They used to look like quagmires, ice rinks or dustbowls, depending on the time of year. But as big money entered football, pristine pitches became crucial to the sport's image - and groundskeepers became stars
It was a big moment for English football talent when Real Madrid poached Paul Burgess from Arsenal in 2009. After starting his career at Blackpool FC, Burgess had arrived at the north London club in 1999, rising to prominence at the age of just 21. He excelled on the European stage during Arsenal's Champions League campaigns in the early 2000s, and shone at Euro 2004 in Portugal. Four years later, he put in another commanding performance at the European Championships. Not long after that, Real Madrid, the most prestigious club in world football, made their sensational transfer swoop.
If you don't remember any of this, it's not because Burgess was a flop at Madrid. It's because he was Arsenal's head groundsman. Burgess's transfer was the beginning of a Europe-wide spending spree on British turf talent. Real's rivals Atlético snapped up Dan Gonzalez, who had impressed with his work for AFC Bournemouth. Tony Stones, who got his start looking after bowling greens in Barnsley before eventually becoming head groundsman at Wembley, was signed to oversee the French national stadium, the Stade de France. Fifa, meanwhile, signed Alan Ferguson, a Scot who had won seven Groundsman of the Year awards during 12 seasons at Ipswich Town, as their first in-house senior pitch manager.
The highest-profile acquisition of all was Jonathan Calderwood, who joined Paris Saint-Germain from Aston Villa in 2013. A two-time Groundsman of the Year, the Northern Irishman had been called the world's best by Gérard Houllier, who managed Liverpool, Lyon and Villa. The move came at a time when PSG's new Qatari owners were investing hundreds of millions to attract the world's top players, including Zlatan Ibrahimović and David Beckham. When we spoke recently, Calderwood said the timing of his move was no coincidence.
"They had an injury list the length of your arm," he recalled. A more stable pitch would start to solve that problem. But there was a more tactical reason for signing Calderwood: before his arrival, the pitch was too slow, too bobbly, too unpredictable for the kind of high-tempo passing game played by most of Europe's elite teams. "The owners realised that it wasn't about buying 11 world-class players," said Calderwood. "They needed things behind them to allow them to work. One of the main things was the pitch."
Jonathan Calderwood, Paris Saint-Germain
Since his arrival, Paris Saint-Germain has won Ligue 1 six out of eight seasons, and just as importantly, from Calderwood's point of view, the Ligue de Football Professionnel's best pitch award six times too. After winning the league in 2014, then-manager Laurent Blanc credited Calderwood with 16 of the club's points, because this pitch had made the team's attack so much sharper. The club has put him on billboards and he is featured in national TV adverts. Ibrahimović, once the club's star striker, jokingly complained that Calderwood was receiving more media attention than he was.
When it comes to sports-turf management, the UK is a talent factory like no other. "We're 10 years more advanced than anywhere else in the world," Richard Hayden, author of Fifa's official handbook on pitch maintenance, told me. "If you want to work in technology, you go to Silicon Valley. Well, the UK is the Silicon Valley of turf!"
The English grounds-management sector alone is valued at more than £1bn and employs more than 27,000 people, with specialists in every area, from seed enthusiasts who can breed grasses that grow in the shade to scientists who develop chemicals to make grass greener. In West Yorkshire, the Sports Turf Research Institute is an R&D powerhouse, studying everything from how quickly water passes through different types of sand to how the fineness of a stem of grass influences the roll of a golf ball. In hardware, too, the UK has no rival. Bernhard and Company in Warwickshire make the world's best sharpening systems for mower blades; Allett, in Staffordshire, provides elite mowing and maintenance equipment, as does Dennis, based in Derbyshire. Dennis mowers are used across the world's top sports arenas, from Wimbledon to Barcelona's Camp Nou and Manchester United's Old Trafford. Calderwood uses them at PSG, too.
The turf-care techniques developed in the UK have been applied in tennis, golf, rugby and just about any professional sport that takes place on grass. But it is football, with its vast wealth and global fanbase, that has powered the revolution. No groundskeeper would claim their work was the main reason for any team's success, but, just as Olympic swimmers don't compete in beach shorts and professional cyclists shave their legs, top football teams obsess over tiny details that can be the difference between winning or losing. When Pep Guardiola arrived at Manchester City in 2016, he asked for the grass to be cut to just 19mm, in line with the ultra-fast pitches he had demanded at his previous clubs, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. (In the end he had to settle with 23mm, because short grass is more vulnerable to wear and Manchester's cold climate means it can't recover quickly.) Similarly, after the 2016/17 season, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp told the groundskeepers that the pitch at Anfield was too slow. Staff reconstructed the pitch over the summer, and Liverpool went the entire next season unbeaten at home in the league.
The dramatic improvements in playing surfaces since the early 1990s have transformed the way the game is played. "At Arsenal, we always had top pitches, but away from home it became better and better," former manager Arsène Wenger told me via email. "It helped a lot with the quality of the game, and especially the speed of the game."
Pitch quality is especially important for the top clubs, who want to maximise the talent of their technically gifted players. By contrast, a bad pitch is seen as a leveller, because it hampers the quick passing of the best teams; in football, an uneven playing field tends to level the playing field, so to speak.
This summer's European Championship is taking place in 11 cities across the continent, but the pitches are largely in British hands. Uefa has assigned each stadium a "pitch expert", working alongside the resident groundskeeper to deliver tournament-quality surfaces. Apart from Richard Hayden, who is Irish, all the pitch experts are from the UK. For Wembley stadium, the host of the semi-finals and final, the pitch expert is Dale Frith and the groundsman Karl Standley, a 36-year-old Englishman with a razor-sharp haircut and greying stubble, whose accolades include the Top Turf Influencer award.
Speaking four weeks before the opening match at Wembley, England v Croatia, Standley sounded focused but relaxed, like a formidably prepared star student on the eve of an exam. Yes, his work on the Euros would be viewed by around more than a billion viewers across the world, and yes, the tournament's stars are relying on him to do their finest work, but he wasn't fazed. "We've planned for this tournament for years," Standley told me recently. "We plan to the point that we try to be unbreakable."
Karl Standley, Wembley Stadium
For a long time, English pitches were abominable. When it rained, they would become quagmires. In the colder winter months, the quagmires would turn to ice. Then, a few months later, warm weather would turn them into dry and dusty plains. "People loved coming to Wembley because it was probably the only pitch in England that had grass on it," said Calderwood.
Bad pitches meant cancelled matches, which meant lost revenue, which led some clubs towards synthetic alternatives. In 1981, Queens Park Rangers installed OmniTurf. A thin layer of synthetic grass set upon tarmac, the new surface was so hard that the former Oldham Athletic manager Joe Royle recalled once seeing a goal kick bounce so high that it went right over the opposite crossbar. But QPR started winning on their new turf, and a handful of other clubs followed suit. Amid unrest that so-called "plastic pitches" were giving home teams an unfair advantage, in 1995 the FA banned them. But by this time, groundskeeping's new chapter had already begun.
As with most stories about modern football, the rise of elite turfcare is a story about money and television. In the 1990s, as TV revenue poured into the new Premier League, clubs started spending more on transfer fees and player wages. The more valuable the players became, the more essential it was to protect them from injury. One way to reduce injuries is to ensure a high-quality playing surface. And so groundskeepers, long overlooked, acquired a new importance. "Suddenly, the groundsmen were under a lot more pressure," said Scott Brooks, head groundsman at Nice, who previously worked at Arsenal and Tottenham.
More than just protecting players, there were TV viewers to think about. If the Premier League was to market itself as a slick global brand, it needed a product that looked good on television. Muddy, bobbly, patchy pitches would not do. Broadcasters began to demand "snooker table-like pitches," said Calderwood. According to Geoff Webb, CEO of the Grounds Management Association, which represents British groundskeepers, some broadcasters even stipulated in contracts that the pitches must be in pristine condition.
As pitches improved, the game itself began to evolve. "From where we were with the pitch at Old Trafford to the way it became was night and day," Sir Alex Ferguson, who managed Manchester United from 1986 to 2013, told me via email. "Knowing you have a consistent, high-quality surface, particularly when you need to move the ball at pace, makes a huge difference."
At the centre of this turfcare revolution was Steve Braddock. Since he joined Arsenal in 1987, Braddock has done more than anyone to bring about a world in which flawless pitches are the norm. Wenger described meeting Braddock as one of his greatest pieces of luck. "Finally I found someone who had a similar passion for the perfect pitch," Wenger told me. Braddock was key to raising standards across the Premier League, he said.
On a blustery spring morning, Braddock picked me up from Radlett train station in Hertfordshire and we followed the winding country lanes to Arsenal's Colney training base, where he oversees 11 pitches. It was his first week back at work for over a year, as he had shielded through the pandemic while undergoing treatment for skin cancer.
Upon arrival, he showed me around, stopping at one point to phone his trusted projects engineer to tell him that the fan belt of one of his tractors needed tightening - he could hear it squeaking from about 50 metres away - and at another to complain about an assistant groundskeeper who was moving a goalpost without lifting the wheels up. "It'll leave a mark," he explained. Braddock's attention to detail is legendary: one former assistant told me he would cut the grass with scissors if he could.
Tony Stones, Stade de France
When Braddock joined Arsenal as head groundsman, he was just 23. In the early days, faced with limited budgets and what he saw as a culture of low standards, he was forced to come up with his own methods. The most significant was the annual renovation - pulling up the pitch at the end of each season to remove unwanted weed grasses, which, because of their shallow roots, do not anchor the turf, making it more likely to fall apart. Until the arrival of improved technology in 2000, this required weeks of walking up and down the pitch with a machine called a scarifier.
In time, Braddock's methods, including his liberal use of sand to encourage pitches to drain quicker, were adopted by other British groundsmen. "Steve changed the industry," Paul Ashcroft, Arsenal's current head groundsman, told me. Braddock's renovation techniques "had never been considered or thought possible with the limited equipment available". Braddock was also happy to share his accumulated wisdom with other clubs. Several groundskeepers I spoke to recalled contacting Braddock for tips on renovations.
Gradually, the role of the groundskeeper began to change. From the late 1990s, when the Premier League made it a requirement for them to be educated in plant science, the job became increasingly data-driven. New technology helped, too. A mower at a stadium like Wembley might be working 25-30 hours a week for 50 weeks a year. To go over the Wembley pitch just once, the mower needs to cover 10 miles, Standley told me. These machines begin at £11,000. When I took a tour of the Dennis factory in Derbyshire in April, they were assembling 12 mowers to be shipped to Qatar, ordered by Fifa for next year's World Cup.
To British turfcare experts, European standards remain pitiful. "They just don't understand what it takes to make it to play professional football," said Stones, reflecting on his time as head groundsman at the Stade de France. Calderwood believes it comes down to education. Like many of the leading lights of turfcare, he studied turf science at Myerscough College in Preston. "Even doing something like a diploma or a Higher National Diploma, that's not possible in France; there's no such thing," he said.
When he arrived at PSG, Calderwood was shocked by what he found. The grounds team didn't even own the rotary mowers needed to vacuum up dead grass after a match. "Even something as simple as that, they didn't know," he told me, with all the shock of a man who had just discovered his neighbours didn't realise they had to mow their lawn. When I spoke to Calderwood's deputy, a Frenchman called Arnaud Meline, he told me that in his native country there simply isn't the same "vision" for the grass. To the French, it's still "just a place you go to BBQ with friends".
Preparations for the Euro 2020 pitches began more than two years ago. In the early hours of 25 April 2019, Dale Frith set off down the M6 to Wembley, where Uefa was gathering together its team of pitch experts for a "kick off" meeting.
By 10am, many of the giants of turfcare were sitting around the conference table. Besides Frith, there was Richard Hayden, who claims to be the only turf expert to have successfully replaced a pitch mid-tournament - in Lille during Euro 2016. There was Dean Gilasbey, who has worked with Fifa to train aspiring groundskeepers across the world, from Macedonia to Ghana. There was Andy Cole, the longest-serving pitch expert in the room, who had worked on three European Championships and three World Cups. These men are not groundskeepers; they are turf consultants, specialists in agronomy who supervise multiple ongoing projects.
Uefa's representatives laid out the schedule for the coming months, and their expectations for each pitch. According to Uefa guidelines, surface traction should be above 30 Newton metres (NM), a unit of torque that measures a player's interaction with the surface. Too much traction puts strain on ligaments and risks injury; too little and players will lose their footing. Surface hardness should be between 70 and 90 gravities - a measurement of how quickly a hammer decelerates on impact. If it's too soft, players will tire too quickly; if it's too hard, the risk of injury increases, and the ball will bounce too high. The grass, which should be between 24mm and 28mm, must be cut in straight lines, across the pitch, perpendicular to the touchline. Even the dimensions of the penalty spot and the centre circle spot are specified (200mm and 240mm in diameter respectively).
Richard Hayden Rolling Along!
As a consultant, Frith would be Uefa's eyes on the ground, monitoring data from Standley, the groundsman, about the pitch, and occasionally conducting independent tests. The groundskeeper-consultant relationship is a delicate one. Whereas groundskeepers are responsible for the daily upkeep of a specific site, consultants flutter between projects, ranging from World Cups to grassroots sport. (Between Wembley visits, Frith was working with a primary school in St Helens whose playing fields weren't draining properly.) Some compare the relationship to that between a builder and an architect. "I know what I want, but a skilled labourer will produce what I am looking for," Andy Cole told me. For the modern British groundskeeper, educated in plant science, this attitude can be grating. Standley, who has won numerous awards during his 15 years as groundskeeper at Wembley and exudes passion for the job, initially declined to be interviewed for this story because he was concerned that it would focus too heavily on the work of turf consultants.
Standley likens his work to flying a plane. He hopes that thorough preparation will allow for a "soft landing" on match day, but when there are back-to-back matches, he will sleep in a hotel nearby, just in case of any unexpected developments. He is away from his family a lot, including most weekends, but it is a sacrifice he is willing to make. "It's not a job for me; it's a passion," he says. He calls the Wembley pitch his second child because it "lives and breathes just like one". (It's common for groundskeepers to talk in this way, referring to moments when the pitch "wants a drink" or "when it's hungry".)
Elite groundskeeping depends on achieving near-total control over every component of the pitch. When I visited Dave Roberts, Liverpool's senior manager of grounds, at Anfield in May, he showed me how he uses heat and moisture sensors in the soil to create the best environment to grow grass, and applies zeolite, a volcanic ash that acts as a magnet to hold moisture in the root zone. Anfield's "permavoid" irrigation system, a series of interlocked plastic crates beneath a network of heating pipes, speeds up drainage and allows him to water the entire surface in less than three minutes.
With its plentiful rainfall and mild temperatures, Britain is a good place to grow grass. But even in this green and pleasant land, weather remains the groundsman's greatest enemy. They live in fear of the unexpected. The week after my first visit, Wembley hosted the Non-League Finals Day. The night before, 6mm of rain, rather than the forecasted 2mm, had fallen, inciting panic among Standley's team.
When I asked Standley what scares him, he recalled how a snowstorm had hit hours before Tottenham's 2018 FA Cup replay at Wembley against Rochdale, making it almost impossible to see the pitch markings. (Late in the match, ground staff had to come on to the pitch with shovels to try to make the penalty boxes clearer.) "Mother Nature is the biggest challenge you're up against," Standley told me. Although Frith began his career as a groundsman, he switched to consultancy in 2008, partly because the "lack of control" was causing him anxiety.
The job can take its toll. Like goalkeepers, groundskeepers tend not to receive much credit when things go well, but are the first to be blamed if anything goes wrong. To Stones, it is a way of life rather than a job. "You don't become a groundsman, you're born a groundsman," he said.
If you were looking for somewhere to place a world-class sports pitch, inside Wembley stadium would be a bad choice. Standley likens his job to cultivating grass in a shoebox. Between September and March, the 50-metre-high stands cast a shadow across the turf. In these months, light levels within the stadium rarely exceed 12 micromoles, well below the 20 micromoles that grass typically needs to grow. Airflow at Wembley is also poor, said Standley. Without a breeze passing over it, grass becomes "lazy", as turf experts put it, and eventually it will keel over and die.
Standley has some pretty fancy tools to overcome these challenges. He uses a subsurface aeration system to increase moisture and oxygen levels in the the sand and composites that run 30cm below the surface, known as the "rootzone". To encourage the grass seedlings to grow, he also runs hot water through underground pipes to bring the temperature in the upper rootzone up to 17°C. Once the seeds have put out shoots, he rolls out lighting rigs and six gargantuan fans to simulate summer conditions. What looks like a normal patch of grass is in reality a "giant chemistry set," he told me.
For the Wembley surface to be in peak condition for the summer, major works have to be completed in winter. On 20 November 2019, in preparation for the Euros, it was time to begin reconstructing the pitch - replacing the top 6,000 tonnes of rootzone. London's natural soil is clay-heavy, meaning it doesn't drain well, so Standley brought in sand from Surrey to speed up drainage. Pitch reconstruction is an immense task, which only needs to be carried out about once every eight years. A team of 15 labourers worked in shifts 24 hours a day for three weeks, saving time and money by transporting materials to and from the stadium at night, when there is less traffic.
Once the new turf was laid, the grass took around 11 weeks to mature. (This also involves intertwining a small percentage of artificial grass into the surface, to help stabilise it.) Then, in March 2020, Uefa postponed the Euros to the following summer. It was a disappointment to Standley, but not a disaster. In November 2020, he renovated the pitch and began to test it, sending the results to Frith to interpret on behalf of Uefa. From February 2021, Frith began travelling to London to conduct his own tests.
Standley is expert at adjusting the Wembley pitch to make it work for other sports, such as rugby and American football. The latter is played in short bursts and requires "ultimate traction", he said. To allow players to change direction as quickly as possible, the NFL demands a hard pitch, somewhere between 90 and 100 gravities. To increase the hardness of the pitch, Standley's team will add around 30kg of extra weight to their mowers. With each cut, Standley can add roughly one gravity. To bring the pressure back down again, he'll turn to the Verti-Drain, a tool made of six spikes that poke into the ground, relieving the pressure by breaking up the soil. To give the American football players extra padding when they fall, Standley lets the grass grow slightly longer, to around 32mm.
Seed breeders have cultivated thousands of different varieties to provide the ideal grass for each sport. They will spend sometimes as long as 15 years developing a new cultivar, and their strongest batches land on the desk of Dr Christian Spring at the Sports Turf Research Institute in West Yorkshire. STRI score the grasses on qualities such as "shoot density" (how thick the sward is) and "recovery'" (how quickly it recovers from wear). STRI carefully ranks each cultivar and publishes its findings in an annual booklet, which Standley calls his Bible.
Still, you couldn't turn Wembley into a cricket pitch or a grass tennis court. The soil is too sandy, so the surface will never be quite hard enough. On an overcast afternoon, I headed to south London, where Neil Stubley, head of courts and horticulture at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, was preparing the courts for the Wimbledon tennis championships. When the first ball is hit at the end of June, the Wimbledon courts will be twice as hard as Wembley when the NFL is in town.
Like Calderwood, Stubley studied at Myerscough College, where he was taught that plants must always be healthy, well watered and well fed. "Then you come into tennis and you roll the bejeezus out of it, you stop feeding it and you stop watering it," he told me. To produce the best grass court, Stubley must find the balance between life and death. "By the time you start the championships, the plant is on a slow keel to dying because you're starving it," he said. But the surface can't be too dry at the start, "because otherwise the plant will be dead before you get to the second week". The courts end the fortnight closer to 300 gravities, which has no more give than a tarmac road.
When I first visited Standley at Wembley on 12 May - four weeks before the Euros, three days before the FA Cup Final - the stadium was empty, apart from a handful of broadcasters and Standley's team of five ground staff. With the Cup final approaching, the pitch was already at match length: 24mm. Between games, Standley allows the grass to grow out as much as possible. His team then trims it down by approximately 2mm each day for a week. (More severe cuts can shock the plant, turning it yellow.) When kick-off is four days away, they mow to maintain it at the same length, taking off just a tiny amount each day. This constant mowing makes the patterns on the pitch more pronounced, making it look like a green chequerboard.
Later that morning, I joined Frith as he tested the pitch. Armed with an assortment of equipment, a lot of which looked like futuristic torture devices, Frith dotted around the Wembley turf, careful not to get cut down by one of the eerily silent electric mowers. As expected, the pitch was in excellent condition. Later that week, he uploaded the scores to a portal for the bosses at Uefa to read.
It wasn't until I returned two weeks later, on the day of the Championship playoff final, that I felt a sense of the magnitude of Standley's job. When I arrived around an hour before kick-off, Standley was visibly agitated, with unkempt hair unlike his normally impeccable appearance. With the winners moving up to the Premier League, this is the most lucrative match in English football, and it marked the start of the trickiest weekend in Standley's calendar, with three matches back-to-back from Saturday to Monday. After that, he would have two weeks to make the final adjustments for England's opening Euros game.
At 2pm, Standley held a meeting with ground staff before heading pitchside to watch the game. "Despite all the data that we're reading, I now need to see proof," he told me. Standley watches football much as a set designer might watch a movie: the stuff that is just background to everyone else is the real focus of his attention.
"I am not watching the players; I am watching their boots touching the surface," he said. He watches for slips like a normal fan might dread seeing their defenders give away a penalty. The equivalent of his team scoring is the sight of a player pivoting or turning or twisting in a way that could only be done on a perfectly maintained pitch. In November, when Phil Foden executed an astonishing flick, pirouetting down the south side sideline in the late stages of a match against Iceland at Wembley, Standley was satsfied. "He depended on that pitch being stable," Standley said, grinning.
Bruce Springsteen at Wembley in 2016
It is only after a match that Standley can breathe a little. After the Championship play-off final, he headed to his office to unwind with some music. He likes listening to artists he's seen at Wembley: Coldplay, Adele, Springsteen. In 24 hours, he would need to do it all again, and then again the day after that. As he headed to his hotel, he allowed himself to think about the Euros; on Tuesday 1 June, the entire stadium would be revamped, with Euro 2020 branding introduced across the stands. "It has taken three years to get here," Standley said. "We've been preparing for this and we want that soft landing."
It was 6am when Standley arrived on site for England's first match, on Sunday 13 June, but it was already warm. He followed the same routine as usual, beginning by walking over the playing surface. It calms his nerves and allows him to feel the surface. The forecast had anticipated the heat, so Standley knew that watering the pitch was paramount, especially on the north side, which was fully exposed to the sun. When Standley had finished his inspection, his team mowed it twice horizontally, to sharpen the patterns that appear on the pitch, and repainted the white lines twice. At midday, two hours before kick-off, they watered the pitch for a second time.
At 2pm, a year after initially planned, England's Euro 2020 campaign finally got underway. During England's national anthem, Standley felt his eyes filling with tears, but after kick-off, as he watched the ball fizz around the pitch, he could begin to relax. In the 33rd minute, Foden performed another dazzling move, leaping up to take the ball out of the air and landing, turning and passing it back. The pitch held up perfectly.
Towards the end of the match, Standley joined Frith in the tunnel, where they watched some of the final minutes together. They chatted about Raheem Sterling's goal, proud of the role they had both played in it. "I grew up watching Euro 96, so to be standing on the turf at Wembley for Euro 2020 is something I could have only dreamed of," Standley told me. "You work for days like these. But I wasn't at work, I was living out a childhood dream."
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