Pitch problems under arrest!
After Rugby League team Warrington Wolves moved to the purpose-built Halliwell Jones Stadium, ongoing pitch problems prompted serious discussions about ground improvements and a maintenance regime that would eliminate poor pitch performance
Pitch maintenance problems have been ongoing since the Halliwell Jones Stadium was completed in 2004. While a new drainage system at five metre centres was installed (in 2007 by J Mallinson), the area of concern for Head Groundsman, Melvin Jones, was the original pitch construction material – to be considered was poor retention of the sward, stadium orientation, maintenance issues and the dual use of the facility for rugby and football (Liverpool FC reserves).
Melvin got together with Sherriff Amenity’s turf agronomist Joe Kinder and, upon inspecting the pitch, they discovered the sward composed of a relatively uneven blend of cultivated ryegrass and a high percentage of weed annual meadow grass, the latter being of particular concern due to its ability to set seed and spread rapidly in the weak and open playing surface.
Typically much lighter and more unsightly in appearance, around 50 per cent of the surface was covered with annual meadow grass, and with numerous disadvantages this was an obvious area requiring attention.
The pitch was found to be very shallow rooted, increasing the sward’s ability to break away from the surface when subjected to the rigours of play, resulting in an open turf surface which created ideal bare conditions for further weed grass ingress. Indeed, in the absence of a full sward and the stronger rooting associated with cultivated grass species, the surface had become unstable.
The accumulation of annual meadow grass is not an unexpected problem, but concerns were raised as its control and removal was not an integral part of the maintenance and management routine. Initially, it was advised that further ingress of annual meadow grass could be kept under control by adhering to a regular programme of overseeding, paying particular attention to the areas most prone to wear and weakness.
It was recommended that, to take account of the recent drainage work, Limagrain’s MM25 be used - a grass seed mixture containing creeping red fescue in addition to ryegrass cultivars. The former creeping red fescue was aimed at thickening the base of the sward and improving surface stability.
More direct action was strongly recommended at the end of the playing season, involving the partial or preferably the complete removal of the turf surface as part of a rigorous programme of improvement. Overseeding, as opposed to using turf, was the preferred option to complete the re-establishment process.
The main concern was the disruption caused by using the pitch for rugby, football and training sessions - the playing surface should obviously be allowed adequate maintenance, renovation and time for recovery. In this case, pitch over-use coupled with no end-of-season renovation period meant that the options were limited to either accepting the possibility of an inferior playing surface or having to make running repairs, eg by laying new turf tiles on a regular basis.
A possible solution would have been to install a Desso system (or similar) to increase wear tolerance. However, such a major operation would have first required additional remedial work on the poor quality sward and root zone, with the pitch still needing a period without use while the work is undertaken.
Joe Kinder found previously laid turf tiles were adding to the shallow rooting behaviour of the grasses by creating obvious root break zones in the soil profile, a situation that was preventing the roots from crossing from the turf tiles to the indigenous root zone. A maximum of 50 mm of root depth was found, with much of the sward – especially annual meadow grass - rooting within the sand in the first 25 mm. In his view, the turf tiles could continue to be used to re-instate the playing surface in the short term but they were not a long-term solution. The main concerns that needed to be addressed urgently were:
- To emphasise to the club that no pitch, however well constructed, can maintain a high standard without adequate maintenance
- To improve sward composition and density by undertaking a programme of overseeding
- To reduce the impact of the annual meadow grass by promoting a more stable and hard wearing sward
- To stabilise the playing surface by vertidraining and sanding
- To ensure adequate nutrition for growth and recovery, and
- To provide time for renovation work (preferably) involving the removal of the existing playing surface and turf tiles. Surface remedial work, overseeding and the reestablishment of the sward.
After the first five maintenance operations were implemented, the pitch began to show considerable improvement. However, it was agreed that rapid deterioration would not be an unexpected outcome, with excessive use over the winter months and having also failed to implement the full recommended renovation programme.
Two sets of sand banding completed in 2008 (by J Mallinson) at one foot centres and a sand topdressing greatly improved the drainage.
A subsequent inspection in October 2008 revealed a near full sward across the playing surface, but on closer inspection poor rooting remained that would undoubtedly lead to divot concerns once the football season commenced. The turf tiles were wet and black layer had developed, further exacerbating shallow rooting. However, drainage had improved, assisted by the addition of 100 tons of sand and with ongoing maintenance it was hoped, despite the underlying problems, the pitch could be kept in a playable condition over the winter period.
The first true test occurred when Liverpool reserves played Everton reserves on a very wet night and the pitch did indeed hold up well to the rigours of play and the prevailing conditions. With adequate intervals between games it was then hoped the pitch could continue to prove more resilient than expected and be kept in a playable condition throughout the season and this was the case. “What to do and when to do it was invaluable advice provided by Sherriff Amenity; they fully understood the problem,” said Melvin Jones.