Iceland is the second largest island in Europe after Great Britain. It lies 470 miles north of mainland Scotland on the edge of the Arctic Circle and, subsequently, has a climate that is, to say the least, difficult to grow grass in. Two thirds of the country is tundra, with the majority of Icelandic folk living in coastal towns and cities, where fishing is the main industry.
The capital is Reykjavík, which has a population of just over 120,000, almost half the total population of the country. It is here that Iceland's national stadium, Laugardalsvöllur, was opened in 1957.
It may be surprising to note that the country accommodates five football leagues; a Premier League and Divisions 1, 2 made up of twelve teams each, Division 3 (ten teams) and Division 4 (twenty-four teams and play-offs).
The country's most famous footballing exports have been Eiður Gudjohnsen, who enjoyed success with Chelsea and Barcelona amongst others, Gylfi Sigurðsson (currently with Tottenham Hotspur) and Heiðar Helguson (Cardiff).
The Laugardalsvöllur stadium accommodates just short of 10,000 spectators, but temporary seating can be used to increase this, with the record attendance being 20,204 in 2004 for a friendly match between Iceland and Italy when the hosts surprised themselves, and the footballing world, by winning the game 2-0.
Kristinn V. Jóhannsson is Head Groundsman, a position he has held since 2006. Prior to that, he worked at the stadium as a summer trainee (between 1997 and 2005) whilst completing his schooling and training, part of which was at Arsenal. Kristinn takes up the story.
"My career began in 1997 when, at the age of sixteen I began working as a summer trainee. At that time, I wanted to be a professional footballer (as do many kids) and never thought that I would become a groundsman one day."
"I worked at Laugardalsvöllur every summer and, in January 2002, got the opportunity to work at Arsenal Football Club. Paul Burgess was the head groundsman at that time, with Paul Ashcroft second in command. They took me in and I spent two months working with them. It was then that I realised that this job was something I really wanted to do. That time was very special; Paul Burgess giving me that chance was really important and I'm very grateful for that opportunity."
"When I got back to Iceland, I continued to work at the National Stadium over the summer but, in September 2005, Paul Burgess invited me back to work at Highbury and the Emirates, working alongside himself, Paul Ashcroft and Mark Petitt. After a great year, where I honed my skills further, I decided to return home to become head groundsman here."
Since 1957, various work has been carried out to modernise the stadium, including a stand rebuild between 1965-70, which also saw a roof being added. In 1992 an eight-lane athletics track was added followed, in 1997, by a new stand. Between 2005-07, the old stand was demolished and replaced by a state-of-the-art 6,300 seater stand.
During all these improvements, very little work was carried out on the pitch, apart from a re-turf in 1976 and a partial re-turf (one third) in 1992. Basically, it is the old soil construction from 1957!
"The pitch is very old and, subsequently, has no undersoil heating or irrigation, and I do not have lighting rigs," continues Kristinn. "The drainage is bad and, because the pitch is so old, I'm not even sure of the original soil type but, today, it is a mix of a lot of things!"
With temperatures ranging from an average low of minus 6OC to a maximum 15OC, almost permanent night-time in winter and permanent daylight in the height of summer, you might expect such requirements to be a foregone conclusion, but Kristinn says he is experienced in working with what he's got, adding; "since I started to work here as a full time groundsman I've never had to re-turf any part of the pitch."
"I'm the only full-time groundsman but, in the summer, have an additional four to six people to help me. These are mainly college kids ranging in age from seventeen to twenty-two. Last summer, there were six of us; myself, Hallveig Ólafsdóttir, Snævar Ingi Hafsteinsson, Hjörtur Árni Jóhannsson, Ingvi Hermannsson and Elías Bóasson. This was Hallveig's fifth year, Snævar's second, Hjörtur and Ingvi's third and Elías's first year. I try to keep my staff summer after summer but, sometimes, that is not possible. They are a great group of people who enjoy their job and put a lot of hours in to keep the pitch in perfect condition."
"As well as the men's and women's national teams, we have Premier League team Fram playing here, although they don't train on the pitch. Any training on the stadium pitch is usually around the national games. We also accommodate up to nine athletics tournaments in the summer."
"I'm not blessed with a huge amount of equipment. We've two Dennis G560s, two little Honda rotaries, one marker and a fertiliser spreader. We use a Dennis G560 to cut the pitch and the little Hondas to cut the edges and the grass around the stadium. We cut the pitch around seventy times a season, which is from the end of April to the beginning of October. We fertilise a little and often."
"Any other machinery we need, such as spikers for aeration, tractors and sprayers, I am able to get from the two golf courses nearby, where the head greenkeepers, Ágúst Jenson at Reykjavík Golf Club and Bjarni Hannesson at Keilir Golf Club, also act as my consultants, helping me with stuff like fertilising and disease diagnosis. They have helped me a lot with the pitch over the years and I am very grateful for that. Our budget is very tight, so this cooperation from the golf courses is very important."
"Over the summer we spike the pitch six or seven times and fertilise it around ten times. We sand topdress once a year and maybe spray once a year also. Overseeding is done in the summer to take advantage of the 'warmer' temperatures."
"Perhaps the biggest change since I became head groundsman is that, with our own mowers, we now cut the pitch ourselves. Prior to that, mowing was undertaken by the golf greenkeepers! These mowers have made a significant difference to how we manage the facility."
"Because this is an old pitch, there's lots of different types of grass in it. Here in Iceland, we get a few diseases, such as fusarium, red thread, anthracnose, snow mould and fairy rings. Depending on the disease type, we control them by watering, spiking, fertilising and/or spraying with liquid products. We keep an eye on them over the summer so they won't get out of control. It is most important to act quickly and manage them straight away."
"In an ideal world, I would love to have a perfectly constructed pitch with sprinklers, undersoil heating and a full set of new machines, but I know that's not going to happen here soon. Perhaps in the future but, in the meantime, we will just do our best and work with what we've got."
"Having said that, over the last few years the opinion of our industry here in Iceland has improved a lot. Until recently, football managers, clubs and players just thought that grass was grass and no one had to take care of it; perhaps cut it few times and just play as much as you want on it. And that attitude was reflected in the condition of the pitches across the country; they were terrible!"
"With a lot of help from the golf greenkeepers, we have started to change that attitude. We've been able to get the football people to think about what is right and what is wrong. It's got to a point, today, where players and managers have become more responsible and considerate when it comes to training and playing on the pitches."
"There is still much more to achieve. We have to get more people to understand what greenkeepers and groundsmen actually do. Once the methodology and the science has been explained to them, they get more involved and, therefore, respect what you do. So, then you can change other things, like getting more machinery, more staff and bigger budgets to take care of our pitches."
"Here in Iceland, we need to begin a programme of building new stadiums because many of our pitches are old, really old!"
"I hope this article has given you an insight into working as a groundsman in my country."
"I'd like to take this opportunity to thank a few people. Firstly, to Paul Burgess, who had a big influence on me. He helped me a lot during my two stints at Arsenal, as did Paul Ashcroft; they gave me a great opportunity and some very good advice. Here in Iceland, Jóhann G. Kristinsson, my father (and stadium manager) who encouraged me to become a full time groundsman. To all of them, I owe a lot."