Winter of content
By Mike Appleton (Editor of Football Stadium and Management Magazine)
Yes, it's the typical British winter and across the country clubs with and without undersoil heating battle against the elements to get games on. For some it's a losing battle - games have to be postponed, but for others, it's the sheer persistence of the Ground staff that make sure fixtures are upheld. So just how do you look after your surface at this time of year?
It's been an interesting few weeks for Shrewsbury Town. They've beaten highflying Everton in the FA Cup, drawn Chelsea at home in the next round but have had indifferent league form.
But considering the location of the Gay Meadow stadium, its testament to the Ground staff that these games get played at all.
Heading that team is Brian Perry, who has been head Groundsman at Shrewsbury Town for 20 years. He used to work in car factory but was made redundant.
"My experience of Groundsmanship was preparing the wickets at my local cricket club where I played at Wem in Shropshire," he says. "One Saturday, one of the directors of the football club approached me at one of the cricket matches and asked me if I fancied a job.
"It was supposed to be a stopgap, until I got back into the car Industry but I enjoyed the job immensely so I stayed."
"On average we're flooded out once a year," says Brian. "The worst it's been was a couple of years ago when the water was about one foot below the crossbar and up to the fifth row of the stands. We had that for about a week.
"When the water subsides, I have thousands of dead worms over the pitch, but once the river goes down it's easy enough for the pitch to drain off."
He continues: "Surprisingly the pitch doesn't have a problem with silt because the water comes up through the drains and the stands so the water is filtered. The level peaks about 48 hours after the river's come up. The pitch is like a basin. It causes major problems for the club because, of course, we can't get insurance."
With the high water table and the river so close, Brian has a unique set of problems when it comes to winter pitch maintenance.
With the varying pitch conditions, it can be extremely difficult to maintain the pitch properly. During December, Brian was only able to get machinery on the pitch prior to their December 14 game against Bournemouth. The next time was Christmas Day and then again on New Year's Eve. Other than that, they had to do everything by hand, either with a fork or a pedestrian outfield spiker.
According to Brian, Gay Meadow has a traditional soil based pitch with clay six feet down. He says it has markedly more grass on it this season. This is mainly down to trial and error of new systems as they come out on to the market.
Using an Earthquake for two years and before that a vertidrain, the pitch has gradually improved without spending any significant amount of money.
"Apart from the Earthquake, last summer we shaved about two inches off the touchlines because they had become raised. We used a turf cutter and then just harrowed, levelled it and then re-seeded the pitch," says Brian.
"We didn't do any sand dressing because we have had problems in the past. The sand has been the correct pH for the renovation but, for some reason, it won't integrate into the soil. It layered on us."
"The job is seven days a week," says Brian who along with Richard do almost all of Gay Meadow's day to day maintenance - and that's anything from cleaning stands and mending burst pipes to tarmacing the car park out the front and repairing the ground. "We do a lot of work in the summer which means that I hardly have any time for holidays!"
Brian uses Allett and Etesia mowers - the latter to clear the amount of leaves they get on the pitch in autumn. He also has a tractor and spiker plus some Sisis implements such as rake and brush. They use local contractor ALS for the spring renovation.
"We have approximately 84 games per season," says Brian. "The players train on the pitch much less than they used to because we have now got a training ground which takes much of the pressure off the main pitch.
"However the training ground does get boggy during winter so they have to find different places to go usually RAF Shawbury or Shrewsbury Technical College.
Undoubtedly, one of Shrewsbury's greatest days was the Nigel Jemson inspired 2-1 defeat of Everton in the FA Cup third round. Brian was of course delighted and he was just as happy with the state of the pitch.
"The pitch played well and the players were up for the match," he said. "I don't know what part the pitch had played, but we played them at the beginning of the season here when pitch was perfect and they won 4-1, so perhaps the pitch did have a bearing on the result.
"The next round is televised so we certainly have to make sure we get that game on!"
But does a cup run mean more money for Brian? "It is difficult for a small club like ours to manage. On crowds of 2,800 we struggle to exist so a cup run gives us a boost. We are planning to move grounds to a new 10,000 all seater stadium in Meole Brace so there won't be a lot to spend on the pitch," he says."But we may spend money to get certain games on. I'm making provision to get covers in for the whole of the pitch for the cup match."