0 Stoke City FC - May the fourth be with you

Stoke City Football Club Grounds Manager, Andy Jackson, explains how they have opted to extend the luxury of Grassmaster to yet another of its training pitches.

The hybrid turf used in the Bet365 stadium has become a standard-bearer that represents the forward-thinking arm of pitch management. From Wembley and Madrid's Bernabeu, all the way to iconic Lambeau Field and South Africa's Newlands, some of the world's premier stadia have invested in kitting out their primary surfaces with the pricey addition.

There are four widely adopted variants of hybrid turf sold under various brands, but the most successful, distributed by Desso as 'Grassmaster', is an example of one of the oldest types.

The others include the previous system used at Stoke, known as 'Fibreturf' or 'Fibresand', where polymer fibres are mixed with sand and organic matter in a manner that allows enough aeration for natural turf to grow through the gaps which remain.

Another is much like Fibreturf, but the sand is added to the fibres after their installation in a similar manner to traditional artificial turf. Again, enough space remains for the natural grass to grow through the gaps, but a difference here is that the grass seed is sewn after the mats are installed.

And finally, the most recent development in the technology is the inclusion of a softening element infill, performing a similar job to the controversial rubber crumb used in 3G artificial surfaces. These can include rubber, but have been replaced with other materials such as cork.

When producing 'Grassmaster', Desso injects its artificial fibres into a pre-existing mat of natural soil every 2x2cm, which sits 20cm below the surface and protrudes 2cm above. It also funnels sand to the base of these. A pitch of regular size will be covered in around 20,000,000 fibres.

Grass seeds are then sown, and the roots grow beneath the roots of the fibres. The natural grass clings to the artificial and grows around them, like a vine on a gardener's bamboo shoot.

What it offers is a softer feel than a traditional artificial surface, as well as lower incidence of injuries related to burns and impact, whilst maintaining the longevity for which 3G artificial is prized.

It also allows for enhanced drainage, because the incisions made by the artificial turf are deep enough to allow the moisture to seep directly to the drainage systems below. The sand injected earlier also provides increased porosity.

For stadia that double up as concert venues and exhibition centres, this means matting can be lain over the turf without causing significant damage to the surface. Stoke last did so a couple of years ago, when Rod Stewart was in town, although this took place on the previous Fibresand pitch.

However, the new surface is a high-maintenance commitment. At Stoke, for example, the pitch is thoroughly cleaned after every use which, during the season, means daily.

This current update is being undertaken by the same construction company which helped with their previous pitch improvement projects, J. Mallinson. It will be first team warm-up area, so the players can prepare on the same surface on which they play and train.

For the spraying of the first team's surfaces, the club hires P2 Services, which is a weed control company local to the club, based in nearby Stone.

And, for consultancy over issues related to the pitch, they use PSD (Professional Sportsturf Design NW), who take soil samples on the club's behalf, partly because the water profile is very high in a famously clay-based area susceptible to flooding.

A portion of the training ground, around a third, lies on a flood plain. In August 2015, the entrance area beyond the car park was submerged. At that point, there was little that could be done in terms of salvage or repair, other than waiting for the excess to drain. The high-quality drainage beneath these grounds did help to optimise recovery time, however.

The feeling at Stoke is that the players can become disgruntled if the surface they train on is dissimilar to the one they play on, and that switching to a harder or more worn surface presents an immediate injury risk. The team decided it would be viable then to convert two pitches at the club's training facility to Grassmaster.

Perhaps this is cost-effective though, given that even a mid-term injury to a key player for a Premier League football team can itself cost vast sums. That is before mentioning how state-of-the-art some of the other features of the training facility here are.

One of these features is the sprinkler system which is operated from a computer in the shed of Grounds Manager Andy Jackson, 38. The on-screen map of some 300 sprinklers plus connections, which can all be isolated and timed from this desktop, might confuse a London cabbie. The grounds team can even remotely access this system via a mobile app from anywhere in the world.

Andy and his team are quite lucky to work at two sites so physically close - the dedicated training facility in question, at Clayton Wood within Trent Vale, is just a two-mile drive from the club's stadium.

The 'bet365 stadium' itself is no stranger to development and, in August 2017, long-held talks over filling in the gap between two stands finally came to fruition. The project total is around £7.5 million, and provides an additional circa 1800 seats taking the overall capacity to over 30,000.

This willingness to invest on the club's part has been evident in multiple ways in recent years, including its uptake of the up-market hybrid turf system. Andy tells us that, in the years he has been involved with the club, staffing in the turfcare department has tripled.

Of course, this is understandable when dealing with over ten hectares. When Andy showed the site on Google Earth to demonstrate its layout, it became apparent that the training site is comparable in size to the entire village of Trent Vale from which it spans. This includes their recent acquisition of an extra pitch-sized field at the southern end of the facility, directly alongside the A500 bypass road.

Andy recounts: "It was just last year (2016), the complete reconstruction of the surface in the stadium. It's the first time since 1997, and it happened whilst we converted two and a half pitches at the training ground to the same specification, with full undersoil heating and irrigation systems."

"It was at that time that we built extra facilities for the groundstaff as well, and brought in extra equipment. This was because we realised we needed enough equipment to match the increasing levels of staffing. This meant over £6 million was spent on just the grounds side last year. And this year, of course, the club's spending that sort of money on the stadium. All that means the stadium and the pitches over the two years are having their first major uplift since they were built in 1997."

"They wouldn't want me to disclose the actual limit of my figures, because that's confidential, but I can say that the overall grounds budget I'm responsible for has multiplied by five in the past five years. They're really giving their attention there."

He also holds up the grounds team at Arsenal, since the early 2000's, as a gold standard for how to perform in the job, and implies that his club has had no qualms with providing the funding behind his attempts to emulate their successes.

Increasing ticket sales are almost invariably down to improved league position and brand awareness. And, when asked whether the continually improving pitch quality could have influenced the players' ability to solidify their position as a mid-table side in recent years, Andy seems to have little doubt.

After all, just as he argues no footballing grounds team in recent times deserves emulation more than those at Arsenal, surely no league performance deserves praise more than the Gunners shortly after the turn of the millennium.

He replies: "I think, Arsenal as a benchmark, has been the case since the mid-90s, so well before The Invincibles really. I think that's the case for most people who do what I do.

"I can't speak for everyone, but if I looked at their pitch even fifteen years ago, maybe twenty years ago, I'd still say: 'That's where we need to be'."

"The industry has become closer. It's so close now, and there are so many good pitches. The state they're in now isn't quite as far ahead as it was."

Andy has been maintaining the club's grounds for twenty-two years. Leading up to this, he undertook secondary school work experience at The Victoria Ground, Stoke City's previous stadium of 119 years. So far, the bet365 is exactly a century shy of that record. He then took part in the YTS for two years, studying for the NVQ Sports Turf Management, Levels 1, 2 and 3.

In 1995, he was taken on full-time by Stoke, moving to the new stadium two years into his tenure. It then took just six years for him to receive his promotion to Head Groundsman in 2003 which, after another six years, led to a further climb to Grounds Manager of both sites in 2009.

He clarifies the club's staffing improvement in that time: "We've gone from four groundsmen then, eight or nine years ago, to a strong group of twelve. And we plan to take on more this year as well, through apprenticeships. That's just getting finalised now."

"Initially, that was instigated by the club's Premier League promotion. But it was also to do with us acquiring the facility we're sat at now. When we got here, we inherited a facility that was unusable for much of the year, especially in the winter."

"In winter, the academy players and youth players just wouldn't be able to train. But now we've got a surface that's fully useable 365 days a year, always on high-quality sports turf."

Andy stresses what he believes is the importance of 'moving with the times', and repeats how quickly the technology in the industry is advancing, and that there is an inherent expectation to study and utilise it.

The club is moving quickly towards commanding a completely chemical-free grounds maintenance regime. It has applied fungicide just once in twenty-two months, where it would once have done so half a dozen times per year.

The staff feel that the ground is more forgiving if good soil biology is maintained. As Andy says: "I feel that healthier soil results in healthier plants. You look at other countries in Europe like Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, and they're already there. We don't want to be caught out when it's suddenly expected of us, having to say, 'Oh no. What do we do?' We want to be ready."

At the Training Ground

Meanwhile, the club is also focusing on a new target of taking aerial photographs of its facilities at least once-monthly. The theory behind this is sound: when assessing a specific area of the turf that seems to have an issue e.g. it is worn, it is difficult for the brain to accurately carry that image across as the groundsman walks to another area, so any comparison becomes inaccurate too.

Andy ascribes some of their success with keeping up-to-date with technology to their supply partnership with Campey Turfcare. Campey provided Stoke City with its suite of Air2G2 American-made injection aeration machines, its Toro ProCores, and its Redexim Charterhouse Verti-Drains.

They also have suites of New Holland tractors, six Dennis Premiers, six Dennis G860s, twelve rotary mowers, two Toro ride-on mowers for the academy pitches supplied by Cheshire Turf Machinery, Blec Disc Seeder and Dimple Seeder, plus a variety of equipment from SISIS for maintaining artificial surfaces.

He says the time at which these bits of kit are used is key to their success and, that when they punch a hole in the ground, their only goal is to keep that hole there for as long as possible. This is because avoiding compaction is top priority. In top-flight football, players' propensity to injury is above average, so the staff's primary concern is to avoid the turf becoming firm.

The secondary concern sometimes takes precedence however, which is the long-term benefit to the soil health. This requires a different approach to just avoiding compaction, but the staff apply the same mindset here as with everything else: that the industry is a reactive one, and these decisions should be made more from current circumstance than a set plan.

Grass is cut across the entire site to a uniform 25mm for most of the year, but the stadium pitch and first team training pitch are taken down to 23mm in time for the beginning of the season.

They use a mixture of granular and liquid feeding, and undertake nematode control by focusing, again, on good soil biology. Andy phrased it: "I always liken it to the politics inside a prison. So, if you've got a place that's a little too full of bad people (nematodes), the answer is usually to put more good people, or guards (beneficial life) in to counteract that."

Training Ground complete

As the Premier League draws to the conclusion of its current £5.14 billion (£5,136,000,000) television rights deal with Sky Sports, the clubs eagerly await the outrageousness of its successor. As much of this money comes from the League's beauty and image, one would be forgiven for thinking that presentation standard would be top of Andy's priorities.

However, he tells us: "That's a tough topic really, but I don't think it is. First and foremost, it's the playability of the pitch, if you ask me."

"Has the surface compacted? Is the grass short, long, too short, too long? Is it wet? Is it dry? And then, if you can get those characteristics to where the players want them, the presentation takes care of itself."

"Of course, it's important that the pitch is presented in the way that's expected, because the Premier League is a world brand. But, the day-to-day reality is that we're here to produce the pitches for the players."

This, as ever, led to the issue of whether the staff are valued as they should be, and whether there's a difference in the way grounds teams are perceived across sports.

Andy told us: "I think the word is really getting out there now, even in football. I think the world speaks about the pitch now especially as the commentators do."

"I think the days are gone when a groundsman was just a flat cap with his marking machine or his mower."

And, when exploring a facility like Stoke City's for a day, it becomes obvious Andy is rather understating just how far those flat caps have come.

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