Artificial intelligence at St George’s Park

St Georges Park

As Alan Ferguson reveals his award-winning routine for the maintenance of a 3G surface at the National Football Centre, it is clear that his quest to continually improve doesn’t stop at grass pitches.

Alan Ferguson has never been one to rest on his groundscare laurels. He didn’t do that at Glasgow Rangers, or at Ipswich Town FC where he won the groundsman of the year award five times in his respective league. And he’s certainly not doing it at St George’s Park, where as head of grounds and estates, he has played a key role in quickly establishing the National Football Centre as the jewel in the crown of English football.

Alan moved to the 330-acres estate in 2011 as The Football Association (FA) declared that the Burton upon Trent site would become ‘a sporting destination of choice for coaches, players, administrators and officials’ with the intention of it also being the training base for 24 England teams and the focal point for the FA's coaching and player development work.

The £105 million centre is also the headquarters of FA Learning – delivering all FA national coach education courses – and it features a sports medicine, rehabilitation and human performance facility. Through the Outdoor Leadership Centre, FA Learning encourages the development of high-performing teams and leaders via programmes in leadership, management and team development.

Alan was faced with an enormous task in establishing the playing surfaces as well as recruiting the team that, in addition to being responsible for the maintenance of the playing surfaces, would also be charged with caring for the surrounding 180,000-200,000 sq m of off-pitch areas including meadowland, jogging trails, wetland areas and trees.

The centre features 14 pitches – four synthetic surfaces and 10 grass; four natural and six hybrid, including two Desso pitches that replicate the Wembley Stadium surface and three Fibresand surfaces that use Rigby Taylor R14CR, R314 and R140 seed mixes.

Today, the results of the  endeavours by Alan and his 14-strong team – and, it must be said, the wisdom of the FA’s Pitch Development Working Group - regularly attract global plaudits, including the 2014 IOG Kubota/Redexim Charterhouse Best Maintained Artificial Pitch of the Year Award.

Alan is clear that the ongoing success of the National Football Centre and the quality of its playing surfaces – whether natural, hybrid or synthetic - is due to three factors:

  • The skill and dedication of his groundscare team – Alan is complemented by a head groundsman, seven groundsmen, four estate workers and a co-ordinator;
  • The “great support” of the FA’s Pitch Development Working Group - “the group is so proud at winning the award that the trophy is on full display in reception at the FA’s offices here”;
  • And the continual input and expertise of suppliers such as Bernhards, Campey Turf Care Systems, Harrods, Rigby Taylor, Ransomes Jacobsen, Redexim Charterhouse and Technical Surfaces.

While the individual contributions by everyone in each group are invaluable, with all three groups working with a similar, singular mindset of delivering a high-quality of service and achieving excellence, the National Football Centre is clearly underpinned by an unrivalled powerhouse of experience, expertise and technical know-how that will undoubtedly continue to enhance what can be achieved in the care of playing surfaces.

Quest for perfection

As Alan highlights the maintenance routines that won his team the IOG Award, his typical intelligent thoroughness and relentless quest for perfection shines through: “The way we approach the care of a synthetic carpet is no different to that of a grass pitch in that ‘more use means more maintenance’,” he says. “Yes, a synthetic surface will give more hours’ play than a grass pitch, but it’s never been true that the maintenance of an artificial surface should be easier or any less. I’ve always seen synthetic as needing the same level of maintenance; albeit a different type of maintenance.”

He continues: “I’ve spent a lot of time researching the use and maintenance of artificial surfaces, gathering information, input and advice from users in Scandinavia, Germany and Holland, for example, as well as from STRI.

“In addition, we work continually with companies such as Technical Surfaces and Redexim Charterhouse to push the boundaries; indeed, our partnership with Redexim is invaluable and the company’s business manager Curtis Allen works closely with us in discussing and developing new equipment and new ways of working. Redexim offers a comprehensive range of kit – and our work with the company, which clearly specialises in this field, has included visits to the machine manufacturing site in Holland and in-depth discussions with its designers.”

One example of this is the centre’s trials with the Redexim Carrier, a relatively lightweight three-wheeled implement-carrying vehicle that has three-point PTO to handle a range of surface maintenance implements. Alan says: “The whole point of our work with the Carrier is to reduce surface compaction – in the same way as we try to prevent this on grass pitches – and, importantly, the Carrier does not leave wheel marks; its 3psi ground rating compares to 12-14psi from a 25-30hp tractor.

“There is also a correlation here with the care of a Desso surface and I am confident that a lot of the kit we use on the artificial surfaces would be equally at home working on the hybrid pitches.”

Brush and hoover

Built in October 2011 and opened in April 2012, the indoor 3G Desso I-DNA surface (infilled with sand and rubber), the pitch on which the IOG Award entry focused, was built and is maintained to FIFA 2 Star standard. That said, the maintenance regime is quite straightforward; the pitch is brushed every day for 45-60 minutes and, importantly, the brushing (by either a Sisis Osca or a Redexim Charterhouse Verti Brush/Verti Groom) takes place in eight different directions “to ensure the fibres are standing up”. It is ‘hoovered’ every month (by a Redexim Charterhouse Verti Top) while drag brushes and drag mats are also used, as well as a Raycam rake, all pulled by a pair of Yanmar tractors. 

Much of this work is carried out by groundsmen Andrew Cubbitt along with Reece Venning and Luke Bowden who received training from the equipment suppliers and they work closely with companies such as Technical Surfaces on the renovation techniques. The trio were also involved in the construction of two of the synthetic pitches, which has given them a different (and valuable) insight into artificial surfaces.

Used, on average, 34 hours a week, the pitch hosts most of the FA’s coach education programme (the UEFA A and B licence, as well as pro licence programmes) and accommodates training for the PGMOL professional referee group, as well as hosts games from across the football family including both male and female international development tournaments at under 16 and under 17 level. The pitch has also hosted training sessions for the England senior men’s and women’s teams (qualification games are increasingly being played on 3G surfaces) and because this year’s Women’s World Cup finals in Canada is being played on 3G, the pitch has been be key to the team’s preparation.

Also, the pitch is used for a large volume of school activities/games (the FA’s community coaches have brought in children from Staffordshire and Derbyshire) and, being FIFA 2 Star, it accommodates rugby (England senior men’s and women’s, as well as Sevens teams have used it). It is also available to local grassroots teams and for charity games, including a 24-hour game played by the Fire Service. The Armed Forces have also been invited to use it as part of the FA’s support for the Armed Forces.

“Ball roll is the biggest issue we face within the annual FIFA test,” Alan continues. “Ball roll is quoted by FIFA as being eight - 10 metres, but it is clear that the more the surface is used then the harder it is to achieve that.

We’ve found that with 30/35 hours a week play, we can achieve a ball roll of 11 metres; we have to shut down the pitch for a day to achieve the FIFA standard.”

With 7,200 playing hours across all the pitches in season 2013/14, “and we’re on schedule to match or exceed that this year”, the centre’s popularity continues to grow so it’s no surprise that the logistics of pitch bookings/usage demands a full-time co-ordinator, who acts as the ‘bridge’ between the FA and Alan’s groundscare schedule.

Alan adds; “Everyone who uses the centre wants to play on a pitch that is as good as that at Wembley – and they want to do that 365 days a year. So, our biggest challenge as a grounds team is to continually raise the bar.”

Invaluable Support

The groundscare team at St George’s Park can call on a wide array of maintenance machinery and equipment, comprising nine different types of mowers. These include a trio of Ransomes Jacobsen Fairway 250s for the larger areas and a fleet of Dennis G860s and Premier 30s for use on the centre’s elite pitches. Much of the site’s pitch renovation programme is also carried out in-house using the centre’s own portfolio of kit including Imants Field Top Maker and Recycling Dresser as well as seeding equipment and topdressers.

In particular, Alan Ferguson highlights the ongoing contributions made by a number of companies:

  • Bernhard Grinders – Express Dual 4000 cylinder grinder and Anglemaster 4000 bottom grinder, plus grinding training-tuition. “The grinders have made a massive difference to the cut quality and general plant health.”
  • Campey Turf Care Systems –  the Air2g2; Vredo Super Compact 1.80m Overseeder; Raycam 1.8m Aeraseeder and LM3010 line marker; Koro Field Topmaker 2000 c/w scarifiying rotor and Terraplane rotor, plus Recycling Dresser; Imants ShockWave 210, RotoBlast and RotoSweep; Dakota 412 Turf Tender; and tractors from New Holland - TC35, T4050, 3040 CDT, T4020 and 2035. “Campey continues as our renovation partner. Its product portfolio gives us an amazing range of options around pitch renovations and, again, the company’s expertise is as valuable as the products.

“The Koro Imants range is especially good for us with six hybrid pitches on-site.” Campey has also supplied the National Football Centre with Dennis 30inch Premier mowers, G860s c/w Verticut cassettes and G860 c/w eight-blade cassettes, plus the Osca, Variseeder and Multislit from Sisis.

  • Harrod UK – a wide range of equipment, including socketed senior football goals, portable 9v9/7v7 small-sided goals, aluminium and fibreglass team shelters, ball stop systems and futsal/disability football goals – “probably the best pitch furniture to be had; it gives a great finish to the pitches.”
  • Premier Pitches – “The company has been invaluable in helping with the annual renovation of the hybrids and without doubt the company has filled a niche in the market for renovating hybrid surfaces. The company has been a good partner in helping to deliver the required quality of playing surfaces.”
  • Ransomes Jacobsen – Two x LF550 and one 250 (DH) Fairway mowers; Two  x Tournament Ultra Pitch rollers; Two x1600XD -R Diesel utility vehicles; SXG22 Compact cut and collect ride-on - “the Jacobsen Fairway mowers give  a great quality cut on the larger double-field plateaus. The facility also uses some of the other mowers in the range to maintain pitch surrounds and off-pitch areas.”
  • Redexim Charterhouse – supplies the centre with the Verti-Top 1800, Verti-Comb 4000, two Verti-Clean 1500s, Verti-Groom 2000 and, currently on trial, the Carrier and implements as well as the Xtreme Clean and Speedbrush.
  • Rigby Taylor – “This company has been a supportive partner for consumables which have helped to keep the pitches in good condition. The team have full access to the company’s experts and with such a comprehensive range of products to choose from it can find a solution to most problems.” St George’s Park uses Rigby Taylor’s R14CR (creeping perennial ryegrass blend), R140 (transitional rye with Tetraploid) and R314 (100 per cent cool growth ryegrass blend), and the centre’s fertiliser programme is based on the company’s Microlite and Premier HG range. The Rigby Taylor Impact line marking system is used throughout the complex, including two recently ordered new Impact iGO Advance line markers.
  • Technical Surfaces – Alan has used Technical Surfaces to help the centre pass the FIFA tests; and has now undergone three tests and without the company’s help he would have struggled. “This area of synthetic work is under-estimated and the company has spent quite a bit of time helping the centre.”