Lee Evans has taken to the field vastly more times than the likes of Alun Wyn Jones or Gareth Bale. Yet, unlike those A-list names, the 52-year-old is the unsung hero of Wales' national pitch
Lee Evans and his pride and joy - the pristine Principality Stadium pitch. Image: Richard Swingler
Ten years ago the late Wales football team boss Gary Speed blasted the national pitch in what was then the Millennium Stadium as being like a "park pitch" and said he felt sorry for the groundsman in charge.
That particular groundsman in charge was a fellow Welshman called Lee Evans. He heard Speed's scathing remarks and they cut deep.
For more than a decade Lee had been working tirelessly to develop the hallowed turf in what is known as the most difficult place in all the UK to grow grass.
In fact, by the laws of nature, grass shouldn't even grow at all in the dark, dank, and dismal bowl in Wales' national stadium. Speed went on to say the subsequent pitch transformation between two matches in 2011 was "little short of a miracle". But in reality there was no miracle - just Lee and his sound grasp of agronomy and more than 17 years' experience in sports turf management.
On the day we meet, a grey day in Cardiff just 10 weeks away from the first autumn international friendly between Wales and the All Blacks, there isn't actually a blade of grass in sight. It is somewhat alarming instead to see instead a rectangle of sand with plastic fake grass poking up through. It looks like one of the worst astroturfs I've ever seen and I can't help thinking perhaps a miracle is required after all. Especially when the rules clearly state that international matches must be played on natural grass.
Lee is seemingly relaxed by the distinct lack of real grass. The grass seed has been sown among the plastic, he promises, and now he's just waiting for it to grow. He crouches down on all fours pointing out the first shoots of real grass emerging from the sandy soil between the plastic strands. These days top stadiums have what's known as a "hybrid pitch" - a combination of synthetic and real grass - in a bid to try and outwit Mother Nature.
Even so Lee has his work cut out. The pitch itself is below the high water level of the River Taff so has been sealed far below to stop it from constantly flooding. It barely sees the light of day, there's minimal air flow, and in the winter temperatures can plummet so low as to send grass into dormancy. In fact it's known as the darkest pitch in all of the UK - if not Europe. And that's before you factor in the unreliable, and rather wet, Welsh weather and, believe it or not, the roof, which only hampers things.
"It was the last stadium built without a thought for the actual pitch," says Lee. The Millennium Stadium, which would be renamed the Principality Stadium many years later, was completed in 1999 - before pitch technology was really a thing. It is in stark contrast to, say, Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, which was built purely with the pitch in mind and where even the stands were designed to let the sun in for optimal grass-growing conditions.
The pitch will once again be in perfect nick by the time of the autumn internationals. Image: Richard Swingler
The hybrid pitch surface in the Principality Stadium was built in 2014 at a cost of £2m and came with an expected lifespan of 12 to 15 years. The plastic base makes it a permanent feature - gone are the days when turf is rolled up or dismantled piece by piece between matches and events. When Lee first arrived in Cardiff in 2004 the pitch was formed out of 6,000 pallets, each filled with turf and grass, and fitted together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
At the time the palletised pitch, built in 1999, was the only one of its kind in the UK and indeed Europe - a reject from the Dallas Cowboys stadium over in the US. It took scores of forklift trucks and Eddie Stobart lorries to lift the pitch in and out three times a year at a cost of £500,000 annually.
That's where the images of a pitch getting removed piece by piece comes from and why you'd see sections of the pitch dug up during matches, Lee explained, because it never really got the chance to knit together. But Lee arrived in Cardiff with fresh ideas - admittedly from his early career in football - but which would nonetheless go on to transform the national pitch and even the way Wales played rugby.
In Lee's main office, deep in the bowels of the stadium, there is a myriad of monitoring equipment and meters on the walls. The pitch is monitored to within an inch of its life, which is fitting considering it's Lee's job to actually keep it alive. There's a gauge on the wall with an amber digital display showing 16.6 and 16.2 - the soil temperature in degrees of the north and south sides of the pitch respectively. There are eight sensors spread across the pitch measuring soil temperature, moisture levels, and light levels. The undersoil heating keeps the soil between 12 and 16 degrees ensuring the grass can keep growing all year round.
Lee points out each tool at his disposal with an ease and familiarity that comes with 17 years in the job. He has a ready smile and a desire to do the very best job he can, although it doesn't put him off saying exactly what he thinks. He is one of the longest-standing groundsmen in the industry and it seems nothing will faze him. Well, apart from the amount of bird poo he notices spattered across the tunnels as he guides us to his office - he makes a mental note to sort that later. He's not a perfectionist, he protests, but his colleagues say otherwise.
Mowing the pitch can involve walking up to 12 miles. Image: Richard Swingler
Lee, from Swansea originally, was a talented footballer as a schoolboy and dreamed of becoming a professional one day. His academic studies took a backseat as he focused on his burgeoning football career but despite reaching semi-professional level he was never quite good enough to make it with the big boys. He left school with few qualifications and found himself a job working for Swansea City Council instead, where he was groundsman for the local authority pitches and playing fields.
But Lee, 52, has a steely determination about him and his easy-going demeanour belies his passion to work at the highest level. He knew that while he might not be able to play professionally he could sure as hell still work alongside the top players by delivering them the best pitch to play on. So when his wife, whom he met in Wales, went to Brighton to study Lee jumped at the chance to work at the prestigious Roedean School, a private school boasting some of the finest playing fields in the country.
From there he went to work for Fulham FC as one of their groundsmen and then onto Aston Villa FC as head groundsman. He was offered two jobs after Fulham he points out - at Aston Villa and Manchester City. But as a lifelong Manchester United supporter he couldn't bear to work for his arch rivals. It's a decision he partly rues as Man City went on to become the richest club in the world and with that, no doubt, an enviable budget for their pitch.
And perhaps the Wales rugby stadium comes with fewer demands than the more entitled world of footballers. Lee can remember the time in 2017 when Juventus played Real Madrid in the Uefa Champions League final in Cardiff. Real Madrid were refusing to leave the pitch after their warm-up and Uefa asked Lee to turn the sprinkler system on to get the players off and the opening ceremony underway.
From his office Lee had no idea which sprinklers would come on and which direction they'd be facing when they did. Despite sending his staff to man each sprinkler, ready to spin them away from player, then-Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo still managed to get a chestful of water squirted at him from point blank at eight-bar pressure. He went "bananas", said Lee, and unleashed a barrage of expletives at his poor groundsman.
The huge lighting rigs cost £1,000 a week in electricity alone. Image: Richard Swingler
Lee arrived in Cardiff in 2004 brimming with ideas. "It's the dream job," he says enthusiastically as he marches around the underbelly of the stadium pointing out the high-tech equipment designed to make grass grow as quickly as possible. "You dream of working for a Premier League club and then the national stadium."
There are only five national pitches in the UK and only 20 Premier League pitches at any one time. Yet, even so, the UK punches above its weight when it comes to sports turf management and it's miles ahead of teams on the continent. There is a whole industry, employing around 30,000 people, who specialise in every area - from seed enthusiasts who can breed grasses that grow in the shade to scientists who develop chemicals to make grass greener.
So advanced is the UK that some of the biggest and highest-profile clubs in Spain have started poaching the best groundsmen from UK soil. "I would have liked to have tried my hand abroad," says Lee wistfully. And he did try - even going so far as to learn Spanish and sending his CV off to all 20 La Liga teams. But he was ahead of his time and they replied saying pitches were managed by their equivalent of local authorities in those days. Now a dad-of-two and happily settled in Cardiff, Lee has no desire to enter that cut-throat world.
The hybrid pitch in Cardiff is identical to Chelsea's home ground Stamford Bridge, Everton's Goodison Park, St James' Park in Newcastle, Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, Liverpool's Anfield home, Villa Park in Birmingham, and Old Trafford in Manchester - and also the FA's flagship ground at Wembley.
"This pitch is exactly the same but the challenges are the environment," explained Lee. "It's the hardest place to grow grass. Between October and February it's like growing a plant under an oak tree. There's no light. The pitch is telling me on a computer what it's lacking."
Lee with some of the machinery which keeps the pitch in tip-top condition. Image: Richard Swingler
It was Lee's idea to push for a hybrid pitch and it took him several years to convince management. For Lee it was a no-brainer - it would cost £2m to install but that was then done for 12 years at least. There would still be mid-season and end-of-season renovations but these cost tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. Instead of lifting up 6,000 pallets of turf they now have a special Koro machine which scoops up the grass and sandy soil and leaves the plastic turf behind. All Lee has to do is go back in and regrow the grass.
The 12-year life span actually proved a bit optimistic - but then Lee didn't factor in a global pandemic or the building of a Nightingale Hospital during the early months of the pandemic. The Dragon's Heart hospital proved disastrous for his carefully-manicured pitch - the weight of the structure caused the plastic to deteriorate and it lost integrity.
"By the end you couldn't play on it," Lee said. There was only one option which was to replace the whole thing five years earlier than planned. Hence the state today - they only sowed the seed, a perennial rye grass, on August 29.
"The race is on now," Lee said. He's got until October 30, when the All Blacks play Wales. It normally takes 10 to 12 weeks to grow grass and he's got nearly 10.
"We'll throw the kitchen sink at it," he said. One of the tools in his arsenal are his lighting rigs. If grass goes six weeks without light it will start to die. Initially developed in Holland to grow flowers and fruit and vegetables, the rigs are massive bulbs on wheels which are rolled out carefully onto the pitch by tractor. They cost £80,000 each and he's got 15 of them. When they're running they cost £1,000 a week in electricity alone.
Lee has a set of gigantic fans at his disposal too - designed to blow air over the surface and mimic natural air flow which is desperately lacking in the stadium bowl. Without air movement the grass stays wet, he explained, and with moisture comes disease.
Lee was a talented sportsman in his youth but never quite made the grade to play on the hallowed turf himself. Image: Richard Swingler
For all the fancy technology on display his mowers are surprisingly pedestrian - literally in fact. The only way to mow the grass is by walking, he says, simply to keep the weight off the grass. He has two types of mowers out the back - using the smaller rotary one means a 12-mile loop to cover the pitch once. The larger ones, with a cylinder blade, are mainly used to finish the pitch and they take a seven-mile loop to cover the pitch. They are the workhorses of Lee's operation and they're used so heavily the mowers have a life expectancy of just two years.
During the winter it takes three of them working 60-to-70-hour weeks to keep the pitch in tip-top condition with at least five hours of mowing every day.
There's a seasonality to Lee's work and summer is usually a quieter time for time. Right now he's feeling pretty chilled - the plan is set until after the autumn series and then there will be a mini renovation ready for the Six Nations in February. Planning a pitch for rugby is more challenging just because of the forces they put through it, he said.
"Rugby is brutal nowadays," he explained. "It's 100% changed the pitch. You've got a ton of scrum pushing against another ton of scrum. Scrums never used to be that hard."
In the old days Premier League teams would play around with the pitch to suit the home team by leaving the grass grow long and not watering it. But gradually standards have been set and teams have recognised the importance of the pitch on both their players' health and their overall success. The game of rugby has followed suit.
A key parameter is how hard the pitch is, which is measured using a Clegg hammer. The Welsh rugby team set their own hardness parameters - typically at 60 to 100 newtons, Lee said, which is done purely for player safety. He can adjust hardness in the soil itself and in grass length. Grass is set at 30mm for rugby, between 23 and 27mm for football, and even as short as 19mm for Champions League matches.
"Players want it as short as they can get it," said Lee. It was the performance side of rugby that made the link between certain pitch hardness and the effect on the players - too hard and it drained them, too soft and it affected their recovery. Teams started carrying around their own Clegg hammers.
"It came from football but has reached rugby," said Lee, who's seen the shift during his career. "I think it's made it more of a running game, a faster game, compared to the old days. You see that now in the players - the forwards are so lean. The players have evolved and the pitch has evolved at the same rate."
The race is on right now ahead of the autumn internationals. Image: Richard Swingler)
Players have their preferences too and they don't always align with what Lee wants or what the grass needs. Players don't like a wet ball and prefer a drier pitch - but the drier the pitch the more damage is done to it during matches because it simply falls apart, Lee said.
He has to plan his watering regime to the Nth degree to factor in their demands. And while every team wants to shut the roof to create that special atmosphere it's the worst thing imaginable to keep the pitch dry and playable.
"If you shut the roof in the stadium when it's full of 75,000 people it's soaking wet by half-time because of the condensation," Lee says with more than a hint of frustration. "I've been accused of watering the pitch at half-time when in reality it's just the condensation." He can remember standing up to the towering Martin Johnson, the former England and Leicester rugby captain, to explain exactly what would happen if he shut the roof like they wanted.
"The roof wasn't built for the rugby," he added. "It was built for concerts. You lose the aesthetics and the grass looks yellow under the lights. I always want it left open because it looks better and it plays better."
When the All England Tennis club built their retractable roof over Wimbledon they brought their groundsman team to Cardiff to learn about the challenges they would face. As a result of that they tweaked things to improve air movement through centre court.
Ultimately the stadium roof was built for concerts and events, which tend to happen through the summer months when sporting demands are less. Even so they will still take their toll on the pitch.
"I can outline the risks for [management] - how much grass cover we'll have, how it will affect players and the game - and then it's up to the management board to decide," said Lee about big events in the stadium. In the end it comes down to cash and whether the board can afford to lose out on the income generated by those events.
Seagull feathers dropping onto the pitch are a constant pain for Lee and his team. Image: Richard Swingler
Lee knows exactly how long it will take for his pitch to recover and the grass to regrow. Whereas in the early days of his career being in charge of a pitch with hundreds of thousands of eyes on it came with a certain degree of trepidation Lee has mellowed with age, he admitted.
"I can make a difference," he said. "At first the stick I got was awful." There was one time his father-in-law was sat in the stands and overheard the criticism being directed at the groundsman from spectators and commentators alike. The man was so distressed he's never come back to watch a match since, Lee said. But things changed once the hybrid pitch was installed.
His preparations in the week before a big match and on matchday itself are a mixture of pressure and excitement. "The build-up starts on Friday," Lee said, with a big grin spread across his face. "You can feel the whole stadium come to life and the excitement builds."
He always watches the first half from the side of the pitch and then the second half alone in his room because that's when the criticisms - if there are any - come flying in, although managers tend to slate their pitches more in football than rugby, he said.
"The old pitch would roll up and cut up because it simply hadn't been down long enough," he said about the early 2000s. "It's horrible, I wouldn't sleep at night, but since we've had this new pitch I sleep like a baby."
He continued: "At least a week out you should be ready and then it's just finishing touches and building the moisture levels. There are two captain's runs on the Friday, which only happens in rugby, which is frustrating because you have around 60 people running around on it for three hours. Then that night it's putting the pitch back together and mowing and watering all night."
The pitch gets a double cut in two directions at 6am and, all being well, Lee and his team are in the Market Tavern by 11am for breakfast. After the final whistle he's got a team of boys who get straight to work putting all the divots back. Much like the players, who prioritise rest and recovery after a big match, so too does the pitch and within two hours it's in repair mode with the lighting rigs out giving the grass the best chance to recover. After such a busy day it's always so quiet and a privilege to have the ground to himself, said Lee.
"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else," he said, his customary grin spreading again. "Being Welsh you wouldn't want to be anywhere else would you? It has a certain kudos and that's where you want to end up. Once you get this job you don't want to go anywhere else."
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