All set for Euro 2016!

Expat Jonathan Calderwood is looking forward to this month’s UEFA European Championship – especially as his ‘home team’ Northern Ireland will be playing on the pitch prepared by him at Paris Saint-Germain’s Parc des Princes Stadium

Jonathan Calderwood is a busy man – a very busy man at the moment. As head grounds manager at Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), he’s currently preparing the Parc des Princes Stadium pitch for the forthcoming Euro 2016 games – five matches comprising four group games and a knock-out match. He’s also renovating pitches at the club’s Academy ground, managing the first team training ground, involved with the planning of the club’s new training centre and flying to America once a month to oversee the installation of a new pitch at the Los Angeles training camp being used by the club for this year’s pre-season tour.

PSG’s last home game of the 2015/16 season was on 14 May, leaving him four weeks to prepare for the European Championship (the first Euro group game at Parc des Princes kicks off on 12 June). “We’ve known for a year or so that Euro games will be staged here so, in reality, I’ve had that time to ‘prepare’ the pitch,” says Jonathan. “But I’m treating the Euros like I treat every game, whether it’s a Champions League game or a youth match – I won’t change anything – in reality every game is like a Euro game for me! I do everything I can to always present the pitch in the best possible condition for every game. I’m being judged every day, just like all other groundsmen. Football managers often comment that players are only ‘as good as their last game’, and I adopt the same attitude towards groundsmanship – you’re only as good as your last pitch.”

He continues: I’ve used similar successful methods, machines, seeds and fertilisers, for example, for the past 15 years, so the regime will not change for the Euro games. Ten days before the club’s last game the pitch was heavily verticut and that was the last ‘major’ process applied to it. Other than that, we’ll employ a mini renovation programme of raking, verticutting and aeration, for example, plus the usual feeding and mowing regimes. The pitch has been looking and playing fantastic this season – it’s even been applauded by players like Lionel Messi – so I don’t see any need for drastic action.”

The 2016 European Championship, in fact, holds quite a significance for Jonathan. Born and bred in Northern Ireland, he relishes the fact that the Parc de Princes will be hosting the Northern Ireland versus Germany game (on 21 June) and, depending on how England and Northern Ireland fare in the competition, the two sides could face each other on PSG’s pitch in a knock-out game.

“You can’t live in the past”

Jonathan readily acknowledges that machinery and turf science continues to advance, causing standards to rise, “so we, as groundsmen have to keep up with all the developments if we want to stay at the top of our game”. He adds: “This month [June] I celebrate my third year with PSG in France and during that time other French football clubs have seen what can be done and as a result have increasingly raised their pitch standards.” Jonathan has played a direct role in this respect, too, presenting a seminar to French football clubs at the request of the governing body, LFP (the Ligue de Football Professionnel). 

“That’s great but I strive to ‘always be better than my last game’ – you can’t live in the past - so I do everything I can to stay up-to-date with all developments and advances in turf care. I put myself under my own pressure because I never reach the point where I think I’ve done it all! Nobody knows everything there is to know about groundsmanship; we’re always learning and, for example, adapting our techniques to suit weather conditions and the playing demands.”

Pitch preparation is, of course, guided by the weather on a daily basis, as Jonathan reflects how he had to quickly react when high temperatures affected the Desso surface at the stadium, which was laid in summer 2014. In summer 2015, however, immediately after the major renovation and seven weeks before the first game of the new season, “we were ‘enjoying’ record temperatures of 48°C and because of the heat and liberal watering, the seed shot up within five days and we had to cut it. However, on day six, when I arrived at the stadium I was shocked by seeing a pitch that, overnight, had almost died. The combination of lots of water and high humidity had encouraged an attack of Pithium blight.” This is a fungal attack particularly evident during warm, humid weather and when turf grass leaves are wet for at least 12 hours.

“I was at the stage where I thought I’d have to rip it all out and start again, just five weeks before the first game. However, I discovered a product (usually used on vegetables) that thankfully would (and did) combat the problem.”

New training complex 
PSG has ambitious plans to construct a completely new training complex which, says the club, “will be the best in the world”. It will house all the squads and comprise 18 pitches. “These will involve artificial surfaces but we’re not sure yet what the spilt we be; it could be 14 grass and four synthetic, or 16/2 or 15/3. Likewise, it is undecided whether/how many Desso or purely natural surfaces there’ll be. 

The plans are still at embryo stage – we’re currently looking at pitch layouts - but the idea is that the complex will be ready for around 2019.”
In the meantime, PSG progresses its plans for continual work at the stadium – enlarging the capacity to around 60,000 – and at the club’s two existing sites; the first team training centre and the Academy ground, the latter being added to Jonathan’s remit last year. “We invested heavily in the first team centre three years ago, when I arrived at PSG, installing 2.5 Desso pitches. Last year at the Academy ground, where there are natural grass pitches, we Koro’d off one pitch and added 7cms of rootzone; we are now doing the same to the site’s two other pitches with the aim of transforming them.”

The PSG grounds team has grown to ten (plus Jonathan) to match expectations: “I’m fortunate in that I’ve been given everything I need to do the job properly, in terms of manpower and budgets. That roll-call will no doubt increase when the new training complex comes on stream.” He adds: “My French is gradually getting better, certainly enough for me to get by in everyday life. But I have to be very careful when discussing technical issues, for example, with my assistants [eight of Jonathan’s grounds team do not speak any English]. Imagine the consequences if fertiliser dose rates were misinterpreted!”

As if this is not enough to keep Jonathan occupied, since January he has been visiting Los Angeles every month (until July) overseeing the training base for PSG’s pre-2016/17 season tour, when PSG will be playing the likes of Leicester City FC and Real Madrid. “The pitch there was suffering a lot of thatch – probably up to 6mm – so it was an easy decision to fraise mow it – we found an American company with suitable machinery – then overseed with Burmuda grass,” he says. “The pitches in North America are predominantly a mixture of Burmuda grass and perennial rye which ‘alternate’ in terms of growth/laying dormant – the rye comes through for the winter games and, from April onwards, the Burmuda grows.”

As can been seen, Jonathan certainly has a busy schedule. But his enthusiasm for the job clearly shows that he’s thriving on it!