Winning at Luton Town
By Laurence Gale MSc
It's not just table topping Hatters who have had a winning streak. Their Groundsman, Richard Bird, is winning the war on Poa annua (annual meadow grass). The club have supported his aims of getting rid of the unwanted grass species by finding enough money to have the pitch completely renovated in May of this year.
The build up of Poa annua in the sward had come about as a consequence of the club's recent problems of receivership, which meant that maintenance budgets had been dramatically reduced. Richard had to reduce the level of maintenance and more importantly the renovation programmes at the ground. Over time this led to a build up of Poa annua in the sward. Such shallow rooting grasses are more prone to producing divots, which in fact was the problem Richard faced during the 2003/ 2004 playing season.
The club is now under new management and Richard had the opportunity to talk to the new manager Mike Newell, persuading him of the benefits of essential end of season renovations. The result was that Richard was able to organise a complete resurfacing of the playing surface in May 2004 using the Koro Topfield Maker. The club employed the services of Turf Machinery, a sports turf contractor from Woking with whom Richard was comfortable, having used the company before.
Ideally Richard wanted to replace the top 100mm with fibre sand, moving from a soil-based pitch to a reinforced sand system. However, with the club looking into the possibility of moving to a new ground, it was decided that it would be best to continue with the existing pitch profile for now.
So, in May, Turf Machinery renovated the whole pitch., beginning with Koroing off the top 20mm of surface material, hollow coring the entire pitch and amending surface levels. 60 tonnes of sterilised 70/30 rootzone was then applied and brushed into the surface. The entire pitch was then vertidrained and oversown with Bar 7 at a rate of 35gms /m2 using a Charterhouse seeder in several passes.
Richard then covered the whole pitch with Tildenet frost protection sheets to improve germination times. These nets were also beneficial when it came to watering. Richard was able to water onto the nets, enabling the water to filter/trickle through, thus not disturbing any seed.
A 6-9-6 pre seeder was applied followed by a 12-3-9 summer feed to help promote growth. Richard was able to do his first cut of the pitch two and half weeks after the seed had germinated. Height of cut was 35mm and the frequency of cutting soon increased until Richard was cutting up to six times per week, gradually reducing the height of cut down to 27mm in readiness for the pre-season matches.
The pitch was constructed back in the eighties and consists of 300mm deep sand ameliorated soil over a brick rubble sub-base that has a series of land drains running through it. Being a soil-based pitch, watering becomes a fine art, and Richard has to decide how much to give it and when. He likes to keep the watering to a minimum to encourage deeper rooting of the turf. Watering at the Kenilworth Road Stadium is made easier because the club have a fully automated pop up watering system. The system includes five pop ups running down each touch line and one pop up in each of the goal mouths, the centre of the pitch is covered by stand alone static full circle sprinklers.
With the season now well under way and Luton having only lost one match at their ground since the start of the season the team are extremely happy with the way the pitch is performing. It certainly looked very good during my visit.
Like most stadiums the design of the ground does not complement the Groundsman's needs. Lack of storage space and access points for machinery and materials are alway problems for Richard. The stands are close to the pitch, restricting light and air, and the shade is a constant problem particularly in the winter months. Up to one third of the ground can be in shade, causing thawing problems after frosty nights.
Like most Groundsmen, Richard has to make the best of what he has. However, It is always made easier when you have an understanding manager who works with you and understands what you are trying to achieve.
The weather nearly always dictates whether Richard and Ken need to come in on the Sunday. Richard firmly believes in the motto " do not put off until tomorrow what you can achieve today".
During the week the pitch will be brushed daily to remove dew and then mowed. Repair work continues, especially in the goalmouths, to help protect the grass. Richard has increased the height of cut to 32mm in the goalmouth areas.
Final preparations involve the cutting of the pitch and over marking pitch lines, again depending on the weather. These operations are sometimes completed on the Friday but generally, as Richard prefers, on the day of the match.
Once the game has been completed Richard and his team of volunteers begin the process of putting the divots back again, followed by mowing and finally finishing about 8.30-9pm. A long day but well worth the effort when you see the results, which has provided a firm base for the footballing success now seen at Luton Town.
Richard is currently trying to persuade his Board to purchase a Dennis G860 mower with various cassettes fittings. The machine will definitely help in the battle against Poa grasses (annual Meadow grass). Being able to verticut, groom and mow the grass using a single machine gives Richard the ability to control Poa and thatch levels in the sward, as well as improving mowing efficiencies by having the use of two mowers, and thus continually striving to improve the playing surfaces at Luton Town.