Home to Newcastle United, St. James' Park is the oldest football stadium in the North East, with football first played on the turf as early as 1880. Head Groundsman Mick Curran spoke to Kerry Haywood about his career, challenges at the club and returning to football after the Rugby World Cup.
The story and development of Newcastle United's traditional headquarters, on the edge of the city centre, has been one of much intrigue featuring intense local politics over the years. It has been a talking point in the region for generations.
The ground has been the home of three clubs; Newcastle Rangers, Newcastle West End and Newcastle East End who moved to the arena in the summer of 1892 shortly before changing their name to Newcastle United.
Head Groundsman Mick Curran, has been at the club for thirteen years, but started his career next door to the training ground at Blue Flames Sporting Club, some thirty years ago. At this time, Newcastle didn't have any training pitches and they used to hire Pitches. When Bobby Robson was manager they hired the pitches at Blue Flames for two seasons before developing their own facility next door.
When the Training Ground was complete Mick took on the Head Groundsman role. Today, with a team of eight others, they manage the stadium, five pitches at the training ground and seven Academy pitches (four full size and three junior 60 x 40 yards).
Mick leads the training ground, whilst heading the other sites are; Andrew Tully (38), Deputy Head Groundsman who is permanently based at the stadium and Andrew Bowes (44), situated at the Academy.
The remaining team work on a rotation basis around the three sites, and they are; Chris Coleby (35), Anthony Jackson (44), Mark Cooper (30), Steven Clark (22), Connor Bush (22) and fitter Derek Barnett (55).
Mick commented: "You're only as good as the team behind you. I've trained them and they know what I expect. The Stadium Manager and I discuss a programme of work for the month and determine a plan for the guys and where they will be. With the variety of challenges they face at each site, they're all equipped with the knowledge and skill set to deal with issues along the way and they are encouraged to attend any courses they feel necessary. Over the last two years, they've all received Health & Safety qualifications and within the past four years, three of the team have completed the NPTC Work Based Diploma Level 3 in Sports Turf."
"I'm still learning after 30 years," Mick continued, "and things change along the way. Technology has moved on greatly and, in my opinion, has totally changed the way we manage pitches. Seeds are Cultivars, sand formulations have improved and root zones are much improved which means our processes continually change and we all have to adapt and deal with it."
"A big part of this is also down to changing weather conditions. In my opinion, the climate is definitely changing, with winter becoming much wetter than before. Obviously, weather is a major part of the job, and I am constantly looking at forecasts and changing the routine for the week's cutting schedules and general maintenance if I need to."
At the stadium, the one thing about the maintenance is that it's consistent. Before the start of the season, they adopt an 'out with the old and in with the new' approach. Lighting rigs give another year's growth so it's necessary to turn it all over and go again fresh each season. The 1.2 Koro Field Top Maker is used to remove the old surface and get rid of all the algae, vegetation etc., then 120 tonnes of new Fibrelastic® is raked in to bring it back up to spec. Once this is turned in, they seed then feed it with 14-2-10 granular fertiliser every week to thicken it up, and get it where it needs to be.
Andy, who has been with the club for thirteen years, and based at the stadium for the past ten years, commented: "Yearly maintenance is not a vast construction now as we don't need to tamper with anything. Analysis is done on the surface and samples are taken and scrutinised to see what we need from our mixes. From these we can specifically tailor everything to the ground and its environment, and we have developed two of our own special spray mixes, which include five or six different elements. These are used in conjunction with granular organic based fertilisers as part of the spraying programme and typical summer cutting is every day."
Unusually, the pitch sits on a slight hill and with a metre fall, the profile consists of four inches of Fibrelastic® and five inches of root zone with undersoil heating.
As you can expect, this is ideal for drainage so, together with the drains underneath spaced every metre, and the pitch heating connected on a grid system, the ground can be saturated one hour and completely clear the next.
In contrast, the irrigation system is somewhat basic, using a hose and two spinners in the middle along with ten Rainbird 805 sprinkler heads pitch side. Similarly, marking out is carried out using the traditional strings and pins method, and lines are not marked unless there's a game.
On match days, all eight staff are at the stadium regardless, whether it's a day or night game. In the morning, the pitch is cut with a Matador 27inch and, after the game, all the divots are put back, its rotary cut with a John Deere 21inch pedestrian mower, swept, watered if necessary and all the lights are put back into place.
"There are areas of the pitch that never see sunlight - not even at the peak of summer. The height of the West stand means the sun doesn't get past the concrete, so it's very limited on light. This is where the Stadium Grow Lights come into play and are invaluable" says Andy.
"No matter what construction you have, the lighting rigs are the be all and end all during the winter months in my opinion. The reason we have such good pitches in stadiums is down to lighting rigs. They are very labour intensive, but I consider they're our saviour and we run them 24-7. We whip them off just before a game and they're straight back on to get the maximum from them at all times."
They have five x 2.5 tonne rigs and these stay in place for approx. 48 hours. In conjunction with these, eight smaller rigs are also used to double up in areas that are struggling to warm those weak spots. Depending on the timescale between some games, the duration in each spot can change, and the number of moves will be planned.
The stadium was one of the first to use lighting rigs in the UK and, although they still have the originals which were installed in 2008, they have recently upgraded them from 600 to 1000 W Philip bulbs. When the temperatures drop in the winter, more heat means the cold air isn't as detrimental to the plant, so the increased power is much more effective. This has proven invaluable for maintaining the uniformity of the sward, thus creating a playing surface regarded as the best by professional sports players and fit for the millions of viewers watching every home game.
Andrew said: "Presentation is obviously top of the agenda and, without having a Desso pitch, we want to ensure that we're up there with the best pitches and challenging them to look the best."
Rugby World Cup
Presentation was obviously tested to its limits after the Rugby World Cup, and Andrew mentioned he'd seen some of the worst damage ever seen on any sports pitch he's looked after. "The downforce in the scrum was unbelievable, as we don't have any reinforcement. At the end of the day it's a football pitch - not a rugby one, but that didn't stop us thinking about it for the past four years. They're really big guys, so the damage was inevitable."
"Rugby has been played at the stadium before, but never within the season, and two games in two days of any sport is a lot for a pitch to take. With three games played in total, we also had six training sessions to contend with."
Mick added: "We accepted it was going to come up, so we dealt with it and put it right within a very short space of time. This didn't go unnoticed by media and other groundsmen, with many commenting on the quick turnaround and exceptional work carried out to restore the pitch."
"The feedback we received from players was that they preferred our pitch as they could get a grip. Despite this being detrimental to us, I would definitely do it again. It was a lot of hard work but a great experience."
At the training ground
There are five Fibrelastic® pitches at the training ground along with an indoor 3G facility. Mick and his team have a total of 100 acres to maintain, which includes a vast amount of rough ground and tree plantation. Pitch one is exactly the same profile as the stadium, although it will never be the same maintenance programme due to the different environment of natural light, wind etc.
Mick commented: "From now until February, I will hoover any debris up after players have trained on the pitches, and use a 20inch rotary followed by Mastiffs a few days later. This time of year, the fairway mowers will be put away until March and then hand cut with the Mastiffs to avoid stressing the grass out. I feed with 6-0-12 every 21-28 days depending on temperatures. "
"Early on in the summer, I use John Deere 21inch rotary's for the first four or five cuts on new seed and then go on to use the 36inch Mastiff. Once they're strong enough I'll use the fairway cutters. Every single pitch is boxed off and the clippings are collected and tipped, which is a big operation in the summer. I will occasionally leave the clippings on if I've just fertilised and I feel it hasn't degraded down and gone in."
At the end of the season, Premier Pitches come in and Koro the main 1st and 2nd pitches to give them a new surface every season. 150 tonnes of new elastic is put down, mixed in, reseeded and ready for play within ten weeks.
"The biggest change in the maintenance of the pitches has been the invention of the Koro which replaced the use of rakes and scarifiers etc. and has become invaluable to our programme of work and efficiency" continued Mick.
"Once the seed goes in the ground, it's then our responsibility. In the first six weeks I force the pitches on as much as I can, using a lot of 12-0-9. Last season, I was cutting twelve days after the seed was planted and, every time I cut, I feed. After six weeks, I cut every day and, at eight weeks, it was ready for play, but I try and keep them off for as long as possible."
"The middle 3rd and 4th pitches are also Fibrelastic®. We can't take every pitch up each year so these two are done every other year. Instead, Premier Pitches come in early April and heavily fraise mow these, before applying a little sand, seed and then we're ready for pre-training whilst pitches 1 and 2 are still in development.
"We verti-drain every pitch with ¾ inch tines once a month and this was upgraded last year to the new fastlink version which has significantly improved regimes. I would say it's certainly 1.5 times quicker than the old one and can do a pitch in about 7.5 hours at 1inch spacing's."
"I keep a close eye out each day for diseases and feed with 12-0-9 granular fertilisers every 14 days in the summer and 6-0-12 every 21-28 in winter. If I feel I need to spray, I usually try and feed first. Sometimes all its missing is nutrients and feeding will take it away. This year I haven't sprayed at all, but it's important to keep a close eye and take regular soil samples which we do every two months."
"I like to keep things simple and I think people try to over complicate things" Mick added.
The indoor 3G facility was installed in 2002 and, from September onwards, it is used every night of the week for junior Academy teams and Foundation games. It is fairly low maintenance; it's brushed once a month and cleaned once a year. The facility is being re-developed over the next two years, and will be upgraded to a 4G pitch.
The Academy hosts around 150 players, aged from under 9s through to under 18s, and its objective is to produce 'young men' who will go on to represent Newcastle United's first team.
Renovations and improvements
Over the last four years, the Academy pitches have been upgraded as part of a five year plan to improve drainage. They are soil based pitches and, despite there being drainage in place, they weren't draining quickly enough. So far, they have installed secondary drainage to four pitches by adding sand slits every ½ metre to allow it to drain quicker. It's taken a lot of investment and time but with ¾ of the site complete, it will only take another year to finish the project.
The last five years has also seen big improvements to the irrigation system at the training ground. There is a Rainbird 805 sprinkler head every 18m on site, and water is abstracted from a bore hole, cleaned in a filtration system, fertiliser added into the 10,000 litre tank, and it's ready to go.
Work on all sites, along with machinery requirements, are planned a year in advance, but obviously these schedules can be affected by weather and budgets. Mick and the Stadium Manager sit down to discuss the full spectrum of requirements which are then taken to the board to determine the plan.
Machinery is bought outright and, since Mick has been at the club, they have used local dealer Rickerbys due to their excellent sales and customer service. Servicing is done in-house by their trained fitter Derek.
Pests and diseases
The training ground suffers from rabbits and they cause a lot of damage, especially when the pitches are in the renovation process. "One year, three days in to the new seed going down, I came in and it looked like a ploughed field, which took a lot of work to rectify the damage," Mick said.
"We battled with them for the first five to six years but now we seem to have them under control."
Over at the stadium, there are no pests to contend with, but leaf spot and fusarium are a major problem. Andy keeps a close eye on it and uses a variety of products to enable a change to the active ingredient. In order to achieve this, they are not tied to any suppliers, products or manufacturers to give maximum flexibility when choosing what products to use.
Mick commented: "Times are changing in terms of water usage and with many different environmental issues. I personally think the American way will come to the UK soon, in the quest to introduce sustainability to the wider world of sport, not just football. We are becoming more and more aware of our carbon footprint and a small part of our plan is to replace all the machinery every three to four years in a programme to reduce emissions, improve performance, reduce vibration etc. All the rhizomes that come off every pitch stay on site and are used for building mounds all the way around as wind breakers and ball protection.
The drainage system from all the pitches and surrounding areas goes into a lake on site. The team maintain all aspects of this wildlife corridor but are only allowed to cut it twice per year (in March and September) due to the wildlife and birds nesting such as ducks, oyster catchers and water hens etc. When the lake reaches a certain level, it drains away into the Tyne.
"I don't think the ground care industry is undervalued," said Mick. "In terms of professional football we have, without a doubt, the best pitches in the world. It has become the norm to expect fantastic pitches. In the 30 years I've been in the game, we've come a long way. The Premier League groundsmen meet with the association twice per season to discuss protection rules and they put procedures in place to protect the pitches before and after games. It's a difficult job to raise the profile of a groundsman these days, and encourage youngsters into the industry. Unsociable hours and pay rates don't help, we all want to be rewarded financially for what we do as an industry the pay rates differ significantly. There is better communication between professionals now and groundsmen keep in touch with each other, and that's helped massively in sharing ideas and experiences."
What's in the shed
St James' Park
3 x 27 inch Ransomes Jacobsen Matadors
1 x Toro ProCore
I x 120 litre pedestrian sprayer
8 x John Deere 21 inch pedestrian rotary mowers
1 x spray marking machine
2 x Iseki TG5470 tractors
3 x Ransomes Jacobsen LF570 5 unit fairway mowers
6 x Ransomes Jacobsen 36 inch Mastiff mowers with trailing seats
5 x John Deere 21 inch rotors mowers
1 x Ransomes Jacobsen HR6010 wide area mower
1 x Charterhouse tractor mounted turf tidy 3000
1 x Charterhouse 2m Disc Seeder
1 x 1.2m Koro Field Top Maker
1 x Abbey 250kg Wagtail tractor mounted fertiliser spreader
2 x Scotts 50kg pedestrian fertiliser spreaders
1 x Toro ProCore
1 x 300 litre Gambetti tractor mounted sprayer
1 x John Deere Gator
2 x Baileys 2 tonne self tipping trailers
2 x spray marking machines
1 x Eric Hunter Juno grinder
1 x EZ-GO electric stretcher carrier
1 x tractor mounted oscillating brush for artificial use