In this, his third and final article since taking over the contract to maintain the pitch at Shrewsbury Town FC, Pitchcare Managing Director, Dave Saltman, reports on the final few months of the season. Further storms, unseasonably cold weather, hosting a top Premier League side and winning an award were all in the mix
This is the third and final part of this season's maintenance at Shrewsbury Town and I pick up near the beginning of February, after the team had played Southend United in Football League One on Tuesday 2nd. The following day, we carried out some repairs and then brushed the pitch aggressively with the brush cassettes in the Dennis G860s. This was followed with an oversow of 200kg of MM60 and MM75R (five bags of each) the seed put down with a dimple seeder, and another deep spike with the Wiedenmann.
Up until recently, the weather had been wet; well, very wet, but reasonably mild, with some growth and recovery. Now, with nearly a three week break, and newly planted grass seed, the temperatures decided to drop and we covered the pitch with frost covers to try to keep some warmth in the ground. Unfortunately, the next storm was just around the corner and we came in to find the covers rolled up like giant sausage rolls, with pegs and stanks literally littered around everywhere. We decided that we didn't have the means to keep covers flat and in one place, so we unrolled the mess and folded them up neatly on the West side of the ground along the tarmac path.
We were now getting frosts most nights and daytime temperatures certainly weren't getting much above 5 or 6OC. All we could do now was hope that some better weather would return.
On the 11th, we hosted a Lawn Care conference at the stadium and it was great to meet so many guys from independent companies and take them for a tour around and onto the playing surface. We had waited an extra day to fertilise the pitch and it enabled these guys to watch us apply a feed evenly across the pitch. We put down sixteen 20kg bags of Maxwell Advanced Legion 6:5:10 +6Fe mini granule. A full rate feed, that hopefully would give the grass a boost in advance of the televised FA Cup 5th round tie against Manchester United.
We left the pitch alone for the rest of the week, but the forecasted rain didn't come and, by the Monday, there was clearly some blackening of the leaf, caused by the iron content in the feed.
We watered the pitch during the next week, but kept all the machinery, and ourselves, off it until Friday 19th. The pitch had now not been cut for two weeks but, given the cold temperatures and no games, it hadn't needed it. Now we gave it a single cylinder cut lengthways to start putting the bands in (for presentation). The iron damage had, by and large, disappeared and now, with the regular watering, the fertiliser and iron were starting to green the plant up again.
On the Saturday, we gave it another light cut/roll with the rotary mowers. The pitch colour was improving by the day.
On the Sunday, we cut it both ways with the G860s. It was starting to look half decent again and we came in early on Monday 22nd to get another cut in with the G860s in both directions. As soon as the mowing was finished, we set out the strings and marked the pitch; I used our 'One-shot' paint for a really sharp 'ready for TV' line. We re-measured the centre circle, Ds and spots as the old faint lines had certainly started creeping.
One thing that I'd forgotten, at this level, was the amount of people who are around on a televised match day - all of whom appear to be given a special task to stop, or get in the way of the groundstaff at every opportunity.
The pitch continued its green-up through the day and, come kick off, looked pretty good. It played well and was widely commented on, with the likes of Hoddle, Owen, Merson et al waxing lyrical about the perfect playing conditions. It made us smile when the Daily Mail column, What's hot, what's not, published later on that week summed it up perfectly. We were deemed not hot, "presenting a bowling green surface, instead of the expected bobbly mud bath - United passed the Shrewsbury team to death, winning comfortably with three goals". So that was the cup run over, good pitch press coverage and plenty of extra, much needed funds into the club coffers.
There was still plenty of work for the team to do in the run up to the season's end. However, their form, apart from this last cup match, had been on the up and we repaired the pitch on the Wednesday and ran the Honda rotaries over it to pick up any debris, in readiness for another few days of rest before Rochdale arrived the following Tuesday evening. The home team won 2-0 and the season's nail biting worries over relegation appeared to be flitting away.
We were now into March and thinking that the warmer weather was just around the corner, (at the same time last year, we were enjoying temperatures in the twenties). However, there was still no sign of any grass growth and the soil temperatures were hovering around 2-3OC. We repaired the pitch on the Wednesday and then aerated it on the Thursday, before using the Honda mowers behind the tractor to pick up debris that collected and fell off the back roller of the Wiedenmann.
On Monday 7th March, the team trained on the pitch up until lunchtime and then we did a few repairs, before putting out the string lines and mowing across with the Dennis cylinders.
We mowed the pitch long ways on the 8th, overmarked and set the irrigation cycle at intervals to keep the pitch topped up with water. The team continued their good form and beat Coventry 2-1 in another rescheduled match.
On the Wednesday, it poured down; we measured 22mm of rain during the morning, which put paid to any work and we left that for the Thursday to resume. We cut the pitch once both ways on Thursday and Friday, leaving the marking out until the Saturday morning. The team gained another valuable point against Scunthorpe and the pitch played as expected.
On Monday 14th March, the pitch was divoted and repaired. On the Tuesday, we rolled the pitch with the cylinder mowers and then fed it with 225kg of slow release Lebanon 12:6:24 and 160kg of our Premier range 3:3:12. We watered in the fertiliser after application as high pressure had moved into the UK and the week was panning out to be more settled, although temperatures didn't improve much - still no sign of any new grass seed, one month after seeding.
On Wednesday, we prepared the pitch for the Armed Forces annual final, this year between the Navy and the Army. The match ball was delivered via helicopter, landing on the centre circle, before the match kicked off.
We repaired the pitch afterwards and watered again on Thursday and Friday.
On Tuesday 22nd, we aerated the pitch again, getting the tines down nine inches. We picked up debris with the rotary mowers on the Wednesday and then got the pitch presentation back in place on the Thursday and Friday morning, before a mark out ready for the Good Friday game against Port Vale at 3.00pm. The team gained another point and extended their unbeaten run to nine games.
Storm Katie arrived the following Monday, wreaking yet more havoc and bringing the inevitable rainfall. We left the pitch until the Tuesday to finish any repairs and put the Honda rotaries over it. On the Wednesday, we aerated the pitch in the morning, again getting as deep as we could with the 19mm tines, and then sprayed the pitch with 50kg soluble fertiliser 12:0:39 Sol Control, 10 litres of SeaAction Seaweed and 10 litres of Bullet chelated iron in the afternoon.
Friday 1st April was no joke as more rain descended and continued through into Saturday morning, not relenting until an hour and a half before kick-off. The visitors were the League's in-form side, Wigan Athletic, and they comfortably saw our lads off, ending Shrewsbury's unbeaten run with an emphatic 5-1 drubbing.
The pitch was starting, albeit slowly, to grow again; when we mowed, we would take approximately a box of grass off between us. The roots were definitely starting to push south as well and there was a significant difference (reduction) in the resulting damage from play.
We took some soil profiles out and you could see lots of new white roots appearing in the profile and this was a more encouraging sign of recovery than the minimal growth on top. The root mass was still averaging between 50mm and 75mm of depth.
The poa in the pitch was still pretty dormant and, now that the rye grass was standing up, the pitch looked like it had had a stampede across it due to the differing grass heights. Short of cutting the pitch much lower until the poa started to pick up, we would have to live with the pockmarked effect.
I received a letter from the STRI saying that we'd been nominated in the top three pitches for League One. A visit from Stephen Baker was pencilled in for the 12th.
Monday 4th, we did a light walk over and repaired some scars, before hoovering up debris with the Hondas. We then fertilised with 160kg of Maxwell Premier 12:0:6; the start of our spring/summer nutritional regime.
On Tuesday, we topped up the penalty and centre spots, before irrigating the pitch in readiness for that evening's Shropshire Cup Final, played out to a nominal number of supporters as Shrewsbury beat local rivals Telford.
On the Wednesday morning, we did a few repairs, brushed the pitch and then aerated at full depth, before hoovering off the debris with the rotary mowers. We left the pitch alone on Thursday and waited for the squad to complete their morning session whilst we reduced our height of cut to 24mm on the G860s before mowing on the Friday.
We cut the pitch again on the Monday, reducing the height of cut to 23mm. On the 12th, we cut the pitch first thing, and then got the goals out for the squad to have a training session. In the afternoon, Stephen came to judge the pitch. He twice asked me what name the nomination should be in, which I thought was quite bizarre. I said it would be great if the company was used, since it was a contract but, if not, my name would be fine.
We cut the pitch on the Wednesday, the team trained again on the Thursday and Friday mornings, we carried out repairs and mowing on both afternoons. On Friday afternoon, the Chairman came out and shook my hand, saying "congratulations, you've won the divisional Groundsman of the Year Award". It was a moment to savour and Richard and I stopped for a few minutes to enjoy the moment.
What happened subsequently regarding this award, I'll write about elsewhere as it's not for this article.
We mowed the pitch on the Saturday morning and then marked out before watering. The team gained another precious point against Bradford.
After the game, we brushed the pitch to clean out the sward a little and remove debris. Now it was mostly just poa being kicked out by the players.
On Monday 18th, we mowed the pitch prior to the players training and, afterwards, applied 160kg of 12:0:6 Maxwell Premier fertiliser and watered it in.
We double cut the pitch Tuesday and then over marked and watered ready for Sheffield United that evening.
The next morning, we walked the pitch, but there was barely a mark and we topped up the spots and irrigated ready for the U18s Cup Final; Shrewsbury's youth taking on Luton Town that evening.
We aerated the pitch on the Thursday, after a brief walk over to repair scars. On the Friday, we mowed the pitch with the rotary mowers in the afternoon, after the squad's morning session on the pitch.
The team again trained on the pitch Monday morning, the battle to stay out of the relegation spots was paramount and anything to help the manager, Micky Mellon, and the lads was top of our agenda. Unfortunately, they played and lost away at Walsall the next evening.
We gave the pitch a cut on Thursday 28th and again after training on Friday. On the Saturday morning, we mowed, marked out and irrigated before the team lost 3-4 to Peterborough in the afternoon. Things were certainly getting very tight at the bottom of League One.
We were into May and finally the weather started to improve, with daytime temperatures into the mid-teens, although we were still getting some night frosts. Spring had arrived two months after it had last year! Suddenly, we were cutting off seven or eight boxes of grass instead of the mandatory one that had been the story for the whole of April. Even the seed that we'd put down in February started to emerge with a vengeance, better late than never, I suppose - with just one away league game to go!
We were now cutting the pitch every day and it was extremely tempting to cut it shorter, but we kept it at 23mm because we didn't want to get blamed by the manager for changing anything.
The team trained on the pitch three times that week before going to Swindon for their final match. We also had Shropshire FA games in the evenings.
Fortunately, the results for the teams below Shrewsbury had gone our way the week before and the team knew they were safe for another season in this league. We now had another two weeks of local League Cup Finals, Football in the Community, Shropshire Schools and corporate matches to contend with. We averaged two games a day during those three weeks, so we cut the pitch every morning and marked out anything that was required. All these games are part and parcel of the fabric of a football club at this level. What we did do, once the 1st team had finished, was reduce the height of cut to 18mm over a few days and the pitch looked like a Wilton carpet.
We knew spring was late coming because we didn't see any proliferation of poa seed heads until 4th May.
So that was that, our first full season in charge of the Greenhous Meadow surface, originally constructed with Loksand, by Kestrel. The pitch had its issues, which were overcome by analysing the profile and understanding what the plant and rootzone required.
Regular aeration kept the surface free draining, despite the wettest winter on record, and a balanced programme of nutrition maintained the health and vigour of the grass. The work that was undertaken was suitable for this pitch, being sand based and may well need to be increased or decreased on other soil types.
Up to the end of the season, the pitch entertained forty-four matches, twenty-two training sessions and two helicopter landings. After the final league game, there were a further twenty-six games on the surface.
When all the nutrition applied over the season was added up, it was interesting to see that nitrogen input for this type of construction was quite a bit lower than I thought it would be.
Sand constructions tend to hold phosphate well, and most of the year we applied very little to the ground. We did apply high amounts of potassium but, since it's pretty mobile in the soil, this wasn't surprising. The level of sulphur may be regarded as quite high, but a necessary requirement again.
The micronutrients were kept ticking over and reasonable amounts of calcium and magnesium applied as well.
The costs outlined in the summary are based on an ex-works full retail price. Clearly, anyone looking for a full nutritional programme for the season would be able to negotiate a much better rate. Having said that, and to put this in to perspective, the cost is probably a League One first team player's wages for a month.
Our total grass area is just short of 10,000m2 (1 Ha), so a more standard grass area around 8,000m2 would also decrease the overall nutrition cost.
These costs include all pesticides (herbicides/fungicides), biostimulants, grass seed and Biomass Sugar as well. The costs do not include application time, fine if done in-house, but further cost to be included if contracted out.
I struggle to understand why some groundsmen are still not getting the support from their chairmen when the maintenance cost is such a small fraction of the overall budget of a stadium.
Our final cut was prior to renovation, which took place on the 19th May, eight days earlier than last season. The initial fertility and high iron issues have largely been resolved and we feel that the soil food web has greatly improved. The other main issue was to eradicate the infestation of poa that was allowed to establish last summer, due to the slow establishment of the rye grasses.
So, this year's renovations included a double spike with the Wiedenmann, linear aeration with an Earthquake, a fraize mow to remove the poa and disc seeding the pitch three ways with 440kg of MM60. We also applied the slow release organic and inorganic fertilisers as well as a pre-seed feed.
Not turning the profile over means that we have less air space to establish the new grass root systems in, so aeration will be the order of the day going forward. I write this article on the last day of May. The new seed is coming through nicely now, but the more important point is the regeneration of all the rye grass that was left in the pitch after the fraize mow. We already have a very good head of grass there and we hope to build on that for the oncoming season.
I'm hopeful that, with some nice weather this summer, we can get the pitch to perform even better than last season and, of course, we hope that the team will too.