0 The City of Coventry Stadium ready for Olympics football tournament

Coventry Dennis1The Ricoh Arena in Coventry, apart from being being the home of Coventry City FC, has steadily built a reputation as a purpose-built conference and events centre, a key point in the Midlands for music promoters.

This summer, the City of Coventry Stadium - as the venue will be known during the Olympic Games - will host twelve matches in eight days during London 2012 - and only a few weeks after a Coldplay concert covers the pitch!

Pitchcare talks to Grounds Manager, John Ledwidge, about the challenges of preparing a pitch which will be judged by millions across the globe

As we approach the end of the football season, in addition to planning their renovation programme in readiness for the next campaign, most groundsmen will be thinking about their summer holidays.

But not Ricoh Arena Grounds Manager, John Ledwidge, who is concentrating on preparing for the busiest time of his career.

The fruits of the labours of John and his groundstaff will be beamed across the world when the pitch at the Ricoh Arena - or the City of Coventry Stadium as it will be known during the Olympic Games - stages twelve men's and women's football matches in nine days, starting on July 25.

However, before taking part in the world's greatest sporting event, there is the small matter of protecting the surface when one of the world's biggest bands - Coldplay - kick off their UK summer stadium tour at the Ricoh Arena on the 29th May.

Instead of feeling daunted by the task ahead, John is relishing the challenge.

Ricoh2"When I came back here just before my twenty-fourth birthday, if you had told me that, at twenty-six, I would be in charge of organising a pitch for an Olympic Games, together with a concert, planning for Coventry City's season at the training ground and the usual day-to-day duties, I would have been saying 'what have I taken on?', but I am loving every minute of it," John said.

"I am working my socks off to make sure the pitch is as good as it possibly can be - we always adopt a 'can-do' attitude here."

"I am one hundred percent sure that we have all the plans in place, and the grounds team will have the right focus to make certain we succeed in providing a pitch which will be in its best possible condition for the Olympics. There's no doubt in my mind that we will make it a success."

JohnLedwidge"When I was told about the concert, I initially thought 'challenge' and re-strategised everything."

"It is all quite exciting having such big acts here, you go to countless meetings and realise everything that is involved in making it happen. The fact that groundsmen now have that level of involvement in these planning meetings is only right, because it has a direct impact on our jobs and I have found that absolutely fascinating."

"When I think of all the meetings and planning involved here in Coventry, the amount that must have taken place in London doesn't bear thinking about."

"The saving grace is that the tournament is in the middle of the summer so, hopefully, the grass will be nice and healthy and everything goes according to plan - and that the grass heals well for the start of the new season. It will be a long summer, but it will be worth every second of it."

John is a big believer in preparation, and he has a detailed whiteboard in his office highlighting all the games taking place at the venue, along with the shift patterns as he and his core team prepare to work 200 hours within two weeks to make sure there isn't a blade of grass out of place.
Coventry Dennis3
"As soon as the Olympic Games were confirmed, we started putting together lists of additional materials and staff that we would need," he said.

"Then it was very much at the planning stage with lots of ideas and suggestions knocking around and, with it being the Olympics, it generated a lot of calls from reps knocking on our door saying we can sell you this and we can sell you that."

"When you look at it, although there is a big number of games, the planning of what we will be putting on the pitch is pretty much the same for what we would be doing normally at this stage of the year."

"There are a few areas where we have had to increase the number of materials because of the time frame, which is the major difference, but there's nothing that is astoundingly different."

"We have now had to factor in a concert, after that was announced in November, and that has changed all my plans."

"So, we're going to do all the stripping beforehand, but are not going to seed with a conventional rye grass to start off with - we're going to use smooth stalk Meadow Grass seed (thermal blue) from Everris, who are a massive sponsor of ours."

"The stage build for Coldplay will start on 21st May but, before that, we will cover the whole pitch with protective covers, because all sorts of litter falls through the Terraplast during the show, and we need to keep the pitch clean."

"As the pitch will be seeded, we're going to put on some Tildenet covers, and then put the Terraplast on top to protect the surface - even though there is no grass there - and then, when it comes up, it stops all the debris falling down."

Coventry Dennis2"Once the covers are removed, the rye grass will then go in two days later. I anticipate I will be seeding the whole pitch on 1st June."

"We will need to irrigate heavily on a daily basis until the seed germinates - the quickest we have ever had germination out there is five days and the longest is eleven days, so we hope to be cutting after fourteen days."

"We have been sent a plan for the pitch by the Olympics, which will be on view at the Men's Olympic Football qualifier on 23rd April, after the Doncaster home game, so it is good practice for us to know how to do it."

"Everything will be measured out to the letter, because we have to measure it specifically to the plan which has been stipulated by the London Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG)."

"All the pitches have to be the same size. Our pitch is currently 100m x 68m and, for the Olympics, it has to be 105m x 68m, which isn't a problem because the stadium is geared up for international use and we have the sockets already in place for the goal posts."

"At each end there is an additional two-and-a-half metres and another set of sockets behind the existing nets, so it will just be a case of digging out the original sockets and turfing over them."

"It is beneficial to us really, because any wear and tear in the goalmouths will be further back so, when we start the 2012/13 season, we can push the goals forward for our normal campaign which will avoid playing in that area. It is likely to have been demolished by having had so many games in a short time span."

"My standards are pretty high, so whether it is a Coventry City game or an international game, the condition and length of the pitch will be the same."

Ricoh Arena"We have fifty-seven days between the concert and the first game in the Olympics, which is a pretty quick turnaround."

"The idea behind putting the thermal blue meadow grass down is that, whilst the concert is on and the pitch is under cover, the roots will start to develop under the surface so that, although the grass doesn't show immediately, it is actually starting to develop."

"If we put rye grass down, and the pitch is covered for the concert for the best part of two weeks, it will germinate under the covers so that, when you pull the covers up, you will pull half the grass away with it."

"The idea of doing it this way is to give us some stability to cope with twelve games across nine days, and we are aiming for a fantastically strong pitch."

"We have a gap in games of six days before the bronze play-off, so we will throw another feed on just to see us through to the end of the tournament."

John is keen for the day of the first Olympic match, which kicks off at 5.00pm on Wednesday, 25th July, to be just like preparing for any other match.

"We will start at 7.30am just to make sure everything goes to plan and, because it is the first one, we will probably triple cut it."

"On a standard Coventry City match we will double-cut but, because we have another two hours, I reckon we will nip another cheeky cut in."

"The biggest problem we face is between games, because we begin with a double-header, at 5.00pm and 7.45pm, and we will have only ten minutes to turn the pitch around."

"It is literally physically impossible for me to touch the pitch with a machine because we just don't have time or man power."

"We have put a plan together to bring more staff in for match days. On a normal match day we have a minimum of six and a maximum of ten, but at the Olympics we will have around twenty."

"We have launched a scheme with Foxford School in Coventry to bring on six volunteers to be trained by us in the build-up to the event and, on match days, will be divoting at half-time and after the game."

"The theory is, if we can throw as many hands at it as possible, that's going to make it a lot better for us. Between now and the Olympics they will have been properly trained, and are coming along to Coventry City matches to get used to what is required with the routine, as well as carrying out their work in front of thousands and thousands of people within the stadium."

"We will have a core team of four - myself, my apprentice, Luke Bowden who has been with us a year now; Dale Gregory, who usually works at Windmill Golf Course but comes along on a match day; and Connor Brady, who has been volunteering with us for the last four months, who has given up his time to be trained, so we will all be ready and raring to go."

"My deputy, Julien Morris, and the rest of the guys will come along after completing their work at Coventry City's training ground and the academy - the club comes back for pre-season training before the Olympics start! They will be doing overtime as well because they will be a massive part of my skilled staff on match day, whether it is at weekends or evenings."

"It will be pedal to the metal for the whole two weeks with a lot of late nights - I think I will invest in a sofa bed for my office!"

John has no regrets about joining the industry, and he has already accumulated a great deal of experience, having started as a volunteer at the age of thirteen at the Sky Blues' old ground at Highfield Road.

"I was brought up in a house at the back of the old West Terrace at the old ground in Catherine Street, and now I own a flat on the old football ground. I am a massive, massive Coventry City fan."

"I wanted to be a footballer, but I didn't have the physique at the time, so then I explored other avenues because, like every other young lad, I wanted to get on the pitch."

"I asked my dad how I would do that, and he said 'why don't you write to the groundsman', and I came up and got the bug for it. As soon as I had finished my first day, I couldn't wait to come back."

"Then, I spent most of my spare time in my holidays and at the weekends at the ground and, on Fridays after school, I would run from the bus to find the groundsman, Joe Forester, to see what he had been doing."

"He was great with me and, even though I was doing the most mundane jobs, like emptying grass boxes and picking weeds, I was invited to help on match days when I was just fourteen, which was massive to me."

"From that, I got a placement on work experience at the training ground and was then offered a job as soon as I left school. I did the first year of my apprenticeship in record time (in eight months), and won student of the year at Warwickshire College."

"I did my advanced apprenticeship by the time I was nineteen, and was then promoted to deputy head groundsman and, after three years, I went to Aston Villa under Jonathan Calderwood in the same position."

"I thought I knew what standards were, but he took it to a whole new level. A lot of what I do now I have Jonathan to thank for, because he improved me - he typifies a good manager because he is fantastic with people and fantastic at his job."

"The position became vacant here, so I applied, because this job was the whole reason why I started doing what I did."

"I am really ambitious and want to push myself to the limits, and this was an opportunity for me to come and make a difference and to be responsible for every decision I made."

And all that is set to be tested to the full this summer for one of the youngest grounds managers in the country ,when Coventry takes its place in Olympics history.

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