The severe winter weather throughout the festive season and much of January, wreaked havoc with with the winter sports fixtures. Groundsmen across all the sports disciplines worked tirelessly to try to get games and meetings on.
Many succeeded in getting their surfaces playable, only to be scuppered by conditions outside the ground, with the authorities deeming conditions unsafe for Joe Public, even though they could be seen shopping in nearby supermarkets and high streets!
Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger, called for a more 'sensible' approach from the authorities, something that was echoed throughout the land as the 'big freeze' looked set to continue.
The first ten days of January saw the football and rugby programmes decimated, with only a handful of games escaping the weather. For smaller clubs the loss in revenue from postponed matches may yet prove pivotal.
One match that escaped the vagaries of the weather, and over zealous officials, was the midweek Premiership encounter between Stoke City and Fulham, a game televised, at the last minute, by Sky Sports, as their scheduled match, the Carling Cup semi-final between Manchester City and Manchester United had been postponed. But, even this game had been in doubt as heavy snow fell just hours before kick off.
So delighted were the Sky pundits and commentators to actually have something to talk about, they heaped praise on the Britannia Stadium's Head Groundsman, Andy Jackson, calling him, amongst other things, a miracle worker!
"Night temperatures had been down as low as -5OC in the run-up to the game," said Andy, "and, on match day, never got above -1OC. We had been running the undersoil heating at a constant 14.5OC to try and ensure that the pitch stayed free of frost. It hasn't been set that high for six years. I'm not sure what effect this long-term baking will have on the soil profile though. Or our nematodes; I wonder if the cosy environment might cause a population explosion!"
"This is the longest period of cold weather I can remember - twenty-one days of continuous frost, and counting! We have never before had the heating on for such a length of time. I'm constantly checking the weather forecast and will come to the ground to check that everything is working properly before I go to bed."
Andy has been with Stoke City for fifteen years, starting out on a YTS scheme and progressing through to Head Groundsman seven years ago. He is assisted by Dave Thomas and Darren Davies, both with nine year's service, and recent recruits, Matthew Dudley and Martin Wooten.
"Two hours before kick-off the snow started to fall really heavily" said Andy. "It was all hands to the pump. As the snow continued to fall we dragmatted the pitch to stop it from settling and ensure that the undersoil heating could do its job."
It worked, and the game went ahead, with 'The Potters' storming to a half-time lead of 3-0, only for Fulham to come back with two second half strikes. All the while the snow continued to fall, but the fans had been rewarded with a splendid game and three precious points.
During the 'big freeze' the Britannia Stadium's pitch has been under even more pressure. "There is no undersoil heating at our training ground," said Andy, "and we have been trying to protect it with frost sheets and covers, but these have proved ineffective against such a long spell of cold weather. This has meant that the stadium pitch has had to be used for training. Of course, this is not ideal, but there is simply no alternative."
"It has put more strain on the pitch at a time when I like to keep off it as much as possible. But, we have recently purchased a couple of small lighting rigs that are helping to promote grass growth in some of the more worn areas, especially the goalmouths. We have seen some good recovery and growth. In addition, we regularly dragmat the surface to stand the grass up and then mow with Honda rotaries. In normal conditions I would use the Dennis G860s, but these are not 'normal' conditions!"
Andy bases himself at the Britannia Stadium, calling in his other staff for match days. They begin work at 6.30am dragbrushing the pitch, before mowing with either the Honda or Dennis mowers as dictated by the conditions. "Regardless of whether the match is being televised or not, I like to present the best looking pitch I can," said Andy. "We mark out with a sprayjet line marker, it gives a neat, accurate line."
"The club have a fully automated watering system that we can use before and during half time. The decision as to when and how much is down to the manager, Tony Pulis. He also dictates the height of cut,which can vary between 26-32mm depending on time of the year."
"We installed a fibresand pitch in 1997 when the club moved to the Britannia. It performs really well, but is always hungry and requires a lot of attention to keep it in pristine condition," said Andy. "Controlling organic matter levels, soil porosity and undertaking the appropriate feeding regimes are the key factors that effect its performance."
"In the summer of 2008 we replaced the old rootzone, calling in Premier Pitches to undertake the work. They koroed off to a depth of 15mm, power harrowed and incorporated 240 tonnes of new fibresand. It was all done within a seven-week window."
"We applied Scotts Preseeder PS5 fertiliser to the new seedbed, and this definitely helped us to achieve a quick and even germination."
"During the playing season, we used a selection of Greenmaster Pro-Lite fertilisers to feed the sward, including NK, a high nitrogen/potash, 12:0:12 compound with added iron and magnesium. This provided a quick colour response, and sustained growth for up to six weeks."
"In October and November I applied Double K - a high potash, phosphate-free turf hardener, which also helped the grass resist disease. Between December and February I switched to Invigorator, a 4:0:8 fertiliser, with added iron and magnesium, to help the pitch through the worst of winter, before going back to the Double K in the spring."
During the summer, I used Scotts Greenmaster Blade - a biological stimulant containing carbohydrates and seaweed extract. This encouraged beneficial micro-organisms within the rootzone to recycle decaying organic matter more quickly, breaking down any black layer or thatch, and increasing the nutrients available to the grass roots. I applied it every two to three weeks and quickly saw a difference. The grass was green and lush, and looked bright and healthy very soon after putting it on."
Following a 'Love Music, Hate Racism' concert in May 2009, Andy had the pitch koroed off , replaced with 180 tonnes of fibresand, cultivated and overseeded, applying a programme of PrimoMaxx for extra help.
"With the technical assistance of Mark Rayner from Scotts, I re-evaluated my feeding programme for the 2009/2010 season and beyond. I'm going to be using Greenmaster Pro-Lite throughout the year (every 12-18 days) in conjunction with Sierraform GT slow-release granules every six to eight weeks."
"In the summer, I will use Greenmaster 12:0:12, then from September to the end of November, 7:0:14. From December to February, 4:0:8, and from mid February to April I will use a 7:0:14. Sierraform GT 15:0:26 will be used from March to October and 6:0:27 will be applied in the winter months."
The programme also combines nutrition with disease prevention. "We plan in advance and have a prevention system in place," said Andy. "When disease has struck, I use Heritage, Banner MAXX and Daconil fungicide with good results. The programmed approach really pays, which is evident by the way the pitch looked and performed going into the depths of winter."
"I monitor my nematode populations on a regular basis, taking soil samples and using Professional Sportsturf Design (PSD) to help produce reports on the state of the pitch throughout the year. It will be interesting to see just what effect the undersoil heating has had."
Andy, like many other groundsmen, will be glad to see the back of this winter, and is looking forward to getting back to some normality and favourable temperatures that will help the pitches to recover.
He will be very busy in 2010, planning the stadium's end of season renovations, along with bringing new pitches into play at Stoke City's new £5 million training academy that is due to be officially opened in June.