It's Valentine's Day and Pitchcare's Laurence Gale has headed north to the Reebok Stadium to spend the day, and the evening, with Head Groundsman, Richard Norton, as he and his staff prepare the pitch for the visit of Athletico Madrid in the UEFA Cup.
We are reliably informed that he left a dozen red roses and a card on the breakfast table before setting off in the wee small hours!
Bolton Wanderers FC have made it through to the last 32 in the UEFA Cup. This is the knockout stages where teams play each other home and away and progress via an aggregate score and, if required, the 'away goals' rule. Their opposition is Athletico Madrid who are here by virtue of finishing third in their group in the Champions League and, subsequently, failing to qualify for the next phase of that tournament.
It is a big night for Bolton. Realistically, given Bolton's league form and the quality of the opposition, they are not expected to progress. But that is irrelevant now as the groundstaff prepare for, what could be, the end of their European adventure for some while.
Head Groundsman, Richard Norton, has been with the club for sixteen years starting at Bolton's former ground, Burnden Park, their home for 102 years, before moving into the stunning Reebok Stadium during the 1997/8 season.
Over the years Richard has built up an experienced team of staff to look after Bolton's three facilities; The Reebok, the first team training ground at Chorley and the new Academy training ground at Lostock. Richard is responsible for overseeing all areas, liaising with his staff on a daily basis to resolve any problems and supply all materials required. He has seven full time staff, and a further eight part time staff who help out during match days.
The Reebok pitch is maintained by Mark Sinnett and Calum Bunce. Chris Simm and Nick Regan look after the First team training ground whilst the Academy training ground is maintained by Gareth Lester, Mick Steel and Niall Hazlehurst
Last year the Reebok pitch was reconstructed, replacing the old FibreSand pitch with a Desso Grassmaster system. Richard also took the opportunity to upgrade his irrigation system by installing infield pop ups. The system now totals seventeen stations; fourteen surrounding the pitch and three paired heads are situated within the playing surface. These have improved the efficiency of watering the playing surface during matches.
Richard, like many professional Groundsmen, keeps detailed records of all the activities carried out on the stadium pitch, which include working regimes and hours of usage both in playing and training activities. Up to the end of February the pitch has had to cope with twenty one matches and eleven training sessions. Richard keeps details of how many hours players and coaching staff spend on the pitch and what activities they do. He also keeps a record of weather conditions.
The run up to the Athletico match has been a busy time. The club played a home game against Portsmouth the previous weekend leaving Richard and his staff just four days to prepare the pitch for the UEFA Cup match. As soon as the Portsmouth match had finished the pitch was divoted and the lighting rigs were put back on. The club only acquired these last August, so much of this winter has been a learning curve to ensure they get the best out of them.
They work to a programme based on a 48-hour light cycle rotation. The club have four large rigs for the outfield, each of which covers an area of 360 square metres, and two smaller rigs, covering 18 square metres, that are used in the goalmouths and six yard areas. With only four large rigs Richard tends to concentrate their use in the most shaded and heavily worn areas.
The pitch was also cleaned up using pedestrian Honda rotary mowers followed by some aeration work using the Toro Procore pedestrian aerator using 9 mm needle tines.
The evening before the match Athletico Madrid trained on the pitch for one hour from 7.00pm to help them acclimatise to the floodlights, the playing surface and, no doubt, Lancashire's weather in mid February! This caused significant damage, particularly an area on the east wing at the edge of the 18 yard box.
Athletico Madrid are one of three teams that play out of the Spanish capital. The others are Getafe and fierce rivals Real Madrid. At the time of writing they were lying in fifth place in La Liga, five points off a Champions League place and fifteen behind league leaders Real.
Thursday 14th February
7:30 - Richard, followed by Mark, Calum and Niall just before 8.00am, arrives for work. Their first task is to prepare the pitch ready for an inspection by UEFA officials, due to take place at 9.30am. The pitch is set up as it will be on the night. This includes putting out all the corner flags, portable goals and behind goal netting systems.
The inspection involves a number of UEFA officials and match officials who ensure that the pitch and ground facilities comply with UEFA rules and regulations.
Richard shares his office with the stadium's safety officer. It is located under the south stand and is the nerve centre for match day operations. Amongst all the box files, posters and computer bits and pieces is a small weather station, which keeps him informed of conditions within the stadium environment.
09:00 - UEFA delegates arrive to carry out their inspection.
Richard joins them just in case there a any problems. The match officials also inspect the playing surface checking pitch markings and goal posts. All
goes well and Richard and his staff can, finally, get on with the rest of the day's work!
10:00 - Mark, Calum and Niall begin the job of cutting and marking out the pitch.
Niall strings out the band pattern chosen for the game allowing Mark and Calum to get on with the mowing, double cutting the pitch at a height of 25mm using their Dennis pedestrian mowers.
13:00 - While the lads are doing all this Richard takes the opportunity to visit the training grounds to see how the others are getting on and to check on the drainage work being carried out at the new training academy. He returns to the Reebok for lunch (home made sarnies) at 1.00pm.
14:30 - All the equipment is put away and the final pitch checks are made ensuring the goals and practice goals and ball stop fencing are safe and secure.
15:00 - The amount of irrigation used pre-match is determined by weather conditions and discussions with team manager Gary Megson and his coaching staff during a pre-match meeiting. More water will be added if the manager requests it, even if it is detrimental to the surface - a win is more important than the appearance of the surface.
No rain is forecast, so the irrigation system is switched on. The perimeter heads come on one at a time and run for five minutes, whilst the centre paired sprinkler heads are timed to run in pairs for 15 minutes. giving a total running time of around 130 minutes.
17:00 - By 5.00pm the watering cycle is nearing the end. Calum and Mark have now officially finished their working day and are free to go home and enjoy the night off. Richard gets changed into his match day 'smart clothes' tie and jacket.
18:00 - The match day staff arrive and assemble in the staff mess room situated underneath the main stand. Richard arranges pies and sandwiches for their tea. There are two sets of four lads who are all mad keen Bolton fans. They have worked for Richard for the past ten years doing anything from moving snow to carrying players off on
stretchers. Payment is made via complementary tickets - a very useful tool for Richard on match days!
Richard then goes and sees the Bolton manager, Gary Megson, to keep him informed about the condition of the pitch and to find out if he wants anything extra carried out, such as watering at half time. On this occasion the answer is "no thanks".
19:00 - All match day staff take up their positions at pitch side. Both teams go out on to the pitch and begin their warm up routines. This consists of 30 minutes of activity which includes goalkeeping exercises, small game drills and stretching. As soon as the players have finished the groundstaff get on and remove all the equipment and return to their allotted seats near the players tunnel.
20:00 - The game kicks off. Mick Steel's daughter, Alice, has been one of the mascots. Richard takes up a central position at the tunnel entrance alongside the police and club officials. He keeps in radio contact with his staff and collegues.
20:45 - Half Time. All the groundstaff (and one extra helper!) replace divots and remove any litter from the playing surface.
Game restarts, and staff get some welcome refreshments from a catering outlet.
21:45 - The game is over. Bolton have confounded the pundits and won 1-0. Everybody is happy and looking forward to getting home after a long hard day. All there is left to do is get the lighting rigs back on the pitch. However, this cannot be done until the car park has been cleared of traffic.
The rigs are kept in a compound situated in the car park. It usually takes about 40 minutes for the car park to clear before they can gain access. The groundstaff spend this time divoting and cleaning the surface of litter.
22:15 - Groundstaff begin bringing the rigs back into the stadium towing the units using their E-Z-GO electric vehicle and then manoeuvring in place by hand. The team have got it down to a fine art and are able to get the rigs into position and working within 40 minutes.
23:00 - By 11.00pm the final lighting rig is in position and plugged in. Richard calls all the staff together and thanks them for their hard work. It has been a succesful day. The pitch looked good, both teams played some decent football and, as far as Richard and his team are concerned, it was the right result. It is time to go home.
Footnote: Bolton Wanderers progressed to the last 16 of the UEFA Cup by drawing the away leg 0-0. So, Richard and his staff had another UEFA match to prepare for in March. They played Sporting Lisbon eventually losing 2-1 on aggregate.