January brought some of the most brutal weather conditions we have seen in recent years. From heavy rain to snow and frost, it has taken some monumental efforts from our groundsman up and down the country to get matches on.
Leeds United re-turfing Elland Road with hybrid pitch
As a former head groundsman at Oldham Athletic, I know first-hand the pressures they face and the amount of scrutiny they are under, and it is not easy to sit back and be criticised by fans on social media when they do not know the facts. Unfortunately, when working in football, your hands are tied and, often, you cannot defend yourself and explain why your pitch may be struggling.
This generally comes down to lack of investment in the playing surface and not the groundsman's skill. All groundsmen want the best pitch they possibly can throughout the season, no matter what tier of the football league pyramid they are in, and if you do not, I would say you are in the wrong job.
So, it has been a breath of fresh air over the last week to see articles on clubs' websites and in the media supporting groundsmen and explain why their pitches may be worse for wear after what Mike Keegan describes in the Mail as the 'Perfect Storm' - brutal weather, a shortened summer window to renovate and reduced staff.
Premier League Leeds United are a great example of this, with Chief Executive Angus Kinnear coming out in support of their Head Groundsman Kiel Barrett, who I have known for some years now, who has worked wonders with the dated Elland Road pitch since taking over.
Angus Kinnear said "The criticism should not be levelled at our head groundsman Kiel or his excellent staff. They are managing a pitch which is 25-years-old and suffering from decades of under-investment."
Blackburn Rovers Ewood Park pitch
"The fact the pitch is even playable is a testament to Kiel's skills and should win him a Groundsman of the Year award.
"Everyone knows, with the right investment, Kiel and his team will make the Elland Road surface the best in the country."
Luckily for Kiel and his team, the club is investing in £300k installing a hybrid pitch in time for their fixture against Everton on 3rd February, which is the club's short-term solution. Plans are already in place to work with Hewitt Sportsturf on a complete pitch reconstruction at Elland Road, including a brand-new state of the art drainage system and this work will begin in May.
Another club who has seen scrutiny over the state of their pitch is Championship side Blackburn Rovers. They are another club who have supported their head groundsman and enabled Trevor Wilkin, who has been at the club since summer 1982, explain the problems they have.
"With just a small window of opportunity to complete the necessary close-season renovation work, we fraise mowed the pitch, before seeding it, but we always knew that, as the season wore on, the pitch would become harder to maintain and withstand the intensity of the fixture schedule due to the lack of growing time in the summer."
Cheltenham Towns pitch ready for kick-off against Man City
"The pitch is nearly thirty years old now and obviously ready to go to the next level, but that comes at a significant cost. However, I feel that if we can just nurse it through February, we can eventually turn the pitch around again, giving the team a reasonable playing surface for the season run-in."
Chief Executive Steve Waggott says Rovers are not alone in having an under par pitch this season, which is something that will be addressed in the summer.
"Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on all our lives and routines over the last eleven months," he said.
"As Trevor has stated, the very short turnaround time afforded to him and his staff - just over a month rather than the usual ten weeks - to prepare the Ewood Park pitch for this season meant they were unable to carry out the normal full renovation of the pitch due to circumstances out of our control."
"It is worth noting that we are not alone in encountering pitch problems, with other clubs at all levels experiencing the same issues due to the lack of preparation time last summer."
The FA Cup has seen Gareth Bale playing in front of fans in back gardens at Marine, Chorley beating Derby County in the third round and losing in the fourth round to Wolves, plus Cheltenham giving Man City an early shock.
Left: MacLeod cover Chorley FC Right: Ben Kay sleeping under the cover
But the main highlight has to be Ben Kay, Chorley's Head Groundsman sleeping under the SS Stadia MacCleod cover to ensure the Magpies' game against Derby could go ahead after days of wintery weather. It did not get any easier for the club's rising star, who has been invited to work the FA Cup final which he describes as a dream come true. With storm Christoph causing havoc which brought heavy rain and snow to most of the country the MacLeod cover was called upon once again to help get the historic Wolves game on, but this time Ben did not have to sleep under the covers!
As much as January has been difficult, it has helped highlight the tremendous work our groundsmen carry out each week and the lengths they are willing to go to get their games on so the players can fulfil their fixtures and give the fans something to look forward to in these in difficult and testing times when we are all stuck at home.
I wish all our groundsmen the best of luck till the end of the season and hope February and March is much kinder to you all and, most of all, stay safe.