The 2019-20 season has proved problematic for many lower league sides, with mild temperatures and torrential rain hampering pitch preparations. For Shrewsbury Town, an extended FA Cup run, which saw them host Liverpool at home, added to the problems for Dave Saltman and the grounds team. But with the likelihood of more money for the coffers, even the odd pitch invasion can be tolerated
We have been maintaining the surfaces at Shrewsbury Town FC for the last four seasons and I have written several articles on the works that we have carried out previously, both at the Montgomery Waters Meadow stadium and at the recently acquired Sundorne training ground.
As a fairly established League One club, it's nice to be able to say that their finances are well governed, although that means that any expense required, capital or otherwise, are scrutinised and only made available with a damn good business case… and even then I don't take it as a given!
We start every season with high aspirations, to retain a good quality grass cover throughout the 40-week playing calendar, so I usually split the year into quarters. The first quarter is the renovation and growing in period. For many of us, this window has shortened and shortened, so what used to be a standard twelve weeks can be as little as four or five weeks these days.
The second quarter is the start of the playing season during the summer/autumn growth period. A time when you continue to mature the grass, but it resists and recovers quickly from any wear and, to be honest, I'm comfortable allowing as many games as we can get on the pitch (in terms of regular first team fixtures) being played.
The third quarter is the worst and most difficult; temperatures drop, the plant stops growing and there is little to no recovery from maybe October until March, or even April. I often refer to this time as the damage limitation quarter. Due to low soil and air temperatures, the groundsman must work diligently to try and keep the grass healthy, upright and the water flowing quickly from the surface. It's a time when you'd prefer to see less games, as well as avoid doing too much disruptive work on the surfaces to retain as much grass cover as possible.
To me, this is the time of the season when the hard endeavours from the first and second quarter come into their own. The early work in producing and establishing a good healthy population of grass, preferably with as little weed grass as possible in the spring/summer and the encouragement of a good root mass, that has reasonable depth by the end of the autumn. All of which becomes a big aid to helping the pitch through the depressing winter months.
Having worked at stadiums for over thirty years, I have become far more philosophical and pragmatic about each season; it's very much swings and roundabouts. You have one season where the team have poor cup results and/or are drawn away, and the weather is generally kind on match days, then another season where there is an inordinate amount of home cup games and the weather seems to save its worst just for match day.
This season has been amazingly mild but particularly wet so far and, in the case of Shrewsbury Town, there have been a lot of cup games, most of which have been drawn and played at home or required a replay at home. Even in the Leasing.com Trophy. we played the away game at home against Manchester City as they have special dispensation in this competition not to play at the Etihad. Add in the Central League Cup (reserves) and FA Youth Cup matches, as well as hosting an England U20's game and our annual Armed Forces final, we are up to twenty-nine games already this season as I write this at the start of February.
Over half of these played from November to January during some of the wettest inclement weather I've seen. Of these games, eight have been hosted on wet days, one in particular when we recorded 62mm of rain from midday Friday to 1.00pm Saturday. In the third round FA Cup replay against Bristol City, the pitch just about drained sufficiently from some heavy downpours before they kicked off. If this extra game wasn't bad enough, the late home goal and a jubilant crowd invading the surface afterwards to celebrate just crowned our long day!
If I just fill in a few spaces; this season's renovations carried out at the end of May 2019 were basic - scarify, vertidrain, overseed, topdress with 90 tonnes of sand and fertilise. (Only every other year do we Koro and cultivate with some additional concentrated fibresand incorporated).
We also went some way to addressing a serious historic pH problem of 4.2, spreading eight tonnes of hydrated lime once the grass was growing in June 2019.
Our nutritional programme contains three slow release operations per annum, fortnightly half rate feeds of standard NPK analysis, appropriate for the time of year, and then regular monthly spraying of a concoction of liquids that usually include Biomass sugar, Humimax, fertiliser and SeaAction seaweed.
Due to the low pH, we have also included Bullet Calcium in the mix this season and, during the cooler months, some Bullet Phosphite and chelated iron as well.
In the growing season, we would add in a growth regulator. This offers more root intensity in the build up to a healthy winter plant, as well as enabling us to reduce the mowing operations per week. While people still argue over the expense of using growth regulators, for me it's a no-brainer against the wear and tear of machinery and operator fatigue trying to keep up with fast growing grass. The use of a growth regulator also saves on those 6.00am starts on match days, removing the need to mow the pitch.
All the above is coupled with a regular (almost weekly) aeration programme of vertidraining, to reduce compaction from usage, weather and maintenance, as well as retaining the maximum amount of air space for root colonisation and easier percolation of surface water.
Since last June, we have measured the pH levels periodically and the last set of results showed that it had increased to just over 6.0. Of course, I could have told you without testing that it was improving, as our resident worm population have become very active again across the stadium pitch!
The FA Cup replay win against Bristol City meant a dream draw at home to the Club World Champions and current runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool. I could have just written Liverpool but, for little League 1 minnows Shrewsbury, this is a big thing and the reason why there was a pitch invasion at the end of the Bristol game.
Having just played Lincoln City on Saturday 11th January and Bristol on Tuesday 14th, we had the luxury of our very own 'mid-season' break of twelve days before the Liverpool game.
The pitch was repaired and vertidrained and then sprayed with our usual concoction, as described above, on the afternoon of the 15th. It was left alone the next day as it was pouring with rain and we applied a half rate of 3:3:12 Maxwell Premier on the Friday.
The start to the following week for the game started with heavy frosts in the mornings, making it difficult for the lads to get the training ground ready for the players, but thankfully the frosts had lifted by the time they came out at 11.00am each morning.
The stadium pitch had its first cut of the week on Thursday 23rd. Despite not being cut for over a week, less than a quarter of a box of grass was collected, most of this from the goal areas where we concentrate our homemade lighting rigs. For anyone who needs to convince their powers that be the benefit of artificial lighting, just get them to look at the goalmouths at our stadium. I'm also a strong advocate of leaving the pitch alone as much as possible during the winter months. If there is nothing urgent, stay off it. Please don't carry out operations for the sake of it, or because you think the hierarchy expect to see you working on it.
The advent of a big FA Cup match brings its own problems to a smaller venue, as we need to accommodate the TV bandwagon. Camera positions hastily erected around the ground using scaffold towers, the pundit's studio positioned in the corner outside our garage under the west stand and the not-so portable advertising LED boards positioned on three sides that face the main cameras. The studio meant that we couldn't get the tractor and vertidrain out if required, the LED boards sat in front of the surrounding irrigation pop-ups so essentially prevented the watering from the outside and the scaffold towers reduced seating capacity.
Still, that's the only downside of a game to be played live on BBC1 on a Sunday afternoon. I had some discussions with the manager, Sam Ricketts, about the preparation of the pitch and it was decided that we would prepare as normal for the game.
The lads double cut the pitch on Friday and again on Saturday prior to marking it out as light began to fade that afternoon.
The forecast had been reasonably dry all week, but Sunday that changed and there was rain and showers starting from 6.00am until the game kicked off at 5.00pm.
Despite this season's games and the wet weather, we were pleased with the way the surface looked and played for the game, all the nice comments were well received and I think Martin Keown had said before kick-off that, for a League One club, the surface was about as good as it gets. It probably helped that the game televised just prior to ours was Tranmere v Manchester United, where clearly the club are having major drainage issues this season.
Anyway, what was equally pleasing was the game, dramatic end to end stuff with most of the football played on the floor. Town pushing the mighty reds all the way to gain a replay at Anfield, the stuff of dreams! The 2-2 draw ensuring another payday for the club coffers.
At the final whistle, the pitch was subjected to another few hundred unwanted foot divoters as the inevitable pitch invasion ensued and they eventually congregated on the South West corner of the pitch, egged on by Messrs Lineker, Hart, Shearer and Wright up in the temporary studio.
The importance of a good cup run for clubs in the lower leagues is the much-needed revenue that can far exceed the 'bread and butter' money from the league games. The home draw against Liverpool drew the TV boys in and, whilst the full house, merchandising and corporate hospitality will all have helped, the replay back at Anfield in front of 54,000 will easily double that money, despite the much reduced ticket prices and lack of TV.
For a financially secure and well-run club like Shrewsbury, the cup money will be invested wisely. It was pleasing to hear Sam talk after the game to the BBC commentary team. He was asked if the money would be used to strengthen the squad, but his reply was that he wanted to see these additional funds being spent on the infrastructure at the club, such as continuing the improvements to the playing surfaces at the stadium and training ground.
I've worked with four managers since starting at Shrewsbury Town and all have had the desire to see more investment on the pitches. I have seen a huge change in their expectations, as well as the players, and it really would be great if perhaps the EFL could start to regulate and even help clubs to fund the construction and maintenance of decent stadium and training ground facilities for the betterment of football.
Despite the amount of games and the weather, the stadium pitch is holding up well and that's a clear indication of the hard work that the lads put in alongside the nutrition programme and cultural practices.
Roll on the spring fourth quarter - growth and recovery!
Dave Saltman writes: Since this article was written, the world has plunged into Coronavirus crisis. As we find ourselves entering a fifth week of lockdown, the lads have been working in isolation at both the Stadium and the Training ground. Work has been fairly basic, mowing, watering, feeding and seeding.
If we had a crystal ball, we may have long since finished renovating the surfaces. However, with talk of the leagues resuming, perhaps behind closed doors, we have had to just keep the grass under control and see what happens next.
Please stay safe, respect our Government's advice and, fingers crossed, we will get back to some normality soon.