"Having to 'make do' with older equipment and limited resources, and often working on old and tired pitches, this position has been a real eye opener in terms of the finance available and the support I am given"
It has taken a number of years to come to fruition, but Salford now has its new stadium - the City of Salford Stadium. Completed at the end of 2011, it is home to both Salford City Reds, the Stobart Super League rugby league club, and the Sale Sharks Premier League rugby union side, both of whom have long term agreements with the stadium's owners.
According to the blurb, "the stadium is an inspirational new landmark for Salford and is set to become the go-to destination for high quality and excellent value events, with state-of-the-art facilities and unrivalled service, whether for a wedding with a difference, or as a unique conference or business venue". Phew!
The stadium complex is a joint partnership between Salford City Council and Peel Holdings who are keen to create a sporting legacy for the local community by offering a range of professional standard sports pitches and facilities.
The new stadium complex provides parking for 600 cars, with the current capacity of the stadium set at 12,000. However, options are in place to increase that to a c20,000 seated stadium.
As well as the main stadium pitch, the site also offers a full-size floodlit 3G artificial pitch for training, along with a full size natural grass rugby pitch for both codes of the game.
Like most new stadium sites, the City of Salford Stadium offers corporate hospitality suites and function rooms. There are also community liaison offices for staff promoting both codes of rugby, plus an outlet selling Reds and Sharks merchandise.
Dan Huffman is the Head Groundsman charged with looking after all the sports surfaces. "After spending many years in jobs having to 'make do' with older equipment and limited resources, and often working on old and tired pitches, this position has been a real eye opener in terms of the finance available and the support I am given," says Dan enthusiastically.
He was given a budget to purchase a fleet of brand new equipment. "So far, I have bought two Dennis G860 cassette mowers, a Toro Procore 648, a couple of John Deere pedestrian rotaries, a New Holland TC27D tractor, a Trimax Procut 210 finishing rotary mower, a 6 metre boom sprayer, a Campey Aera Seeder and a Verti-Drain 7316. I've also purchased dragbrushes, linemarking equipment and agronomy tools. I've been a bit like a kid in a sweet shop, but I have made a point of buying what I consider to be the best models for the job in hand."
Dan has worked in the industry for twenty-five years, beginning his career at the old Manchester Ship Canal Company's sportsgrounds in Stretford, where he worked for three years, before having short spells at St Ambrose School and Manchester Grammar School. He was groundsman at Stockport County Football Club for nine years, before finally joining Salford Reds in 2005, tending their old Willows Ground pitch. It was the sale of the Willows that provided much of the finance for the new stadium.
Dan has two assistants, his son Connor, also a former Manchester Grammar School groundsman, and Josh Young who has recently begun an apprenticeship.
Dan took over the new pitches in November 2011, just a few weeks before the official handover from the constructors, White Horse Contractors, on December 15th - and less than three weeks before Salford Reds first friendly on January 3rd! The first televised home game, on Sky Sports, was on February 7th.
The pitch has a 100mm gravel carpet over a primary pipe drainage system, blinded by a 50mm grit layer, over which there is 125mm depth of clean sand followed by another 175mm of medium-fine sand which has locksand crimped fibres set in the top 100mm. It was overseeded with a Johnsons Premier Pitch stadium ryegrass mixture.
"I had some concerns about the amount of grass cover and root depth during hand over but, with some fine tuning and favourable timing of fixtures, was able to get through the first winter fairly unscathed," he explains. "The stadium pitch does not have any undersoil heating, so its only protection from frost is a set of Stuart Canvas frost covers. These do work very well."
"I was helped by the fact that the pitch has only been used by the Reds to date, which has allowed me the time to get to know my new surface without having excessive usage. There has only been around sixty sessions and matches in the first ten months. That will change though with the Sale Sharks playing here this winter," he says.
"This will mean that there will be little or no opportunity of undertaking any traditional end of season renovation work," he bemoans. "It will be a case of juggling the fixtures to help give me a window of opportunity to carry out some remedial work and get some overseeding done."
For the present, only Sale Sharks first team will play at the stadium, with their other teams still using their old Heywood Stadium ground.
However, Salford Reds run several teams - the 1st team, U20s and U18s use the stadium pitch for training sessions and matches, whilst the U16s, U15s and U14s use the soil based rugby pitch adjacent to the 3G surface.
"I believe that presentation is important," stresses Dan. "Many of our fixtures will be televised and so the pitch is a shop window to our industry. It is also important, for the players, that grass cover is strong. This will be my biggest challenge now that the Sharks have started their season."
"I mow the stadium pitch on a daily basis throughout the growing period, at a height of 27mm, and will often double cut, or cut one way and brush another, to help stimulate growth and keep the grass standing upright."
"I use a number of Everris granular base products, and top up with liquids feeds every four weeks. I also apply a monthly dose of Primo Maxx to help thicken the sward."
Dan is still coming to terms with having to manage back to back rugby matches of both codes. "Recently, we had the Reds playing on a Friday evening, with a 7.30pm kick off, followed by a Sale Sharks match the following day at 3.00pm. That is going to be 'the norm' when the two seasons overlap. So, as soon as the rugby league match had finished, Connor and I were out on the pitch divoting, and then using the Dennis cassette brushes to help clean up."
"The following day, we were in early to mow the pitch again. The rugby league lines had to be marked out with green paint and the rugby union lines painted in. We have three Campey transfer wheel line markers, one for applying green paint, one for red and the other set up for white paint. That saves us a lot of time, but I do feel like LS Lowry at times! We use a weak mix for obvious reasons."
Dan also has a spray jet line marker which is used mainly on the soil based rugby pitch and the 3G artificial pitch.
"The pitch is still settling down," says Dan. "In July and August, we topdressed the pitch with over 100 tonnes of sand to help restore levels. I've also been using the Procore to keep the pitch open. It is, perhaps surprisingly for a modern stadium, quite open to the elements, with fast and drying winds blowing through, so I have to keep an eye on water evaportanspiration and replace any losses using our pop up watering system."
"I've also purchased a compaction tester and a core sampler to help keep any eye on the condition of the pitch."
As the pitch is just eleven months old, disease and weeds have not yet been an issue although, in recent weeks, Dan has noticed some mottling. "On close inspection, it does not appear to be a turf disease," he believes. "It may be the first signs of a nematode problem that could have been imported with the topdressing. The pitch has been tested and I'm currently awaiting results."
"I'm pretty pleased about the amount of grass cover I have going into the winter, but know that things can change quite quickly, especially with the north-west's weather. Having back to back fixtures will be a challenge during the winter months, but I'm hopeful that, come next spring, we will find a suitable weather window to carry out some renovations."
"We do not have any grow lights to aid grass recover, but they are something we may consider. It is still early days yet, and only time will tell if they will even be required."
Elsewhere, the 3G artificial pitch is in use every day. "Litter is the biggest problem, and we have to pick on a daily basis. I like to brush three or four times a week to keep the pile standing up. Later in the year, I am planning to get in a specialist contractor to deep clean the pile, something that will need to be carried out on a fairly regular basis, bearing in mind the usage on the pitch."
"The soil based rugby pitch has not been made from the best of soils," exclaims Dan. "Whilst it has primary drains at five metre centres, it is going to require a secondary drainage system in the form of sand bands at one metre centres to make it drain more efficiently. It is one of our next major investments, along with adding floodlights to enable academy matches to be played on it. This will help free up the fixture requirements at the stadium pitch, so it's important that this work is done as soon as possible."
Rugby League is vibrantly moving into a new era, with many of the top clubs now having new stadiums and allied facilities to help finance their ongoing success.
Dan is relishing his new challenges and, in his first year, is still coming to terms with the requirements of three different surfaces. Fortunately, he has the backing of the management to help achieve the best playing conditions for the stars of both codes of rugby.