0 London Stadium - Maturing nicely!

Originally designed to be demolished after the games, the Olympic Stadium is now providing a modern home for West Ham United. Renamed the London Stadium, it retains its original purpose of showcasing athletics by retaining the original track underneath storeaway seating. Jake Barrow headed to north London to meet young Head Groundsman James Williams

At just twenty-nine years old, James Williams is the second-youngest head groundsperson in the Premier League, having started in his current position when he was just twenty-eight.

And, at this early age, he oversees one of the country's most iconic stadia, the former Olympic Stadium/The Stadium at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, now known as the 'London Stadium' and home to West Ham United Football Club.

He sees himself as having a mature, older head on young shoulders, and interacts with more experienced practitioners in similar positions around London, including West Ham's Dougie Robinson with whom he has a strong, appreciative relationship.

James also requested the inclusion of formal thanks to his CEO, Graham Gilmore, who "took a massive gamble" on recruiting him, and Darren Raczkowski, the stadium Operations Manager. He trusts in my work and lets me get on with it."

He said: "I'm very ambitious, hard-working, committed. I stand firm on situations. I'd say I'm very mature for my age."

"I'm also not scared to ask questions to these mentors. I know they won't mind if I ask them something that seems obvious to them, because we all know different things. I think one of the key parts of this job is to ask questions."

"You can't hide away from certain questions, though. The people who hide away don't do as well. Get the rep in. Ask about a product. It's how you learn."

"That all originated, I would argue, from setting myself specific goals from a young age. My old boss used to set specific goals, and I married well with that attitude."

"One of my ambitions was to become the head groundsman of a major stadium by the time I was thirty, and of course I achieved that when I was twenty-eight."

"I started off as an apprentice at the old Swansea FC stadium, Vetch Field, basically just picking up grass, and I loved it."

"I loved being around sports. Then, I went over to the new stadium, under Dan Duffy. I finished my long-term placement there, and then went onto become the sole groundsperson at a rugby union club, which had two training fields in addition to the main First XV ground."

"I trained somebody for three months before leaving and, a month later, he left. Dan Duffy had heard that I'd left and invited me back to the Liberty."

"On the back of that, I progressed up to deputy head groundsperson and, not long after that, we won the award for 'Best Pitch in the Premier League'."

"Almost 75% of my training was under Dan. Almost everything I know now and the way I work comes from him."

"Like I now am, he was very regimented. After a week of perfecting the surface, he'd pull you up on a weed at the side of the pitch, and that's how demanding I like to be of my pitch too."

"Finally, I'd decided I had come as far as I would do, heard the job was coming up here and, obviously, decided to go for it."

"Swansea had offered to match the offer made by London Stadium and the living costs here are high, but it's something I had to do when the previous head groundsman left. I said I'd take it for that role. And, I'm coming up on a year served here now."

London Stadium is a gem of modern complex development and features some engineering quirks which allow it to transform quickly in form to accommodate the crowd layouts for various event types.

This includes the bottom tier of football stands, detached from the upper tier, being able to simply tuck away underneath to reveal the athletics tracks beneath.

It therefore caters for athletics events, music concerts and other field sports, as well as its most frequent use as a football ground.

These include, according to Wikipedia, "several 2015 Rugby [union] World Cup matches, two England rugby league Test matches, and both the 2017 IAAF World Championships in Athletics and the 2017 World Para Athletics Championships" and "… the finish of the Great Newham London Run".

The stadium has also recently gained the rights to host a professional baseball game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.

This is all because the stadium was originally designed to last, at a reasonable public budget, for just a few years beyond the 2012 London Olympics, before being demolished and having its land freed.

The initial cost was relatively modest for an Olympic Stadium, at £486 million (£619 adjusted for inflation), plus £274 million for its 2016 Premier League renovation.

When it became clear that the ground would well-serve a Premier League football team, the upper tier was reconstructed, and was then around twice its current size.

The capacity has, therefore, evolved from 80,000 for Olympic events (which it still sometimes holds in its part-standing concert format), to 66,000 for major sporting events and 57,000 when regulated.

Whilst this open, ovoid space was originally prejudged for the way it might perform in terms of football matchday atmosphere, these worries were quashed, and James said: "There were doubts at first. But, when you walk out of the interior on matchday, there's no place that feels like it."

Having such a modern, advanced building is beneficial to James too. I mentioned that he had a nice office. He joked: "It's getting there. We've robbed a settee. We've robbed a whiteboard. We've robbed some chairs."

Above his desk is an array of Swansea FC replica match shirts, many signed. He clarified: "I'm from there, I'm a big fan of the club and it's where I used to work. I'm still good friends with everyone at the club. The kit man gives me those shirts as a goodwill gesture."

Like his previous Welsh employer, the London Stadium is not owned by the football club which is tenant, but the NGO 'E20 Stadium, LLP'.

The pitch, like sixteen of the twenty in the Premier League, is a Desso Grassmaster construction, and runs 105-by-68 metres. It is surrounded immediately by the 9-lane running track usually under the stands.

Because of the government-run budget, James said: "If I want some machinery, it's a very formal process to get there, and I'll usually need to wait a year or two to ensure the supply."

"In that sense, it's very different working here than at a regular, club-owned football stadium. But, I'm used to that having been in that situation at the Liberty too."

"There are some hoops to jump through, even when ordering something simple like uniforms. The process is quite complex and I couldn't explain it in simple terms. It partly involves submitting documents which justify why you require the items."

One issue James has faced has been a quick staff turnaround in recent months. His deputy, Lewis, arrived from Leeds Rhinos. Jeremy, an assistant, had been at the Stade de France. Dale arrived from the All England Club at Wimbledon and works the summers. Bruno is their apprentice.

Bruno, James said, "never asks for a day off and never leaves early. He insists that the mowers are clean before heading home. He'll be with me for the rest of his life, I think. He's that type of boy."

"Things are starting to click between us all now. I had to train them up in my methods of working from scratch, but they all understand what it takes to work here now and it's going well."

The heavy press coverage which comes with West Ham's presence and other major sporting events has resulted in a great deal of feedback on pitch quality.

"I don't remember, even in my Swans days, having so much coverage", James said. "On social media especially, I've had more this year than I've ever had."

"We've been getting positive feedback from players. Charlie Adam came here on Monday [16th March], and said it was 'outstanding'."

The team has pitch testing and agronomy done by separate entities. Most of the fertilisers and sprays, which are both liquid and granular depending on the month, are based upon the results of the pitch tests.

"If we're high on potassium, the next load of products will be low on it. If the roots are looking deprived, we'll put the resources into root growth."

"Our rep doesn't try to sell anything to you. He won't mention products until I ask. When he arrives, his first speech is 'right; let's have a look'. And it's straight into the tests. I use a range of products anyway, so don't want a rep who's pushing just their own. I want impartial, genuine advice."

"The Desso is in its second year - brand new. I think they want it to last ten years, which is standard. I know pitches which are into their twelfth year that are struggling, so I'm sure they wouldn't let that happen at a venue like this."

The only real conditional trouble the ground faces is a lack of air movement. This is due to regulations upon Olympic stadia which stipulate extremely low levels of airflow to enable track and field sports fair competition - a side-gusted javelin can't be measured against one with a tailwind.

"Because they thought it was going to be knocked down after the Olympics, everything was designed for the short term."

"Even the power system is starting to falter a bit. There's now been a new project managed, which will allow features of the stadium like that to last a lot longer."

"We've corrected that a lot for some sports set-ups since the rebuild, because when the seats slide back, a breeze is now allowed through. However, in the football setup, it's still very calm and we don't have a sub-air system or fans. It's always moist in here."

"We just have to leave it alone wherever possible. We can't keep going on there with the damp leaf and using a ProCore. It's not safe, because it limits the stability."

"One thing we have to do is rake out the shredded leaves, which come as a result of those high moisture levels."

"As well as my own fertilising programme, we're big on the ProCore. These techniques tend to be the same for the outside pitch too."

He adds base feed once every 4-6 weeks, slow-release, often ICL products. He also prick-feeds with conventional fertilisers once a week.

James usually has a granular feed laid down on Tuesday or Wednesday to allow the necessary uptake time before a game the following Saturday.

He then sprays once a week either for plant health, root development or colour to ensure the best appearance for the TV cameras.

"I won't allow any products with a high pH," he said. The pitch is currently at around 6.5 on the scale. "I won't let it go high. I stay away from sulphur products, for example."

"Then, of course," James said, "most of your work tends to be divotting and repairing ready for the next match, in the Premier League and in football generally."

"The cutting is done to 25mm, at the moment. For the games now, we'll take it down to 23-24mm. We have a lot of fixtures the next few days, so it'll be longer for those, and then we'll start to bring it down slowly for Manchester City."

"For repairing, we tend to use a Honda and do brushing up afterwards. We'll suck up all the debris. That's usually Monday-Wednesday. And, we'll use restoration products if it's knackered."

"I'll spray stabilisers to stand it up; some biostimulants. We'll try to stay off it as much as possible. I think groundspersons these days push it too much."

"They'll do a lot of watering, a lot of feeding and the rest. I think one of the key lessons that you can learn is to stay off it as much as you can."

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