving from the Championship to the Premier League in terms of workload, management and preparation of the turf?
There's a lot of pressure on the grounds staff; from getting training sessions on throughout the week down at the training ground to the pressure of a match day. We had two training pitches (built by MJ Abbott) last season which are heavily used, and the staff there work a lot of hours to maintain and facilitate the first team training.
Tell us about your team
We've got a nine-man team who all worked really hard. I've got a fantastic deputy head in Jack Farmer, who's in charge of the training facility alongside a team of five who undertake all the day-day-tasks. We talk on a daily basis and I'll visit the training site from time to time to see how they're getting on. I work mainly in the stadium with my team of three, but we all come together on match days and we help each other out as and when we required.
You have had new owners of the club over the past few years. Do they have a different stance on supporting the grounds management?
The ownership here has been in place for about seven or eight years and the investment and support has been great. They've purchased new machines and invested in two new training pitches last year, plus the new stadium pitch this summer.
Have you had any other recent investments in grounds management?
We've had quite a few machines for the new training ground including mowers, tractors, Verti-Drain and sprayers. Being back in the Premier League has seen a lot of investment in the club generally and we've had a lot of work done in the stadium, including the installation of TV cables, improvements to the concourse and dressing rooms. There's been a lot of work carried out by the club over the last few years and that work continues
Life before Forest and Football
I got into the industry at an early age after carrying out work experience at my local golf course in Thetford, Norfolk. I knew what I wanted to do when I left school; I went to Otley Horticultural College in Ipswich full-time for the next two years, completing my National Diploma in Horticulture. This had a small amount of sports turf included, but not really enough to fully satisfy me at the time.
I carried out many other work experience placements at local golf courses in and around Ipswich and was offered a full-time job working at Thorpeness Golf Course when I finished my college course. This resulted in a quick return to Otley College, as Thorpeness wanted me to go on day release to gain my NVQ 2 in Sports Turf and then my level 3.
I did have some time out of the industry for a little while. However, I soon realised I needed to get back to what I knew best and started working at Delapre Golf Course in Northampton. I was very grateful to them for the three years I was there, as I undertook spraying courses and worked my way up to becoming first assistant greenkeeper.
My mother-in-law spotted an advert in the local paper for a groundsman at Rushden and Diamonds FC, but I wasn't really interested as I wanted to stay in golf. However, after a second interview, I was offered the deputy head groundsman position and, within three months of me taking the job, my boss, Head Groundsman Jim Buttar, told me he was leaving to join Tottenham Hotspur.
I was asked to take on the role of acting head groundsman until the club could find Jim's replacement. I was slightly apprehensive about this. Luckily for me, Jim was fantastic, writing a lot of information and instructions and providing two weeks of intense training as I tried to learn the job very quickly. I had two successful seasons and then I stumbled across the Forest job in 2005; the rest, I suppose, is history.