The indoor 3G sports pitch at St. George's Park has maintained its prestigious FIFA 2-Star status for another 12 months, thanks to the dedication of Head Groundsman, Alan Ferguson and his grounds team, with the help of maintenance experts Technical Surfaces.
The pitch, installed in 2012 and named after former England manager Sir Alf Ramsey, is one of two artificial surfaces in the National Football Centre complex and is used primarily to host various coaching and FA UEFA Pro Licence courses.
It is maintained regularly by a team of grounds staff led by Alan, who is naturally thrilled to see his surface endorsed yet again by football's world governing body:
"To have the pitch pass its re test was vital for the Park, as it is a unique selling point for the commercial team in attracting top-level clients to the Park from all round the world.
It is also the best endorsement we can get to tell us the maintenance programme in place is delivering. There can be no doubt the monthly testing and observations carried out by Nick McLaren [Research Engineer, Technical Surfaces / Loughborough University] have been invaluable in helping us to maintain and understand our pitch, keeping it to such a high standard since the pitch opened."
Alan knows well the essentials involved in maintaining artificial pitches, and liaises regularly with Technical Surfaces to ensure that his facilities receive the correct maintenance routines all year round.
Technical Surfaces is currently part-way through a collaborative study with Loughborough University to investigate the cumulative effects and benefits of maintenance on artificial pitches, for which Alan has granted them unique access to the pitches at St. George's Park.
Monthly tests to monitor hardness, ball roll and 'free' pile height (i.e. the amount of fibre that sits free above the rubber infill), as well as a quarterly analysis of traction and ball rebound, allow Technical Surfaces to observe and record the impact of usage and maintenance on the pitch.
Regular monitoring is also of benefit to Alan and his team, as the results help them to focus their maintenance practices according to the amount and type of use the pitch receives.
For instance, ahead of the recent FIFA testing, Technical Surfaces noted during a routine assessment that the rubber infill levels were low in high-use areas of the pitch, particularly around the centre circle and in the penalty areas.
If left unresolved, a low infill can negatively impact on the quality of play on the surface, and can also cause increased wear and deterioration of the artificial carpet.
Crucially, low infill levels can also affect the very criteria that a FIFA Recommended pitch must adhere to in order to pass the rigorous testing procedure.
Technical Surfaces liaised with Alan to help remedy the effects that a pitch low on infill can experience: while the grounds team modified the frequency and direction of their weekly drag brushing / matting, thereby helping to lift the flattened carpet pile, Technical Surfaces completed a specialist deep-cleaning Revite® of the pitch to decompact the surface, redistributing the rubber infill and removing contaminants whilst lifting the pile.
This process not only improves both the performance and appearance of the surface but also helps to extend its life.
This was then followed by a rubber top-up to bring the levels in line with the carpet specification and ensure that the pitch was in optimum condition ahead of the recent FIFA testing.
Technical Surfaces further advised Alan that the usage of the pitch be considered a key factor in terms of its maintenance requirements. In its role as a training facility, the indoor pitch receives around 30 hours of use per week, by approximately 25 players.
Furt hermore, this activity is typically concentrated to approximately one half of the pitch, which naturally increases the wear in these areas.
Technical Surfaces, employing the Equivalent Usage formula as outlined in the Framework Contract for the provision of Artificial Grass Pitches for the RFU, FA and Football Foundation, calculated that every hour the pitch is used in this way equates to 2.5 playing hours.
This is particularly significant given that accepted industry practice is to recommend 1 hour of maintenance for every 'playing hour' that the pitch is in use (the 10:1 ratio).
So, rather than requiring 3 maintenance hours for the 30 hours that the pitch is used, there is actually a need to complete 7.5 maintenance hours each week to reflect the 75 'playing hours' taking place on the surface.
Equipped with this valuable information, Alan and his team, along with Technical Surfaces, looked to implement the most suitable maintenance programme. A few options presented themselves - they could a) maintain the whole pitch at this increased rate, b) rotate the usage of the pitch, or c) maintain certain areas of the pitch according to their increased rate of wear.
With some areas of the pitch used relatively infrequently (and therefore showing no signs of degradation), the grounds team selected the most efficient, practical and economical option - to concentrate additional time on maintaining the acknowledged 'high use' areas, whilst encouraging players and coaches to rotate use whenever possible, to allow a more even wear rate across the surface.
The FIFA 2 Star accreditation is awarded to the indoor 3G pitch at St. George's Park until June 2014, at which time the surface will again be re-tested in accordance with FIFA's exacting standards.
By continuing to maintain the surface to the highest standard, and liaising with Technical Surfaces along the way, Alan Ferguson and his grounds team can rest assured that the reputation of the Sir Alf Ramsey Pitch will remain as prestigious as that of the manager for whom it was named.