"Like many clubs across the UK we are still faced with huge economic pressures, compounded by the recession "
Ipswich Town Football Club has recently been back in the news due to the sad loss of Sir Bobby Robson, one of the club's most successful managers. It was another milestone in the chequered, triumphant and sometimes tragic history of one of the most famous football clubs (despite representing a relatively provincial town in Suffolk) in Europe.
Ipswich Town was formed as an amateur club in 1878, but it was not until 1936 that they turned professional. After winning the Southern League at the first attempt and finishing third the following season, they were elected to the Football League on May 30th, 1938.
They started in the Third Division (South) and their first success came in the 1953-54 season when they won the title.
The appointment of [Sir] Alf Ramsey as manager in 1955 (in succession to the successful Scott Duncan) proved a shrewd move. In 1956-57 Ipswich won the Third Division (South) title again, but the club really sprang to prominence when they won the Second Division in 1960-61 and the First Division Championship a year later, resulting in qualification for the European Cup.
Bobby Robson was appointed in January 1969 but it took him a while to stamp his mark on the club. In 1973 and '75 Ipswich won the FA Youth Cup followed by the FA Cup in 1978 - exactly 100 years after they had been formed.
The late 1970s saw the arrival of Amold Muhren and Frans Thijssen, the two Dutchmen who made such an impact on the team and the supporters, and were instrumental in helping the club to win the UEFA Cup in 1981.
Since then the fortunes of the club have been mixed at best, but it is true to say that a new era began in December 2007, when British entrepreneur, Marcus Evans, became the major shareholder in the club. With him has come substantial investment as the Blues step up the bid to return to the top flight of English football - they surprised the football world by appointing Roy Keane as manager.
A sense of always being 'bigger' than they actually are is no accident. The club has striven to compete in top competition in the Premiership, UEFA and European League football and has achieved huge successes over the years.
This is a club known for facing adversity and coming through stronger than ever, and the challenge has never been harder than it is today. Relegation from the top flight hits the pocket hard. The fallout inevitably affects the staff and requires a complete rethink of policy. The result is redundancies, abandoning of ambitious plans and the restructuring of the day to day operations and maintenance schedules.
When the resources are withdrawn from those who work to the highest standards, the real test is how to retain the same levels of workmanship on a fraction of the budget, until fortunes are, once again, turned round.
If circumstances conspire to place you in such a precarious position then who better to have on your side than Alan Ferguson, Head Groundsman at Ipswich Town.
"We have has always aimed for quality, whether buying players or providing training facilities," said Alan. "The UK was notoriously slow in providing high standard training facilities for the young, especially compared with Europe. I wanted to be a part of something here that strive to create facilities which would benefit generations of Ipswich footballers to come. So, when I joined the club in June 1996, part of my remit was to help the club realise its long term ambition of developing a quality training centre."
Alan joined the club following an apprenticeship at St Andrews and further career development at Bathgate Golf Club and Glasgow Rangers. He has twice been awarded the IOG Groundsman of the Year award (in 1998 and 2004) as well as holding the title of Groundsman of the Year in both Premier and Football leagues five times each.
"Bobby Robson was a visionary and hugely instrumental in introducing and encouraging youth training, not just at Ipswich but as an ethos throughout the football establishment," said Alan. "This philosophy still flourishes today and has evolved into the construction of some magnificent training facilities around the country."
"The club's vision was to be the top training centre in the land for a club of our size, and we have gone a long way to achieved it. At that time we had a number of huge advantages over other clubs. We had the financial resources, the desire from our time in the Premiership and the desire from the board to invest. We also had the land available. . Now, twelve years on I am responsible for the twelve grass pitches, including the stadium pitch at Portman Road."
"The training centre is a forty acre site which houses eleven training pitches including a 60 x 40metre indoor synthetic pitch. Like many clubs across the UK we are still faced with huge economic pressures, compounded by the recession, which has placed increasing demands on a reduced number of groundstaff."
At the beginning of the year Alan presents a renovation programme for each of the pitches for the coming year, outlining exactly the present state of the surface, the problems to be addressed, the process required to do it and the machinery needed to complete the task. All the pitches are 100% natural.
"We are incredibly fortunate in that the soil is a sandy loam. It is the ideal substance for natural turf. The drainage is superb and we try keeping the introduction of new sand to an absolute minimum to avoid layering and interfering with the natural drainage ability of the soil. The biggest maintenance issue we have is retaining the quality of the turf."
Wear and tear, wet weather, excessive use around the goal areas - the usual and expected requirements - determine the programme for managing pitches consistency. Like every Head Groundsman worth his salt, Alan looks at the various methods of renovation and equipment available on the market and attempts to get the best results as economically as possible.
"Maintaining playing surfaces in pristine condition is now very much a science." said Alan. "The industry is so technically advanced that it is essential to keep up to date with new techniques, seeds, fertilisers, treatments and machinery, so that you can make an informed choice. No matter how long you have been around, there is always room for more knowledge, to keep learning, to keep ahead of the rest."
Alan's renovation document is a testimony to the stubborn professional pride that he applies to the job in hand. Regardless of the resources, the first step is to see what actually needs doing to maintain the standards of the pitch required. Exact play requirements are absolutely paramount. The facilities are utilised by the ten age group squads as well as the professional squads. The centre pitches host, annually, 1,600 training sessions each lasting two hours . In addition 200 games are played on the centre. The stadium pitch will see an average of 50 games per season.
All training and games are planned by our coordinator who produces a training plan for the players and coaches at the start of each week. "It is a massive logistical exercise." explained Alan. "The maintenance programme has to be fully in tune with the activity schedule. Work has to be targeted and timetabled to maximise the output of the groundstaff whilst, at the same time, minimising the disruption to games. And, of course, there is all the usual day to day admin to be attended to, health and safety aspects to consider along with the goal post safety register and the fire safety register."
The fact that all the criteria is met, the games are played and the standard of the pitches continue to be of the highest order is a measure of the dedication, loyalty and cooperation of the grounds team.
All images © Ipswich Town FC
Alan Ferguson prepares an extensive renovation document for every pitch under his control. That way the management of the club are left in no doubt about his concerns, the work he would like to carry out and the 'hoped for' budget. Here, we reproduce his document for the stadium pitch, written in the early part of this year
The stadium pitch is heading for a final season total of around 51 games. Once again the football in the stadium this season has been a mix of first team, reserve, and youth with the three local finals and a national final scheduled again before the middle of May. The pitch made good progress last season.
The absence of a major concert allowed the pitch the full summer to regrow. I feel it has been one of the main reasons for its good condition this season. Following the mid season re lay in December 2006 the pitch has made steady progress. The most pleasing aspect for me would be the stability of the surface.
As usual, at the time of writing the renovation specifications, the pitch has hosted around 33 games for the season. Up until the middle of December the pitch was not only playing well but also was looking well. Despite the harsher winter this season the pitch continues to play well.
The main aim of any groundsman is to ensure the pitch plays well, with the other main characteristics of ball roll and bounce being present as well. Only some minor aesthetics remained to be addressed in the tunnel corner. An incredible amount of handwork saw the pitch ready in full by the end of August.
The pitch still remains one of the oldest in the top two divisions and is past its sell by date. Managing the pitch in the current stadium environment is becoming harder as each season goes on. Despite the pitch looking well until the middle of December, the effect of the absence of light in the stadium to promote decent growth was showing itself early in the New Year. Our homemade light rig has helped to hold a cover in the south goal. In the present climate we cannot afford the rigs currently being used in some of the Premier clubs.
Despite having the pitch cover system to ensure the games were played, the cold, wet weather saw us cover the pitch five times over Christmas and the end of January. The wear of the sward was accelerated during this time, but we have still retained a good cover.
A big part of our problem during this dark period is the amount of football played on the pitch. If the pitch is to be preserved, during this time, for the first team, then we might look at playing reserve games on the training centre from October to mid March.
I would also advocate a winter break for the youth cup competition. The manager is keen to have players not involved in the first team to play in the stadium to still make them feel part of the set up. I support this fully, as I always have, but I feel we have a situation where we cannot have our cake and eat it. We can play the games as we do at present, but the downside will be the thinning out of the sward. Moving the reserve games out for four months will dramatically reduce this.
If we continue to play the games, and don't fancy the thinning out, then the only way we can compensate for the loss of light is to replace it artificially. It has to be remembered, as we developed the stadium to its present form, the pitch did not develop at a pace with it.
This season I have started to look at a new growing medium called Fibrelastic. Fibrelastic can give a rootzone added strength without going too hard. Its inclusion may see the need to only partially reconstruct the pitch as it is added as a root reinforcement and only needs to be applied in the top 100mm. This could reduce any works by around £100K. Aside from the lights we can improve the environment during the growing season by ensuring the South stand roof is kept clean.
The translucent sheeting on the roof is amongst the best on the market. If it is not kept clean then the UV rays vital for the growth of green plants will not get through to the grass, restricting its development. The roof has never been cleaned since the stand was built despite requests from our department.
Despite the dense make up of the main pitch the further addition of gravel bands last summer has seen an improvement in the condition of the west wing. If we go ahead and purchase the vibra sandmaster or similar machine, then it is my intention to groove the main pitch as part of its summer renovation. Any means of moving water through the top will help the surface.
The reinforcement in the turf used to aid harvesting has given the pitch added strength. This has helped to reduce the size of damage on the surface during games. The manager is keen to retain as level and well grassed a surface as possible and the turf management programme for the next season is geared to deliver that. It is still my opinion that we need to reconstruct the main pitch in order to bring it into line with the stadium and other top clubs in the country.
The costs for such a change still remain at around £500,000. It would be good to have a meeting with the professional coaching staff ahead of the end of the season to gauge their opinions and help with fixture planning for the 2009/10 season.
Verti cutting: The pitch to be verticut using the Koro field topmaker fitted with the verticutting reel, cutting at 34mm centres working to depth of 5mm max. All debris to be removed from site.
Sand Grooving: The pitch to be grooved using 90 tonnes of sand. The grooves to be inserted at 1m centres 25mm wide x 250mm deep.
Topdressing: 29 tonnes of sand to be applied evenly over the surface to reinstate the levels. The sand to be worked in by either the drag brush or level lute.
Koro recycler: The Koro recycler to pass over the pitch digging at 150mm.
Hollow coring: The Wiedenmann to pass over the surface fitted with 12mm coring tines coring to a depth of 150mm.
Core recycling: The cores and all loose material to be mixed on the surface using the core recycler. This to be done in as dry a condition as possible. Once recycled the material to be worked in using the drag brush or the level lute. The Litamisa to pass over the surface to clean off all debris following this ahead of seeding.
Pre seed Fertiliser: 11 x 25kgs pre seed fertiliser (8:12:8+2%mg) to be applied one week ahead of sowing.
Seeding: The pitch to be oversown using the following mix - 30% Grande Rhizomatous Tall Fescue, 20% Scorpiones Tall Fescue, 25% Greenfair perennial rye grass, 25% Action perennial rye grass. The seed to be sown at 35grms per sq mtr using the verti seeder.
Second Renovation: A second renovation will be carried out following any concert. The same specification to use as per the Rod Stewart concert. All costs to be borne by the event. All specs for pre concert and post concert held on file.