The grass pitches on which professional and top amateur sportsmen and women play have improved out of all recognition in the past ten years. Grass technology, undersoil heating and sophisticated drainage systems have made a huge difference but, even now, games are being cancelled, or ruined as a spectacle, because the playing surface has not been protected against a downpour in the days and hours prior to the kick-off or frost has got into the pitch.
Now a Keighley company JMS Cricket, already well established in pitch protection for cricket grounds, has created a system called "The Pitch Protector" to beat the elements and ensure that soccer and rugby matches take place as scheduled and on a surface conducive to the skills of the players.
Adapted from the system used by The Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees in the USA, JMS have cleverly refined a way of covering the entire pitch from downpours that is both quick and easy to install and remove as well as requiring the minimum of manpower to do it.
Head groundsman at Headingley, Jason Booth, has been using the system since he saw a demonstration in August and is delighted with the results.
"If we had not used the Pitch Protector in the few days leading up to the weekend of December 12-14 our pitch would have taken weeks, if not months to recover. Two inches of rain fell just on the Saturday alone but the Pitch Protector was already in place and coped magnificently", says Booth
Groundsmen also despair when matches are played on sodden surfaces.
"As a groundsman, you want to be able to control the amount of moisture in the pitch - and this will differ pitch by pitch. What you don't want is for games to be taking place on it when the surface is far too wet for it to cope. This will destroy the top layer and make it incredibly difficult to maintain for the rest of the season", comments Booth.
The 250ft by 40ft covers are brought into the stadium on specially designed trolleys and positioned around the ground. An inflatable "sausage" is then primed and the covers are rolled into position on the pitch itself.
"Like all new systems, it has been a learning curve for us but we can now deploy the covers in 30 minutes once they are in position", says Jason.
"125ft long foam waterbooms are placed under the covers to control the flow of water off the covers and at Headingley 9 covers are used to cover the main pitch with additional smaller covers in the dead ball areas", adds Jason.
When the bad weather has passed, the covers are rolled back up on their "sausages". The water on the sheets disperses as the sheets are rolled back to the edge of the pitch. The "sausage" is then deflated, the cover rolled up, put back on the trolley and taken out of the stadium.
Jonathan Smith, Director of JMS, the creators of the "Pitch Protector", has been a groundsman at international venues for cricket, rugby and football and he appreciates, just like all the other groundsmen, the practical problems that this system can solve.
"The need for a practical pitch cover is self evident and "Pitch Protector" has been designed to accommodate all levels of sport. It combines modern, proven technology with a practical concept, smart operating procedures and cleverly adapted accessories to help stadia maintain high quality surfaces in severe adverse weather conditions".
"And, as an added benefit, the system also protects the pitch against frost up to about minus 4C. Over the Christmas period Blackpool FC called us in to guarantee their televised match against top-of-the-table Wolverhampton Wanderers. We took the order at 1.30 p.m. on Saturday and the team had "The Pitch Protector" in place by 6 p.m. It stayed on that night, all of Sunday and Monday morning.
Blackpool FC Grounds Manager, Stan Raby commented that the game would certainly not have taken place at Bloomfield Road without the JMS Pitch Protector and Wolves manager Mick McCarthy confirmed on Sky TV that the pitch at kick off was in good condition.
By enlisting the services of the JMS Pitch Protector Blackpool FC guaranteed themselves a bumper revenue earning match which grossed an income well into six figures for an outlay of just under £10,000.
To underline the effectiveness of The Pitch Protector, it was not employed by Blackpool FC in the days prior to the game at Bloomfield Road against Birmingham on January 10, and predictably the match had to be called off.