Preparing Pitches to Perfection For Next Season
The Grounds Management Association (GMA) shares essential guidance to help get football pitches back to play next season, which is expected to be even more of a challenge for grounds staff following the impact of Covid-19 and lockdown.
Whether professional or volunteer, employee or visitor for those outside of the turf profession pitches are often considered a given, the crisp white lines, the manicured turf the shining aluminium goals, the mainstays of any football ground. Covid-19 has brought huge challenges to the grounds sector with widespread furloughing of staff, budget cuts and sadly in some cases redundancies. But given the adage of no pitch, no football, should the playing surface and those that maintain it be given greater thought and consideration?
For a moment think about some of the areas of a football club that the pitch influences, commercial opportunities, fixtures, training, revenues, all integral parts of a wider jigsaw that can shape everything from the ability to host a fixture at all, the style of football, coach and player recruitment, player safety, corporate events, community partnerships the list is endless in both footballing and commercial terms.
At the Grounds Management Association (GMA) our vision is to promote quality surfaces and services for all our members, and it’s clear to see that the knowledge, expertise and dedication of professional and volunteer grounds people across the country makes sport possible.
Through our partnerships with sports national governing bodies we have published and regularly updated “Fit for Play” guidance that provides advice on maintaining sports turf during these challenging times.
In this article, we look to explore some of these themes in a little more detail and how your approach as an organisation may make all the difference to the safety and quality of your playing surface in the coming months.
Connecting the grounds community
At the GMA, we work hard to build a strong community of grounds managers and volunteers, which has strengthened further throughout lockdown. Effective communication, with relevant management structures, is always beneficial. Involving your grounds staff in operational meetings will help to fill the blanks in maintaining a safe, and high quality, playing surface – something that is even more critical in these trying times.
Your turf managers will be used to communicating with coaches, players, suppliers, agronomists and even the media and will provide valuable insight and contribution.
Any change to staffing and resources will have a degree of impact on the quality of your playing surface and, whilst the variables from club to club and pitch to pitch are extensive, there are a number of constants that should be taken into consideration.
Mowing regimes are the integral part of maintaining a playing surface during growing season and the majority of the national lockdown has been at a time when grass growth was both recovering from winter stresses and reaching its optimum levels around May and June. Significant reduction in frequency and quality of mowing regimes has a highly detrimental impact on turf health and density.
Regular mowing at appropriate heights of cut promotes a dense vigorous grass sward whilst collecting clippings helps to minimise the risk of disease and ease the build-up of organic matter, which can prevent water and nutrients reaching the soil effecting root growth and density. Consider what changes there have been to your clubs mowing practices, infrequent cuts above the recommended heights can lead to thinning of the sward, turf stress and issues with returning your pitch to suitable playing height.
If no pitch maintenance has taken place for several weeks or months, use of a tractor mounted flail mower may be necessary to gradually reduce grass height and remove the clippings. This is a gradual process and no more than a third of the grass leaf should be removed at one time. If you have a break in play, raking and scarification can help to disturb and remove dead and undesirable grasses, weeds and organic matter it can also improve air circulation around the base of the grass plant and minimise the risk of disease later in the season.
Getting the pitch perfect
Depending on whether you were able to complete pitch renovations earlier in the year it may be necessary to consider fraise mowing to deal with thatch layers, anaerobic conditions such as surface algae, or severe presence of invasive undesirable grass species such as Annual Meadow Grass.
Depending on the degree of turf grooming/scarification necessary the pitch is likely to require over-seeding with a suitable Perennial Ryegrass mixture, your individual pitch construction, return to play timescales and environment will determine the rate and method of over-seeding operation but use of a disc or dimple seeder in multiple directions is typical. An adequate population of desirable grasses is essential to providing a pitch that has the wear tolerance, uniformity and recovery characteristics to promote optimum playing conditions.
In much the same way that we condition football players and provide them with the correct nutrition we should look to manage the health of the pitch also. Fertilisers, bio-stimulants, soil conditioners and fungicides all play an integral role in managing turf health particularly in demanding stadium environments that can suffer from shade, poor air circulation and humidity. The free draining hybrid pitches that help facilitate matches in all weathers often prove some of the most challenging environments to maintain a healthy pitch.
There should also be a focus on prioritising some of the cultural practices that may not have taken place as normal, aeration in the form of deep spiking is essential to de-compact the soil and introduce oxygen in to the soil profile, it encourages root development and improves drainage characteristics. Ultimately good root structure along with uniform grass coverage is crucial to a stable, safe playing surface.
Numerous other practices may be necessary, sand dressing, verti-cutting, slitting, regular brushing, weed control even use of grow lights and undersoil heating are the norm in the upper reaches of the professional game.
Bolster teams, help build their knowledge
Grounds staff and volunteers help to protect a club’s largest assets – it’s pitch, as well as the performance and safety of its players. In some cases, these assets are worth millions and underinvestment can be detrimental to results.
The one recurring theme throughout grounds management is that being pro-active and supporting the playing surface with the correct levels of staffing and resource is almost always the most economic option in the mid-long term. Grounds Managers are not in the business of wasting money and creating work for themselves. They rely on their experience and knowledge and requests for investment in the playing surface are normally through necessity. It helps to provide the product that is demanded by fans, management and skilled players.
Additional requests for capital outside of the norm may be in preparation for a particularly busy period of fixtures, training or events. It is also worth considering whether cutting corners may put pitch quality in jeopardy through the challenging winter months. The GMA holds a number of training courses and webinars for grounds staff at all levels, to help upskill and grow their knowledge.
Grounds staff, making sport possible
Too often, a pitch issues will be blamed on groundstaff. However, more often than not, a poor pitch will be the result of under investment, weather conditions out of their control, or a management team doesn’t always understand the need for certain investment or activities. Grounds Management is arguably sport’s most vital profession.
The days of the outdated stereotypes where groundspeople are concerned are long gone. The modern Grounds Manager is a scientist, environmentally conscious, an effective communicator, an expert in time management, as well as a HR and health and safety specialist. Ask yourself if there are many careers that demand such a wide skill set, and you may be hard pushed for an answer.
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