Radio 5 'Live'
On Thursday afternoon I had a call from a PA at the radio station asking whether I could do a live interview a few minutes later, on the subject of the nations football pitches.
The PA asked if I could comment on the pitches and why they were in such a poor state. The theme seemed to be angled towards the re-introduction of synthetic surfaces and again the PA had asked if I could comment on the latest versions of 'Astro-turf' that were available.
Naturally I was happy to be of service, and spent the next twenty minutes thinking, prioritising the most important elements of football Groundsmanship, and getting it clear in my mind which angle I was happiest to come from.
I thought that perhaps the first point was that Groundsmanship had grown with the needs of the sport. The league criteria set down, particularly since the formation of the premiership was to provide consistency of the playing surface throughout the playing season.
To that end, our Industry has provided and developed sand based pitches over the last 15 years up to a point today where many look and play like the first game in July all year around.
However during this period, the radical changes in crowd safety and spectator comfort have resulted in a new era of all-seating 'wrap around' Stadia.
For a long time the humble Groundsman was not consulted in new stadium developments and was suddenly immersed in new surroundings with a unique stadium microclimate. Suddenly he was faced with the reality of large areas of permanent shade and no air movement.
The PA had asked me to talk specifically about the state of the Newcastle United pitch, in light of Mr Shearer's comments that the pitch made it difficult for the team to play at home. I have not been to Newcastle, although I have read much about the shade and air problems and in particular the re-turfing exercise. I had decided instead to generalise about stadiums in the Premiership and the problems that are faced every day by the Groundsman.
I have now read two independent reports from consultants who both agreed that in some of the country's stadiums, no amount of good groundsmanship practice would prevent the re-turfing of the pitch, at least once mid season. As an Industry we are once again prepared for this scenario, with Yorkshire fields full of pre-ordered custom grown turf awaiting immediate despatch. The costs of this service amount to about £90,000 to relay the whole pitch ready for play. To put this in perspective two weeks worth of Mr Shearer's wages, and one needs to be aware that the average home gate receipts of a premier league ground now amount to over £1,000,000 per match.
The stadium environment is very different to the conditions faced outside in the open spaces and our Industry has come a long way in providing near perfect solutions to the problems faced.
It would be unjust to generalise and criticise all the clubs, as many have spent considerable money on the playing surface. Four years ago West Ham spent the best part of a million pounds on their pitch at Upton Park. This money was spent on a full sand based construction, complemented with 'Desso' reinforcement. The pitch also had an underground air system installed using the specially laid drainage system; this system was able to heat the ground with warm air blown in or suck out excess moisture from the pitch. In fact it was amazing to watch a puddled playing surface suddenly dry up as the 'Sub-air' system was turned on.
Over the years experts have tried and tested different combinations of sand/soil, particle shapes and sizes. The aim was to find a root zone combination that would remain reasonably stable as the grass cover thinned in the winter but would still allow good drainage rates. This was coupled with the remit of providing a surface that didn't become too tight and hard that players were more prone to knee and ankle injuries.
The Industry has also tried and tested many types of reinforcement materials, from the early days of products such as Netlon, which was simply plastic netting that the turf was grown in. To the highly advanced 'Desso' system and the Fibresand and Fibre root zone systems.
The 'Desso' system involves sewing plastic filaments into the top eight inches (200mm) of the pitch. The multi strand filaments are sewn in at one-inch centres (25mm) and are cut off at the normal playing height above ground. 'Desso' allows coarser sand to be used in construction. This means that there are larger air spaces in the growing medium, which encourages healthier plants and better drainage.
Fibresand/Fibre root-zone is a mixed sand or sand/soil medium and synthetic fibres that help lock the ground together.
Both systems offer suitable solutions to pitch stability, and to some degree the longer term retention of grass through the season.
Regardless of the type of growing medium in place the undeniable facts are that the plant still requires food, light and water to survive on a sports surface.
The use of sand and the high rate of water percolation have meant that nutrients tend to leach through very quickly. The nutrient-retention qualities of sand are far less than that of soil. This can result in the plant very quickly becoming prone to wear and fungal attack.
Stadiums more recently have implemented the use of translucent panelling in the roof to allow warm sunlight to reach the pitch. This can be seen in the latest tier construction at Old Trafford and also at St Mary's-the new home of Southampton FC.
Wind systems are also in development to produce fresh air circulation within enclosed environments and are proving to be advantageous within the wrap-around stadiums.
With all of this going through my mind I felt comfortable that there was a great argument for natural grass continuing to be the only recognised sports surface.
Yes, there have been major strides forward in the development of synthetics, 'Field Turf' is as close as I have seen to the look, play and feel of real grass, yet like the grass courts at Wimbledon and the wickets at Lords it is more than possible to provide top class natural surfaces.
We have a great tradition of producing the very best surfaces in the world and we do not have to go down the road of plasticising everything for ease of operation.
The time came to go live on air and Adrian Littlejohn and Simon Mayo had invited Tony Horne and myself as the guests. They asked Tony briefly of the problems he faced at the Millennium stadium, to which he explained that the enclosed stadium with its sliding roof was detrimental to the growth of grass. The two hosts then talked about the merits of synthetic pitches amongst themselves. To my horror FIFA have agreed that clubs can now install plastic pitches for the use of professional games and there is expectation now that these pitches could be introduced into the premiership by the year 2010.
This then gives us eight years to provide definitive answers to the perfect natural pitch construction. Personally I don't think that we are too far away from it now.
Oh, what did they ask me?
They asked me how I won a Groundsman of the year award at Wolves, I couldn't believe that these two presenters with a subject as large as it is were only interested in an award I won seven years ago and to that end the interview was over in about 30 seconds.