For most football clubs outside of the top two divisions, financial constraints keep budgets at a minimum. The primary focus is on the playing side and the pitch requirements can be regarded by Chairmen as a seemingly bottomless cost to be kept on the tightest leash
Our local Football League team, Shrewsbury Town, reside just eight miles up the road from the Pitchcare headquarters in Allscott and we felt that there should be a good mutual partnership between the two businesses. In discussion with their CEO, Matt Williams, where we talked about product supply, the meeting became broader and we were offered their maintenance contract on a two year basis. The contract included taking their two members of staff, Richard Barnett and Andrew Muir, onto our books, alongside the maintenance of the stadium, training pitch and their six acre training ground a few miles up the road.
As part of the contract price, we agreed to include renovations of the stadium pitch, which had not seen any substantial end of season works for a few years. The pitch was 100% poa annua and there had been incidences of root knot nematodes the previous season. The groundstaff had to relay both goalmouths early last season because of the poor rooting, and two key players had suffered cruciate injuries during the winter; the pitch was blamed for this.
Following the agreement, I undertook some soil sampling, which was duly sent for analysis. The results that came back painted an even darker picture. Both the iron and phosphate levels were through the roof, everything else was through the floor. The only saving grace was that pH was at 6.5.
The New (Greenhous) Meadow Stadium was built and officially opened in July 2007, the club having sold their Gay Meadow home of nearly ninety years to developers. The old ground sat in town, alongside the River Severn and was regularly flooded in winter as the river broke its banks.
The new stadium pitch was constructed with Loksand, but eight years of topdressing had buried this up to 100mm below the surface. The reinforced sand construction extended only to a couple of metres outside the playing area, leaving another five metres or so of thick heavy clay soil to the tarmac path that surrounds the grass. This 1800 square metres of poor draining soil is the polar opposite of the free draining sand pitch in the middle and the use of the integrated irrigation system is not as easy as it should be.
We sprayed the existing grasses with glyphosate on the 18th May, and Koroed off the surface right up to the tarmac edge on the 23rd. We then 'Shockwaved' the pitch area to decompact the profile, before applying 80 litres of Biomass Sugar to help remove any nematode activity.
On the 26th and 27th May, we cultivated the top 75mm using a power harrow, firmed the surface with tractor wheels and then spread 60 tonnes of concentrated Loksand over the pitch surface. This was then power harrowed and mixed into the existing rootzone. Whilst this was being done, we applied 250kg of Lebanon 25:0:5 slow release fertiliser and 260kg of Turf Food Myco 2, an organic slow release feed.
Once the cultivation was concluded, the pitch was again firmed with tractor tyres, before grading started using a Blec box grader. During the grading, the area was irrigated to help keep the material moist to ensure a good finish.
When we were happy with the levels, the pitch was then seeded using the Blec Groundmaker (slot seeder) using MM60 seed at a higher rate of 55g/m2.
The pitch was then fertilised with 9:7:7 pre-seed and lightly rolled.
The irrigation was then implemented and, for the next few days, the system was programmed 4-5 times each 24 hours to make sure that the surface wouldn't dry out.
Our contract officially started on the 1st June; it was a big change for Richard and Andrew. Richard had holiday booked for the first two weeks and went off to the Balearics, whilst Andrew came into the office on the first day and handed in his notice. I felt for the guys as they'd put their life and soul into the pitches.
The start of June was cold, and we waited eight days for the first germination anywhere on the area. We'd also ascertained, looking at the patterns on the bare surface, that the pop-up heads didn't reach some areas of the pitch, even on the stillest of days, and we had to bring in additional hosepipe and sprinklers to water these missed areas. Of course, when there was a breeze (STFC has exposed corners and it always seems to have good air flow) the sprinklers could be marginalised by up to 10m and large areas would be missed.
The germination of the seed remained poor and, although we could see an increase in shoots coming through, the grass seemed to be really struggling; it appeared to be slowly growing under its own steam.
Friday the 12th June - there were some areas of the pitch that seemed to be accessing available nutrient. In these areas, the new grass was at two leaf stage and about 50mm long, whilst most other areas looked yellow and sickly. Andrew and I decided to give the pitch a cut with a ride on rotary to see if we could stimulate some more growth. It was cut at 35mm but, apart from the most vigorous areas, we barely took anything off it.
Richard returned from his holiday, refreshed and raring to go. He could see the work that Andrew and I had been putting in on the pitch, the training pitch behind the stadium and the six acre Sundorne Castle training ground a couple of miles up the road.
We continued to monitor the water on the pitch, applied 15l of seaweed on the 16th, rolled the pitch with cylinder mowers on the 17th and sprayed with 10l of Bullet Calcium and another 10l of seaweed on the 18th.
The high iron content in the pitch was our best guess for why the pitch was so unresponsive, as it locked up any nutrient availability. It remained a puzzle as to why there were a few areas that didn't appear to have a problem. The iron content had been put down to the use of a bore hole at the ground that helped fill the irrigation tanks. From day one, we had turned off the bore hole and had only been using mains water for irrigating, but it was going to take time to flush through the pitch, if that was possible without the use of wetting agents. The grass being so youthful, it was felt that the use of wetting agents should be held back, at least for the time being.
On the 22nd we sprayed the pitch with 40kg of Everris 35:0:14 water soluble fertiliser to try and see if we got any response from the plants.
Eureka! For a brief twenty-four hours you could see a visible improvement in the plants, but it faded away again just as quickly. These young plants were like babies, only able to uptake small quantities at a time, so needed regular feeding.
Having finally seen a response, albeit small, from the grass, we decided to step up small but regular feeds and, on the 24th, we cut the pitch with cylinders for the first time and then sprayed a concoction of products in the afternoon. Biomass sugar at 20l, Seaweed at 10l and 80kg of Step Hi-Mag.
Thursday 25th - We cut the pitch at 30mm and removed ¾ of a box of clippings each with our Dennis G860s.
The grass response was still up and down daily, so we again applied a concoction of products on the 26th, using 40kg of 15:0:43+Fe water soluble fertiliser, 5l of Bullet Trace Elements, 15l of Maxwell Sea Action Seaweed and 40l of Fulvic 25.
This all sounds like a lot but, with four weeks to go to the first pre-season game and the club having agreed to play three home games in eight days, we couldn't leave anything to chance, as my promise to the club had been to significantly improve all their surfaces; something that the CEO had taken one step further and publicly went on record saying "I'd promised him a Premier League surface!" Joking apart, my professional reputation was on the line and there was no way I was being beaten by this pitch.
I took Matt, the CEO, for a walk on the pitch to show him the issues, I remember saying that the grass was swimming in a sea of nutrition, we just needed the seedlings to establish enough to take them up on their own.
A ndrew had his last day, having worked his month's notice period. It was a shame that he was going as he'd worked diligently with me and Richard and could see that the working dynamics had changed with our involvement. He said to me, "if you guys had come in a year ago, I wouldn't be leaving", but he'd made his decision back in January to take on a property management business in Mallorca with his partner, and a new life was waiting. Despite him going, he has popped in a number of times and, since emigrating abroad, we all regularly stay in touch with updates on his new business and the pitch progress.
When we came in on the Monday morning, we could see a dramatic improvement and we cut the pitch, taking four boxes each off. Then we fertilised it with 120kg of Potassium Nitrate. We continued to mow each day, taking a steady eight boxes off, and then fertilised it again on the 2nd July with another 120kg of Potassium Nitrate. This was after we'd borrowed the Pro-Core from Wayne at Wolves and aerated it on its tightest setting.
On the Monday, the weather was poor and we left the pitch alone but, on Tuesday the 8th, the grass had exploded into life and, much to our delight, we took thirty-three boxes of grass off. We cut it both ways that day and, despite the hard work, the relief that the pitch was finally responding was gratifying.
We mowed the pitch every day from then on; the bands were properly set out and it looked like a pitch ready for the start of the season. On Thursday the 16th, we applied twelve bags of Maxwell Advanced 12:3:9 +Mg +Fe.
On the 17th, we double cut the pitch, on the eve of our first pre-season game against Cardiff City FC. We also measured and set out where the pitch markings would be. We hung the nets back on the goals that we had rubbed down and repainted during the closed season.
We were still maintaining the height of cut at 30mm, I had discussed and agreed this with the Manager and coaching staff for the pre-season games.
Matchday 18th July - Richard and I cut the pitch first thing and then string lined and marked the pitch for the first time. The sun was out and it was turning into a hot day. We started an irrigation sequence and, whilst that was going around the pitch on a three hour cycle, we erected the goals, the practice goals and safety nets. We continued to water the middle of the pitch in three minute bursts right up to the point that the players came out to start their warm-ups at 2.00pm. Both teams had brought their full squads and we counted seventy-one players, coaches and officials warming up. Not what I wanted to see seven weeks after seeding, but hey-ho.
At half time, we noticed how dry the middle of the pitch became and watered again, the grass was going black and laying like a mat. As soon as the final whistle went, we got the water going again through the middle, whilst we repaired any damage.
We then set the timer to come on and give it a couple of really good soaks through Saturday and Sunday evenings. By Monday morning, the grass in these areas had recovered well and the whole pitch was standing up and looking healthy.
For me, working with a new pitch, particularly as it was free draining, was another challenge to understand and get the moisture content right for match days going forward. Clearly, we hadn't got it right for the Cardiff game, but with Birmingham City on Tuesday, we had more time before matchday to flood it.
We cut and repaired the pitch on Monday and, on Tuesday morning, Richard and I were in early to double cut and mark out, leaving ourselves six hours with which to monitor and water the surface. Although we were enjoying some decent weather, an evening game meant cooler temperatures and less evaporation and we managed the water situation much better than the previous game. Fortunately, Birmingham also had a team playing at Northampton town that night, so they brought a smaller squad. Again, the pitch played very well and there was minimal damage.
We brushed and mowed the pitch after repairs on Wednesday and again cut it on Thursday. The weather was dreadful on the Friday and we decided to leave it well alone, knowing we'd have it all to do on match day.
Richard and I agreed an early start and it was a race to see who got in first on the Saturday morning, much to Richard's annoyance I beat him by ten minutes as I had the kettle on at 5.20am! We had a coffee, got the string lines out and started mowing at 6.03am. By 9.30am, the pitch had been double cut and marked out and we concentrated watering on the middle of the pitch. The previous day's rain had already helped us out. The sun was back out and the pitch looked good. Again, we had seventy odd people warming up on the pitch for nigh on an hour before the game started.
The pitch played the best it had considering it was the third game in eight days. We now had a two week break before the first league game against Millwall. All through the previous seven weeks we had been throwing water and nutrients on the pitch for fun and now we needed to establish a decent root system to help us get through the majority of the season. The break in games enabled us to start putting the grass under a little stress by reducing the watering to encourage the roots downwards.
Monday 27th July - repaired the pitch, mowed it at 28mm and spiked it with a Baroness aerator to 6" (150mm). We went nice and slow in a low gear and got a 4" (100mm) x 2" (50mm) pattern.
We left the pitch alone on the Tuesday, cut it again on Wednesday at 27mm and, on Thursday, reduced the height of cut to 26mm. It was cut on Friday and the pitch left alone for the weekend.
Monday 3rd August - pitch cut and we applied 10l of Sea Action Seaweed and 30kg of water soluble Everris 15:0:37+Fe.
On the Tuesday we reduced the cut to 25mm and continued mowing through the week at this height. I should say that we used string lines to keep our mowing bands straight on the final four cuts before each game; outside of this, we would mow the bands and do our best to keep them right.
The first League One game of the season was upon us, root growth was now averaging around 125mm across the pitch and the sward was 100%, the goalmouths and touch lines still looked as new. The expectations of the team and supporters, being in a higher league, were soon put in perspective as Millwall won quite comfortably; the divide between the two clubs, from a financial perspective, was apparent. However, the pitch played the best yet and damage was limited to a few heel marks and stud tears.
Monday 10th August - the one blemish on the pitch in the build up to the Millwall game was worm casts, I couldn't believe that we'd been hit with them so early in the season. I suppose that the increase in organic activity that we'd been encouraging with the various products applied had also encouraged the worm fraternity back as well. We held back on spraying because I didn't want wheel marks to spoil the presentation of the pitch, so we delayed it for a few days. The worm suppressant was applied at 4l per hectare. The pitch now, in terms of colour, health and vigour, was where it needed to be, so we followed the Caste Off with a separate tank mix of 30kg of water soluble 15:0:37 and 800ml of Primo Maxx (growth regulator).
The next day, the pitch had well and truly been checked in terms of growth and there didn't appear to be any new casts on the pitch either. We didn't mow, choosing to get some more slow release fertiliser on in the form of 180kg of Lebanon 25:0:5. On the Wednesday, we aerated the pitch again to a depth of 6" (150mm) at 2.5" x 2.5" centres, maximising new air space for the grass roots to take advantage of the Primo.
We didn't cut the pitch again that week, but the weather was again dreadful on Friday morning, with nearly 2" (50mm) of rain falling in just a few hours. We put on some conventional feed, 260kg of Maxwell Advanced Generate 12:3:9+2MgO+2Fe in the rain, which took a bit more time as we had to keep the hopper covered and bring it round under a stand each time to top up. Still, it was worthwhile as the rain washed it in perfectly.
Monday 17th - Cut the pitch taking around eighteen boxes off, the rain and fertiliser maybe starting to help the grass kick on again.
Tuesday 18th - double cut the pitch and marked out for the evening's League 1 game against Chesterfield. The pitch played well, but another bad result for the team. We did the post match repairs, which were minimal knowing that there was another game at lunchtime on Wednesday.
There were two long-term injuries who needed some match fitness, so a game behind closed doors had been arranged against a Wigan side.
We cut the pitch on Wednesday morning and left the markings as they were deemed adequate for this friendly. After the game, the pitch didn't look like it had even had one game on it, let alone two in less than twenty-four hours.
We continued to monitor the pitch on a daily basis, cutting it most weekdays. It seemed that the pitch had now settled down and root growth was averaging 6" (150mm).
Then came a mad few days as we hosted Burton Albion in the League on Saturday 29th August, a charity match on the Sunday featuring a host of TV and soap stars (nearly all of them I'd never heard of) and a Johnston Paint Trophy game against Oldham the following Tuesday. Don't you just love these games all coming at the same time!
The weather had been wet and warm and this, combined with the grass damage from three quick games, led to a bout of leaf spot. The grass started to yellow off and we had to bite the bullet and apply some Bayer Interface to stop its spread.
In preparation for the fungicide, we brushed the pitch against the mowing nap to get the grass standing up, so the chemical could get right into the sward. It had the desired effect and, within twenty-four hours, the pitch looked to be perking up again. Just to make sure the grass had enough reserves to aid recovery, we applied 30kg of water soluble 15:0:43 and 5l of Bullet Trace Elements on Friday 4th September.
Yes, the start of autumn and already nine games played on the pitch, with another imminent; this time an U20s England International against the Czech Republic.
Richard and I cut the pitch on Sunday the 6th September and then double cut on Monday morning before marking and watering. The evening game went well, but not for England as the Czech's finished with a 1-0 victory.
The worm population appeared to find the surface more habitable again, so we sprayed again with Caste Off on Wednesday 9th.
We continued to monitor and cut the pitch in the build up to the game against Crewe Alexandra on Saturday the 19th. However, the night time temperatures were now cooling down to as low as +4OC and the grass was certainly slowing down in terms of daily growth. We cut the pitch on the Friday morning before the Crewe game and decided that it probably wouldn't grow much by the following afternoon so, for the first time this season, we had the pitch prepared by the Friday night and that meant less of a route march on match day.
The pitch probably performed itd best to date but, dissapointingly, not the team, which failed in their fourth attempt to gain at least a point at home this season.
The pitch was watered heavily after the game on Saturday night and, on Monday morning, it was standing up like it had been given a dose of Viagra!
We cut the pitch and then applied 10l of Maxwell seaweed, 15l of Maxwell chelated iron and 40kg of water soluble Soil Solutions 12:0:39+4% mg. All these products used were to help strengthen the plant as we enter the cooler months.
As I write this, it is pretty much where we are up to, looking forward to Blackpool this Saturday and, with fingers crossed, that the team can finally break their duck on our pitch and gain some much needed league points.
For me, I've really enjoyed being back on the tools, working well with Richard, and Andrew initially. I've lost plenty of weight and walking in to the ground in the morning seeing the pitch looking like it does fills both Richard and I with a great deal of pride.
The contract price was based and fixed on the club's total spend the previous season. It would be fair to say that it has cost me more than anticipated so far but, in relative terms, it's still a tiny proportion of the turnover of club at this level.
We have already proved that it is possible to produce an excellent surface and, whilst I wouldn't want to count chickens, if the weather isn't too horrendous, it should continue to perform well through the rest of the season.