The Head Groundsman at Motherwell Football Club has 'ME' on his corporate shirt, not out of any self proclamation, but simply because his name is Michael 'Mikey' Ellis. As well as some of the worst weather in the UK to contend with on a regular basis, he also has to cope with an enormous shadow cast over the ground by the south stand during the winter months
Motherwell Football Club's Fir Park Stadium has been their home since 1895. The club play in the Scottish Premiership and, at the time of writing, were lying a comfortable and close third behind Celtic and Aberdeen. In the 2012/13 season, they finished second behind Celtic.
The town of Motherwell is situated a few miles east of Glasgow, with the River Clyde separating it from their closest footballing rivals, Hamilton.
Motherwell was once the steel producing capital of Scotland, which earned it the nickname, Steelopolis. The town's industrial past is reflected in the club's football crest which depicts a steelworks with billowing chimneys.
The Fir Park pitch came in for some heavy criticism during the first decade of the century. Without dwelling on the problems - it was more 1970s than the twenty-first century, let's say - the current Head Groundsman, Mikey Ellis, is now providing a playing surface befitting the Scottish Premiership.
Mikey has been with the club a little over two years, having progressed through the industry via Bridge Castle Golf Club, Stenhousemuir Football Club, Little Kerse Sports Club in Grangemouth and Celtic Park. "It was my lecturer, Steve Millar at Oatridge College, who gave me the confidence to take the job at Stenhousemuir and make the jump from golf into football," explains Mikey. "I was taking my SVQ3 whilst working at Bridge Castle, but Steve was convinced I could move across to football. So I gave it a go."
"During my first season with Stenhousemuir, Falkirk FC were ground sharing whilst their new stadium was being built. Jim Dawson, Falkirk's head groundsman at the time (who is now at Murrayfield) was a big help to me. I also volunteered at some of the Falkirk games when they moved back to their new stadium and also helped out at their training ground."
"But, without doubt, the experience I gained working under John Hayes for four years at Celtic is what led me to the Motherwell job."
With a capacity of just over 13,500, Fir Park is small by comparison to its Glasgow neighbours and English counterparts, but a huge south stand is capable of casting a shadow over most of the pitch during winter. "It blocks out the sun for most of the time," Mikey tells me. "In November, the shadow cast is in the opposite 18 yard box for most of the day, so this creates many problems in the shaded area, and especially in the south goalmouth. Air flow is good around the stadium though, so this helps in drying out the surface, but still doesn't stop the constant threat of leaf spot and algae in the shaded areas."
"Being quite an open stadium we are prone to high winds swirling around. Scotland is a cold and wet country most of the time," states Mikey, unsurprisingly. "Frosts and high rainfall are a regular occurrence here in winter. At the moment, we are having problems with four areas of pitch not draining quickly enough, especially the southeast corner. These have been problem areas in the past and are now reoccurring. Regular vertidraining gets us by but, in extremes like we had in the three weeks over the festive period, when 187mm of rain was recorded, we can't get on to vertidrain and it becomes a major problem."
"We will have to decide what action is needed and, as we don't have a big window in summer to carry out any major work, we are limited to what we can do. Sand banding is looking the likely option at the moment."
"I am also discussing with Souter Sports the use of their new Air2G2 aerator to break up the pan just above pipe level, to see if it can open up routes to drains. I have also been boring holes between heating pipes to see if I can get water away, but keep boring into the clay bed. Where I was able to link to drains these have dried out nicely."
These holes were backfilled to pipe level with rounded gravel, then sand to 150mm below the surface. The remaining 150mm was filled with a Mansfield Fibresand rootzone mix. Bio-sorb was added in at all levels of backfill to absorb as much moisture as possible.
"On Saturday 25th January, when rainfall had totalled 303mm in forty days, we struggled with the pitch. On arriving at 8.00am, the pitch was playable," Mikey explains. "Only 3mm had fallen through the night and everywhere was dry and firm for the game; even wet areas under the covers had dried out nicely. But, by 9.00am, the rain had started again and, by 10.10am, 7mm of rain had fallen; and a further 3mm fell over the next ninety minutes! So, it was all 'hands to the pump' with my loyal volunteers, club caretaker, the three club media guys, the stadium manager, the Under-20s and matchday stewards all giving a hand removing soaking covers, forking and using our Bowdry, along with our Toro ProCore working overtime. the game went ahead and the pitch held up a lot better than I had expected."
At the moment Mikey works alone as his assistant, Gavin Gray, left in early January to take up a new position after five years at Motherwell. "I know how hard it is to leave your club and wish him all the best in his new job," remarks Mikey. "We're hoping to have a replacement soon."
"On a matchday, I have five regular volunteers who are a great help with repairing the pitch after a game. Alan, Gordon and Hughy have each been volunteering here for over twenty years. My sons, Mike and Sean, also come in for matchdays and any other time they can help out."
"2013 was a bad year for us," confesses Mikey. "I broke my leg back in February whilst lining the pitch for a televised game against Celtic. I was off for twelve weeks and then, three days after my return, Gavin dislocated his knee playing the staff end of season game on Fir Park and was off for eighteen weeks. In the summer, we took on Stephen Mulholland on a temporary contract as cover for Gavin. He still comes in on a voluntary basis for matchdays and has been a great help in his short time here. Also, Danny Waddell, Deputy Head Groundsman at Celtic, came in and carried out our spraying in his spare time, and my old boss at Celtic, John Hayes, is always there to help out. A big thank you to all the guys who have helped us out."
The Fir Park pitch is built on a clay bed with random new drains in between existing old drains (not evenly spaced out). "Before my time here there has been two new pitch builds, the more recent being in 2009, with Fibresand being introduced into the top 150mm in 2010. We have had drainage problems with the pitch for a few years now, both rebuilds don't seem to have cured the problem long term."
"Plenty of aeration is required to keep the rootzone open and free draining, as we experience high rainfall regularly. It's been averaging 7mm a day since Christmas day! When high rainfall is forecast, we open up the pitch with either the ProCore or Wiedenmann," he confirms.
"We have a gas boiler undersoil heating system with water pipes laid laterally -225mm deep, 175-250mm spacings - which has its benefits, but also a few drawbacks if not used properly, the worst being drying the rootzone and almost baking it at pipe level, creating a hydrophobic lower rootzone, repellent to water."
"When it's frosty and we have a Saturday home game, I put the undersoil heating on stage 1 on Tuesday (outgoing water temperature 17OC).
However, if temperatures are expected to go down to minus 3OC or lower then I put it on during Sunday to trickle heat into the ground and then turn up to stage 2 (outgoing temperature 32OC) on Thursday."
"We also have Evergreen germination covers, plus a Hunter irrigation system. We are currently in the process of upgrading the sprinkler heads from fixed arc to adjustable arc. Moisture readings are taking daily but, at present, we are unable to do so as the meter is away being repaired. I think all this rain was too much for it," comments Mikey with a rather wry smile.
"Linking up the drain lines is essential," continues Mikey. "The drain lines are visible on the pitch when sodden and when it starts to dry out, so they do work, I just need to get water to travel to them. I've been digging trenches through the worst areas between the heating pipes to link up drains."
Regular maintenance involves a granular feed every four weeks, which is applied with Scotts (Everris) spreaders. "I have been using it along with half rate Growing Solutions Consolidate+ mixed with Bio-carb, Folia K and Folia P, alternated with phosphites and up to 700ml Primo Maxx every two weeks. We use iron to green up for televised games, adding it in to the Growing Solutions mix."
"Revolution wetting agent is used in summer with a penetrate added in winter. Fungicides are used, when necessary, and I treat for worms and leatherjackets twice a year. All are applied with a 400ltr Hardi sprayer."
Mikey goes on to explain that the cutting height is generally maintained at 26mm all year round for games, but frequency and height of cut may be adjusted depending on the playing schedule ahead. "In the run up to a game, I cut daily but, if we have a couple of weeks break, I'm a big believer in giving the grass a rest from the constant mowing and traffic. I stringline the cutting stripes in the week running up to a game. I don't very often have time to cut on match days, so 26mm and a night's growth is ideal for me."
"We have two Dennis G860s, with verticutting and brushing cassettes, which we use regularly, alternating when used. We also have two John Deere rotary mowers which we also use for cleaning the surface after a game. By alternate with the brushing and verticutting, I find that this also helps to keep weeds down and saves on spraying."
"Aeration is carried out on a regular basis, or when I think it is required, depending on the amount of play on the pitch and the rainfall it has received. For this, we have a Toro Procore 648 and a new Weidenmann Greens TerraSpike G160 operated with a Kubota STV32 tractor. All were purchased in the last two years, except for the two Dennis mowers which we got back in 2009."
"Pitch marking is done with a transfer wheel linemarker using ten litres of Regal Paint mixed with five litres of water, always using a stringline."
"Overseeding is done after each game. We use one or two bags for heavily worn areas on the pitch - mainly warm up areas and goalmouths - or wherever else it is looking thin. We pre-germinate the seed for the goalmouths and cover to help it on,"Mikey explains.
"The truth is though that you can never plan too far ahead; we are constantly having to cancel everything from spraying and feeding as it's either too windy, too rainy, or both!"
This year's end of season renovation window will be curtailed by a Scottish Women's World Cup qualifier in June. "Renovation will be light and quick," states Mikey. "Usually, we would koro off the surface, at least. Last year, we just vertidrained and topdressed after fraise mowing, just skimming the surface to clean it. We power harrowed the top 150mm in 2012 and that is something I would like to do every other year or so, but time and budgets control this."
"I control my own budgets, but work closely with the stadium manager and chief executive to finalise just what is available. They have been very supportive and I think that the improvement in the playing surface has been welcomed by all."
"Renovations and irrigation are the only work we outsource now, using Souter Sports for renovations, who I've worked with for the past six years, so I know I can trust them. Applied Irrigation, whom I've only worked with since coming here, undertake our irrigation work and, so far, I have been impressed with their work and service."
As well as the stadium pitch, Mikey also looks after two seven-a-side artificial pitches to the back of the east terrace. These are brushed at least once a week with a Sisis dual-frame Flexi-comb and Z brush, topping up goalmouths with rubber when needed. "We also look after a high school pitch which the Motherwell youth academy use daily, although we are only able to cut and line once a week due to the fixture schedule between the youth academy and the students."
Mikey believes that the industry in Scotland is 'insecure' due to lack of finance available to football and golf. "Generally, I'd say we were undervalued, but I'm lucky as I have a good manager, coaching staff and chief executive who appreciate the hard work all the staff put in at Motherwell; and they remember the bad history of this pitch in the last decade."
"But I still believe that better communication and consultations with management, coaching staff, leagues and governing bodies would help to highlight the issues we face. Pitch protection rules for coaches, especially in poor weather conditions, would seem an obvious place to start.
They appear oblivious to what rules are in place and the damage their warm-ups can cause. We are not just moaning for the sake of it. When we see our pitch being torn up because of their ignorance, it hurts. This is something I think the league has to address as, when trying to explain to a coach on match day, the last thing he wants to hear is a groundsman moaning about his pitch, which is understandable. He has a game to prepare for, I know, but they forget we have a pitch to look after, as well."
What's in the shed?
Dennis G860 cylinder mowers c/w verticutter and brush cassettes x 2
Kubota STV32 tractor and front loader
Wiedenmann TerraSpike G160
Toro Procore 648
John Deere R54RKB rear roller rotary mowers x 2
Hardi 400ltr sprayer
Sisis dual-play Z brush with Flexi comb
Scotts spreaders x 2
Transfer wheel linemarker
Machinery is generally purchased on a five year finance deal, where we own the machine at the end of the term.
We purchase from local dealers, with Fairway Grass Machinery undertaking our maintenance contract.
We now have most of the equipment needed to do the job. What we don't have, my old boss, John Hayes at Celtic FC is always willing to help us out whenever he can.