Dave Blacknall works his magic for Colchester’s FA Cup tie

Colchester United’s long-established head groundsman Dave Blacknall talks about pitch preparations for the club’s historic cup tie at the Essex club’s Weston Homes Community Stadium

Nobody would dispute the significance of Colchester United FC’s fourth round FA Cup home tie with Tottenham Hotspur. Not least because it offered the League One club’s squad at least 90 minutes of global fame in last month’s sell-out fixture against a Premier League giant. Head groundsman Dave Blacknall, however, did not buckle under the pressure that a capacity crowd (10,000 plus) and BT Sport cameras brought to the fixture. He’s been successfully managing and maintaining the club’s stadium pitch for the past 27 years - at the Weston Homes Community Stadium since it was opened in 2008 and before that at the Layer Road ground, which had been the club’s home since its establishment in 1937.

He followed a similar pitch preparation routine for the Tottenham game as he does for every match, albeit with an eye on the weather.

“Our last game here was eleven days before the fourth round tie, when we played on the Tuesday, following a Saturday match,” says Dave. “In the build-up to these games, however, we were forecast frosty nights/mornings, so the pitch was covered in preparation for the Saturday game then recovered after the game for Tuesday’s match. We lifted the covers on the Monday for some divoting and a light mow (with our Ransomes Mastiff walk-behind cylinder mower) to 27mm, more to stand up the turf than actually cut it. The pitch was the covered again until late Tuesday afternoon, ready for that evening’s game.” 

Then followed a sequence of events during the eleven days before the Tottenham match that, says Dave, is the usual practice for any game: divoting, Toro Procoring, mowing and vertidraining (using a Charterhouse Vertidrain to a depth of seven inches) complemented by the application of Rigby Taylor’s Magnet Dynamic chelated granular iron biostimulant (in this instance, 15 bags) then cut again, to 27mm high, on the Monday preceding the game (six days before the match) complemented by the use of small-size, home-made lighting rigs in one goalmouth. “This area sits in the shade for three months of the year so the lights helps keep the sward ‘ticking over’ while they also help to dry out the area,” says Dave. The pitch was then also overmarked (using a Fleet Beamrider – “a brilliant machine”).

So, no special preparations for a televised FA Cup game? “Winter is winter,” Dave continues, “and the whole point is to ensure that the game – every game - goes ahead. Nothing must interfere with pitch preparations. Of course, the weather will dictate events, to an extent, but nothing must be ‘introduced’ that could jeopardise the pitch and its playability.”

Dave’s expertise at presenting a high-class playing surface has been built on his 27 years at Colchester – “you live and learn every day” - as well as knowledge sharing with his peers, including Ross Stannard and the team at the club’s Florence Park training ground (“an impressive set-up with five pitches”, adds Dave) and as part of the T20 matchday team at Essex County Cricket Club under the auspices of Stuart Kerrison. In addition, Dave also highlights the invaluable input during the FA Cup build-up of Sports Stadia’s Nigel Felton.

After a spell as a junior groundsman at Nottingham Forest, “Colchester United gave me the fantastic opportunity to become head groundsman at the Layer Road ground. This was a natural turf pitch with no drainage, but with judicious renovations and sand applications, plus vertidraining, the pitch did receive lots of compliments.

“Today, at this stadium, the Fibresand pitch is a totally different animal and I’m always looking to improve it. There’s pros and cons for both types of playing surface (natural turf and Fibresand) but give me the latter any day!” That said, Dave admits he has no experience of Desso surfaces so reserves comment on these.

His ability to present a pristine surface is also helped in no small way, he says, by the Rigby Taylor consumables he uses. These include the R14 perennial ryegrass cultivar and a planned “and affordable” winner/summer programme of slow-release feeding and growth regulation based around the PolyPro and Microlite Active fertilisers, for example, in addition to Magnet Dynamic. 

Dave adds that Colchester United FC’s history is peppered with plenty of FA Cup excitement. But whatever the outcome against Tottenham (this magazine went to press before the game was played) one result was certain: football fans throughout the world were able once again to see the excellence of UK groundsmanship, courtesy of 51-year-old Dave Blacknall.

Written by Colin Hoskins