0 Motherwell Football Club - Rags to riches

From the laughing stock of the Scottish Premiership to the best pitch in the league in seven short years, the work of Head Groundsman Paul Matthew has been praised by both the SPL players and an enthusiastic and proactive board of directors.

It is hard to imagine that, in the space of just seven years, Motherwell Football Club has turned their pitch from the worst in the Scottish Premiership, to the best.

The Lanarkshire-based club, who play their football at Fir Park, has been crowned the best surface in the country's top flight following a study organised by the Player's Association, Sports Labs and the Scottish FA.

But it hasn't been a seamless journey for the football club, and particularly Head Groundsman Paul Matthew, who is preparing for the 2018/19 campaign having carried out yet another major renovation to maintain the high standard of playing surface at one of the league's most ambitious clubs, with one of the league's smallest budgets.

From the dark days of abandoned matches and a surface resembling dirt tracks, Fir Park is now the finest place for the country's top stars to step out and play their football.

And it's been a lot of work.

"When I first came in, the first thing I saw was a pitch that showed bad practice," Paul explained. "But, until we had a proper look and took some time to do test digs to gather information on the pitch, we couldn't be sure just how bad a condition it was actually in."

"From the tests, I could gather information on the work that had been done before and the previous renovations that had been carried out over a number of years, prior to me getting here."

"Next up was the task of formulating a plan about carrying out the very first thing that this pitch needed - draining surface water."

Paul's job was already a difficult one, given the fact that the geographical set up of the Fir Park pitch means the surface has a steep slope across the width of the pitch, whilst being located in one of the wettest parts of the UK.

"The very first year I came in was the play-off season against Rangers back in 2014/15. There was very little time, so I got one of the original contractors in who proposed something to me about how we go about improving the issue of drainage."

"However, I was dictated to by that contractor who told me what I should be doing, and I just don't work like that. It has to be my own initial idea and then I work with the contractor."

"So I didn't waste time, I changed contractor and that was the best thing to do in my opinion. So I brought in Souter Sports, and, together with a guy who I'd worked with before, we formulated a plan to move forward with."

"The first step was to do a clean up of the surface, to basically remove the organic build-up, the algae that had formed and all of the weed grass that had grown. So we did that, and then brought 100 tonnes of sand in, before spiking it and creating channels down through the profile of the pitch to try and drain surface water off the top."

"It was all a bit late in the day though and, unfortunately, it didn't quite allow us the time to do exactly everything we needed to, so we managed to get through the rest of that season just from good groundsmanship to be honest."

Time, limited resources and a severe slope were just a few of the challenges facing Paul and the rest of the team at Motherwell, as the battle to improve the pitch surged on.

So, in order to give him as much help as possible, Paul turned to trusted contacts he had made through years of working in the industry, and soon found himself starting to make the important steps towards a better surface.

"We tried to work with a lot of companies and a lot of guys who I believed would help us. Initially, we worked with Richard Aitken Seedsmen and a guy I knew called Robert Ewing who came in and supported me very well."

"Then I worked with a chap called Alistair Taylor and more or less trusted in him from what I had known about him from years gone by."

He added: "Another huge challenge facing us was the goalmouth in front of the South Stand, which is far and away the tallest stand in the stadium, so faces problems when it comes to getting sunlight."

"I got a great favour off a man called Andrew Robinson who I had known for years as the managing director of Rigby Taylor, but had now started working for TLS Lighting. He gave me a lighting rig to help germinate the goalmouth, which was a godsend."

And Andrew could see the huge benefits it brought Paul and Motherwell Football Club. "When I first visited Motherwell FC, the pitch had had its first renovation under Paul and it was a typical poor summer with growth struggling under the huge South stand and only a few weeks away from their first game."

"We delivered a lighting rig the following week and I met Chief Executive Alan Burrows for the first time and it became apparent right away that there was a real interest from him in improving the playing surface."

"Over the next couple of weeks, the lighting rig proved invaluable and got the goalmouth ready for its first game and they invested in two TLS 120s."

"The pitch improves every year, with real hard work and good groundsmanship and a very decent budget from the top."

Not only did the rigs help Paul's work on the pitch, but off it, as the management team at the football club could see the clear benefits which good lighting equipment could bring to the work being done on improving the pitch.

Paul explained: "When we got that first lighting rig, it basically sold itself to the club, and they could see the benefits of technology straight away."

Come the end of his first season at the club, Paul had managed to get through the campaign by the skin of his teeth, depending on good groundswork and excessive manual labour.

But, when the campaign drew to a close, the team around Fir Park knew that more had to be done.

"Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that there was no way we were going to drain this pitch unless we put in a secondary drainage system."

"Now, to put this in to context for those who will understand it, Fir Park as a pitch has some serious challenges. Firstly, you've got six inches of rootzone to work with, but there is also an old pitch directly beneath the surface which is as hard as concrete."

"That's where the drainage is located, but it's at very random points and the drains run across the pitch, which is usually normal for a surface like this. But the slope which runs from one side to the other is about five feet in height, so it's not normal at all."

"Basically, the water migrates down the slope which brings it's challenges, because instead of sitting and migrating through the profile, the water moves."

He added: "We decided that the next plan of action was to take the top off the pitch entirely. Our samples showed us that we were low in fibre, so we worked with Mansfield Sand to improve that and put more fibre in to our surface."

"But none of that would matter if we didn't have somewhere for the water to go, so we put trenches in which have been a great success."

The trenches were going to be formed by a whizz wheel, which digs at a depth of nine inches, allowing for four inches of gravel to then be put inside the resulting trench.

However, further hurdles were put in front of Paul due to the existing heating system, which is located just eight inches below the surface and is a piping network running underneath the pitch, meaning the operation to install the trenches was proving extremely difficult.

Raising the depth of the whizz wheel, the operation was a potentially dangerous one for the pitch as the team grazed over heating pipes in their bid to improve the drainage.

Challenges such as this are unavoidable though, as Paul explains: "The pitch is extremely difficult. Most other people would come in and they would just rip it out and start again. But we can't here, so we have to manage it by pulling in all the best knowledge and putting to use my experience too."

After the drainage issue was tackled, attention turned to irrigation and, again, the club backed and supported Paul in his bid to improve what was widely regarded as one of the country's worst surfaces.

"The club have always backed me massively and, in the years I've been here, they've supported each renovation. So, this year, we've got a new irrigation system in, the year before we put in extra grass and hybrid carpets at the back of the pitch for excessive warm-ups which take pressure off the pitch."

"We've also put in an astro carpet on the main stand side of the pitch which are ideas I've put to the club and have been supported. But I understand that that wouldn't be possible without the team doing as well as they do, getting to two cup finals certainly helps!"

"But, at the same time, one of the main challenges for any groundsman is the game itself. Not a match day necessarily, but training and warm-ups cause a lot of damage, which is avoidable if you have the right relationship with the manager. In order to limit that damage and have a good understanding about issues like training on the pitch, you need to have a good relationship and a healthy one with the coaching staff at the club. I'm fortunate that I have that from Stephen Robinson and his staff here at the club."

One of the biggest benefits Paul has is the lighting rigs, which were non-existent when he first arrived, but now the club own four and the pitch has certainly seen the benefit of them.

Paul said: "We now have four lighting rigs. Three TLS 120s and a TLS 80, and they really have been a godsend. They are another tool which allows us to keep the pitch in the stong condition it is in."

"They give hope more than anything. You know, as a groundsman, that when the colder, darker winter months roll around, you'll still be able to grow grass when you have these rigs."

"But this wouldn't be possible, as I keep saying, without the support of the club. And two men in particular I couldn't get to this point without."

"My line manager is a man called Alan Marshall, he's the Stadium and Facilities manager and safety officer for the club, and then there's Alan Burrows who's the Chief-Executive, and fortunately for a guy like me, they're both very pro-pitch."

"Without them, I couldn't do this job, and most importantly I couldn't provide a pitch which players enjoy playing on."

"And then, when your pitch is voted as the best in the league by the very players who play on it, it makes you realise just how much the work we put in does for the surface itself, and the football club too."

Chief-Executive Alan Burrows is well aware of the benefits a good pitch can bring to the football club, let alone the best pitch in the division. And it was a challenge facing the newly appointed chief four years ago.

He said: "When I was promoted in 2014, one of my first targets was to completely change the priority in which the pitch was held at Fir Park."

"Prior to then, we had spent a small fortune on trying to make the surface better, we had a full rebuild, at least three or four renovations and some remedial work, but what I always felt was lacking was the culture around the place and the importance, almost obsession, placed on providing the best possible pitch for our first-team players to play."

"It took a good few months to get to grips with it, but the catalyst for the transformation came with the appointment of Paul Matthew in the spring of 2015."

"Paul is, in my opinion, at the very top of his profession and we are extremely fortunate to have someone with his ability, skill and drive at the head of the department."

"Along with our Facilities Manager Alan Marshall, we immediately addressed things like usage. There would be no Under 20s matches. There would be no women's matches. There would be no fan matches and we wouldn't accept any additional games, like youth internationals or friendly matches."

"That may appear fairly drastic, but with the proverbial mountain we had to climb, we had to first control the controllable."

"What that did was tell people that, to play on the first-team pitch was a right rather than an expectation. Paul wanted to make that area of the stadium sacrosanct, so we introduced things like pitchside barriers and signage to ensure we drummed home the message that it was no longer acceptable to be on the pitch unless working on it, or playing on it."

"Paul then completed a full reconciliation of all his equipment that he inherited and it became clear that he had machinery that he didn't require, but was also missing several vital tools that he would need to really start making a difference."

"The biggest of which was grow lamps and, following a successful trial with TLS, we introduced our first in the autumn of 2015. That might not seem like a massive deal, but it was in Scotland. Previously, it had only been thought possible for the really big clubs in the country like both Old Firm clubs and Aberdeen to be able to have pitch lights. Yet Motherwell had one and it has kicked off a bit of a snowball effect now with the majority of the clubs in the top-flight now owning at least one. We now have four!"

Alan added: "What the TLS lamps have done is help kick on the pitch tremendously and, in combination with the skill and the contentious groundsmanship of Paul, we have turned Fir Park from what was the perennial joke to what was just recently voted the best pitch in the SPFL Premiership; all within three years."

"We still have our inherent problems that are tricky, or even impossible, to fix. We have an almost six-foot slope from one corner flag to the other which, as you can imagine, brings about its own challenges. We are almost ninety metres above sea level; amongst the highest football grounds in the whole UK. In addition, Lanarkshire is noted for its high rainfall levels, sitting as a deep valley some thirty or forty miles from the Atlantic Ocean with weather patterns battering us from the south west. We have a huge 175m stand in the south end of the ground which, for most of the year, blocks the pitch from natural sunlight."

"All of those things mean we have to take the maintenance and upkeep extremely seriously and, as long as I am here, we will."

"I am extremely proud of the work that has gone into it. It has taken financial commitment from the Board of the club, it has taken the introduction of specialist tools like the TLS lights but, mostly, it's taken the direction, leadership and drive of a top-class operator like Paul Matthew and, as far as I am concerned, there is no praise high enough for him or the group of people that have helped turn this rags to riches story into a reality."

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