Leicester City's return to the Barclays Premier League, after an absence of ten years, will have certainly pleased all those connected with the club, not least the city's 'favourite son', Gary Winston Lineker OBE. It has been a journey masterminded by their amiable manager, Nigel Pearson, culminating in a record thirty-one league victories, a points tally of 102 and, not surprisingly, the Championship winners trophy
Promotion to the Barclays Premier League for Leicester City Football Club also marks the return to the top flight for their Head Groundsman, John Ledwidge, who began his career at Coventry City's Highfield Road Stadium under Head Groundsman Michael Finch, before moving to Aston Villa as assistant to Jon Calderwood. "I am indebted to them both," confirms John, "for instilling in me a work ethic and skills sets that will stand me in good stead for the rest of my career."
Following his spell at Villa, John returned to Coventry City to work as Head Groundsman at their new Ricoh Arena stadium, a position he held until his move to Leicester City earlier this year following the departure of their long serving head groundsman, Ed Mowe, who had moved on to the FA's St George's Park complex.
Returning to the Premier League offers many rewards, especially on the financial front. The club will receive additional monies, some of which has been earmarked for improvements to the pitches at the training ground.
Taking on any new role can be daunting, especially half way through a season and with the club flying high in the league. "The first thing was not to come in and try and change the world," confesses John. "I needed to stand back, assess the staff, observe and see what their routines were and monitor how the pitches were performing in terms of recovery, infiltration and performance."
"My assistant is Simon Gibson, who has been at the club fifteen years. We have three more groundsmen, Andy Oakes, Paul Billington and Callum Allsop, with Dave Lay looking after all the gardens. We are also considering appointing two new apprentices in the summer."
"It was certainly a baptism of fire," John continues. "In the first three weeks of taking up my new role in January, the weather conditions were 'quite challenging'. Not only was I trying to gauge how the pitches were performing, I needed to find time to attend meetings, meet up with new colleagues and, on top of that, prepare the annual grounds maintenance budgets for the next season, budgeting for either the promise of the Premier League or the reality of Championship football."
"One of the first things I did was to arrange for some soil tests to be taken on all of the pitches to ascertain properties, nutrient status and infiltration rates. Apart from the King Power stadium pitch, which is Desso, the rest of the pitches, at the training ground, were sand ameliorated, sitting on top of a clay base that, historically, haven't drained well. I also dug some trial pits to ascertain porosity rates which didn't make happy vewing."
"With the club heading back to the Premier League there is an opportunity to invest additional money into these pitches. After some research, and knowing that many clubs had gone down the route of installing similar specified pitches to their stadium pitch, it seemed a logical step for us to go down the same route. Putting together a detailed proposal to take the board of directors within my first four weeks was a daunting task to say the least, but using my experience and knowledge I had gained I managed to persuade the eight directors and the chairman to invest in a new Desso pitch to be built at the training ground, incorporating undersoil heating and drainage and, at the same time, reconstruct and extend another training pitch and incorporate 100mm of fibre rootzone. Local firm Hewitts Sportsturf were awarded the work and started to construct the new pitches on the 18th March."
"With such a tight window for recovery it was important to start this work early, so work commenced on the two main areas on the 17th March, just seven weeks after my arrival" says John. "Hewitts are doing a fantastic job and, after just a few weeks, we are nearing the final stages of the work."
"As for ongoing maintenance, we work very closely with the coaching staff and physios of whom one, the Head Physio David Rennie, has been conducting a programme of measuring pitch hardness for a number of years, measuring both home and away fixtures and building up a comprehensive range of data to help deduce an ideal level of hardness to reduce player injury. We regularly take Clegg hammer readings of both the stadium pitch and training pitches with the aim of controlling the hardness of our pitches."
"We also monitor soil and air temperatures, take regular soil samples to keep an eye on nutrient levels and also use a prism gauge to check height of cut."
"As for playability, the manager and players tend to like a fast, zippy and firm pitch so, to achieve this without compromising turf quality, we have developed a programme of maintenance that delivers what they want. We cut the pitch as often as we can to maintain a height of 19mm. After a Saturday match, for example, we clean up with the pedestrian rotaries straight after the game then, on the Monday, run the Toro Pro Core over the pitch to relieve compaction. We'll then rotary cut Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and, in the meantime, feed or apply some biostimulants depending on the programme."
"We take regular soil and clippings tests and analyse the results to maintain a balanced feeding programme. This generally revolves around a base feed every six to eight weeks with Sierrablen, followed by a fortnightly dose of Greenmaster, topped up with a bespoke dose of biostimulants formulated by Mike Atkins at Soil Harmony."
"We then triple cut for the next two days - Thursday and Friday - followed by a 5.30am start on match day to triple cut and mark out prior to the match using our Dennis cylinder mowers."
"This routine works very well," says John. "I am trying to instill a planned maintenance programme that ensures we keep on top of the pitches and maintain sward quality without getting caught out."
"With the season now coming to a close, and with the fact we have secured promotion, we can now focus our attention on the renovations."
John was keen for me to see the installation of the new pitch, so we made our way over to the training ground to see, at first hand, the work being done.
"The first team training pitch was a complete rebuild," confirms John. "This was done by establishing base levels, installing drainage layers, laying down 200mm of base sand, installing undersoil heating pipes and irrigation and putting on 100mm of 80/20 Mansfield rootzone."
"It was then a case of sewing in the Desso fibres. It's both a fascinating and time consuming process, with three machines on the go. Once the fibres are sewn in, it will be a case of oversowing the pitch with Johnsons Premier Pitch seed mix at 45g/m2, applying a pre-seeder and waiting for germination."
Similar work was undertaken on the second pitch, however, there was a need to extend the width of the pitch by fifteen metres. This required building a 120m gabion wall to help stabilise the bank between the two pitches.
"Once the wall had been completed, we began work on the pitch by removing the top 75mm of old rootzone material, gravel banding to improve the existing primary drainage system and connecting additional lateral drains. This was followed by the installation of 200mm of base sand, topped up with the final 100mm of 80/20 rootzone material and oversown with the same rye grass mix."
"Mowing will start once the grass has reached the two/three leaf stage," confirms John, "using cylinder mowers set at 33mm for the first few cuts until the plant is ready to be rotary mowed."
"As for the remaining training pitches" renovations, these will be taken out of play once the football season has finished and the players go on leave. They will be sprayed with a combination of growth retardants to both suppress the poa and stop any existing grasses from swamping the new seedlings, fraise mown, verti-drained, topdressed with 60 tonnes of Mansfield sand and oversown."
"Once all the corporate fixtures have been completed at the stadium, the pitch will be killed off using glyphosate, cleaned out using a spiral raking system, verti-drained, topdressed with 60 tonnes of Mansfield sand and, again, sown with Johnsons Premier seed mix at 45g/m2."
As for equipment, John wants to implement an all pedestrian fleet of equipment for the first team pitches, keeping as much weight off as possible. To enable him to implement this policy, he has secured funds to buy six new Dennis mowers, six new Honda rotaries, two triple cylinder mowers, two new tractors and a Toro Workman with sprayer attachment.
He is also looking at buying additional lighting rigs. Currently, they only have two small goalmouth rigs. Whilst he is still finalising the details, he hopes to have these on site by the autumn.
John is keen on ensuring his staff get the chance to improve their knowledge by attending seminars, short courses and visiting other grounds, whilst he himself is also starting out on a degree course at Myerscough College.
There are exciting times ahead at Leicester City if the recent investment in the pitches is anything to go by. The club are thinking big and want to give themselves the best chance of staying in the Premier League. If the players can continue where they left off last season, there is no reason why not.
I would like to thank John for his valuable time and for giving Pitchcare an insight into his first few months at his new club.
What's in the shed?
Dennis G760 x 3
Dennis Premiers x 2
Honda rear roller mowers x 5
Kubota tractors x 3
Kyoti Tractor with loader
Toro ProCore - pedestrian
Toro ProCore - tractor mounted
Sisis Javelin Aer-aid
Sisis Robi (artificial brush)
Countless Sisis twinplays!
Hardi 400l sprayer
Hardi 200l sprayer