Leeds plan for the worst
By David Markham
Norman Southernwood has good reason to be grateful for the remedial work he did on Leeds United's, Elland Road pitch last summer.
While some Premiership clubs are struggling to produce pitches to match the talents of their players, Elland Road is coping with the rigours of a wet mid-winter better than most.
Norman, who has been Head Groundsman at Leeds for five years, said: "I am much happier with the pitch than I was last year. There are one or two areas that don't drain as well as we would like, but the pitch has done better than last season.
At the end of last season we removed one inch off the pitch, getting rid of the annual meadow grass and the silty fines off the surface.
We added 150 tons of fibre sand and power harried it several times and then re-levelled the pitch and re-seeded it.
We started from a barren landscape. We knew what the signs were and we couldn't let it go. If we hadn't taken remedial action the surface would have cut up and it wouldn't have been up to the standard we want it to be."
The dark, damp weather at this time of the year makes it difficult to keep pitches in good condition. Norman says: "Light levels are very poor and the grass is weakened off. The grass doesn't grow at this time of the year and it paddles the fines to the surface. It is a question of keeping on top of the situation and looking for signs. If you don't keep on top of it you end up with a bad pitch.
Some clubs solve the problem by re-turfing like Manchester United have done and Chelsea are about to re-turf. Occasionally you get problems, but pitches are better than they used to be.
We are getting wetter periods than we used to do. No pitch is going to take that kind of hammering without deterioration. We have got problems on the side of the pitch alongside the west stand because of light levels. Most clubs have got high stands and that prevents light getting on to the pitch.
The players demand a better surface, better training facilities and if your club are playing in European competitions like Leeds United have done in recent seasons you find there are many games being played in a short period of time."
Leeds were at home twice five days over the Christmas and New Year holiday period. It was exceptionally wet and all Norman and his staff could do was to replace the divots from the first match against Chelsea, look for depressions and then use a light roller that also helps to pick up 'the bits' as they prepared for the next match against Birmingham City on New Year's Day.
Like all Premiership clubs, Leeds play reserve matches away from the main pitch and their reserve team play at Wakefield Trinity Rugby League club.
However, he said: "One of the biggest problems we face in looking after the pitch is the warm-ups. At one time players used to come out for about five minutes before kick-off, but nowadays some of the warm-ups last for about 40 minutes and they tend to be confined to small areas of the pitch which means those areas get intense wear and tear.
In fact, sometimes warm-ups do more damage than the actual matches. That is something we didn't used to get and it causes problems.
However there is more money being spent on pitches and we know how to look after them better."
There has been little frost so far this winter, but if the frost comes along Leeds are well able to deal with it. The ground has undersoil heating and Norman said: "Having undersoil heating enables us to keep on top of the frost. We don't let frost get deep into the ground."
Norman and his assistant Craig Knight and staff have good quality machinery to keep the pitch in fine condition. That includes a John Deere tractor with a Verti-drain and a John Deere triple mower, two Allett Buffalo machines for rolling and cutting and a Hayter Harrier mowing machine with roller.
Up to about six years ago Elland Road was owned and maintained by Leeds City Council, but when the council left the club started replacing all the machinery.
Like all Groundsmen, Norman is looking forward to the spring when the grass will start to grow again. He said: "The grass doesn't grow in December, January and February, but once you get to early March it starts growing again.The weather plays a big part in our work. You can't beat the weather - all you can do is to play along with it. You live by the weather forecasts. You have got to plan what might be the worst weather."