The unseen work of football ground staff, who ensure the grass is always greener

While pitches at Euro 2016 have struggled to cope with unseasonably heavy rain, England’s dreary weather has made Premier League ground staff world experts.

Every football tournament has the occasional glitch. For Euro 2016, the poor quality of the pitches, especially in Lille, Marseille and Saint-Denis, has been a thorn in the side of the organisers. France manager Didier Deschamps was among the most vocal critics of the playing surfaces, expressing dismay over the decision to host an AC/DC concert at the Stade Vélodrome on the eve of the tournament. “Honestly, when I saw the photos and videos at the end of the concert, I thought I was in another world, but that’s the power of Highway to Hell.”

Tournament director Martin Kallen was no less scathing, saying: “The pitches should be better and we’re not happy. We have taken measures to preserve pitches but in a summer tournament you don’t expect it to rain so much.” Perhaps Kallen’s concern about the Wales players’ children coming on to the field to celebrate their quarter-final win over Belgium was more about protecting the Lille pitch than a desire to prevent the event descending into “a family party”.

France has experienced unusually wet weather before and during the tournament, but the UK has to deal with inclement conditions throughout the season and Premier League pitches do not cut up as badly as several of the surfaces have at Euro 2016. So, although the England team succumbed meekly to Iceland, the pitches on which they play every week are the envy of the continent.

The 2015-16 season was little short of an unmitigated disaster for Aston Villa, whose relegation was confirmed when they lost their eighth league game in a row at Old Trafford. There was not much to savour at the club this season but they did enjoy one triumph. Paul Mytton, the Villa Park grounds manager, picked up the Premier League Grounds Team of the Year award after fighting off stiff competition from Arsenal and, inevitably, Leicester City. The standard of pitches in English football has improved immeasurably over the last few decades and the competition to be named top grounds team is intense. Weekly marks for Premier League and Football League grounds are recorded by the Playing Surfaces Committee, which determines the end of year awards.

Long gone are the cloying, muddy pitches that lasted throughout the winter and were left scarred well into the spring, before developing bare patches on the hard, baked surfaces at the tail end of the season. In the 1980s, four clubs thought installing artificial turf would solve the problem of deteriorating surfaces. At the vanguard of this quartet were Queens Park Rangers, who installed an Omni-Turf surface in 1981 while managed by Terry Venables.

The first English professional match on an artificial pitch was played at Loftus Road in September 1981, when QPR hosted Luton Town, who went on to become the second English professional club with an all-weather surface in 1985. Preston North End and Oldham Athletic followed suit a year later, even though people objected to the style of football the pitches encouraged and the advantage these teams gained from using a surface that was unfamiliar to their opponents.

The “plastic revolution” did not last for long. QPR ripped up their pitch and returned to natural grass in 1988 and English football’s experiment ended on 18 May 1994, when Preston played Torquay United in the Third Division play-offs semi-final. The FA banned artificial pitches in 1995 and, despite significant developments in the technology – with the emergence of 3G and 4G pitches – that ban remains in place, even though England and Wales played Euro 2016 qualifying matches on artificial turf in Lithuania and Andorra, and the Women’s World Cup in 2015 was played exclusively on synthetic pitches.

Today’s grass pitches at the top level are rarely anything but pristine swards of green with barely a mark on them. They have improved due to horticultural and technological advances. It may have escaped the notice of most fans that there is an Institute of Groundsmanship, let alone that it was established as far back as 1934. The IOG chief executive, Geoff Webb, explains why pitches have improved radically. “The merging of artificial turf technology and the traditional turf sector means that 43 of the 44 clubs in Premier League and Championship now have a reinforced pitch, which is where artificial fibres are stitched into the pitch vertically, and then grass seed is oversewn, creating a condition that allows the grass plant to anchor to the fibre, creating a stable playing surface.” The choice of hybrid pitches has increased dramatically over the last few years “from a handful to well over 20 different types available today.”

“All the pitches have undersoil heating, as well as pop-up sprinklers,” adds Webb. “The vast majority have a high sand content, with up to 95%-to-5% sand-to-soil mix, which allows a free draining surface that is capable of dissipating heavy rainfall.” As a result, the number of games called off for waterlogged pitches in the top divisions has been reduced dramatically.

Significantly, the importance of good maintenance has been recognised by clubs. “More ground staff at senior level report directly to the board. If you look at new developments, such as Tottenham Hotspur, you will find the ground staff will now have a key input into the development of the new planned stadium. In the past, the last person to be consulted when a new stadium was planned would be the ground staff. The groundsman or woman now has to be a scientist, an engineer, a businessman, be media friendly and have a detailed knowledge of agronomy.”

The level of preparation and precision at the FA’s National Football Centre is impressive. The ground staff is headed up by Alan Ferguson, a Scot who was formerly greenkeeper at the the R&A golf club at St Andrews. The meticulousness extends to having a replica pitch at St. George’s Park, where England teams train, so the players can develop a feel for the Wembley turf. “We have our ‘little Wembley’, pitch six at St. George’s Park. The grass is cut to the same length, it’s deliberately prepared and cared for in the same way as the Wembley pitch so that the players can get used to the speed the ball will roll, the way it will bounce and the boots they need to wear.”

The IOG is also committed to improving grassroots facilities, which have been sadly neglected in the past. There are moves to establish a network of support across England. The Grounds and Natural Turf Improvement Programme is a collaboration between various sporting governing bodies such as the FA, ECB, RFL and Sport England that aims to grade pitches and highlight those that need remedial attention. They also are looking to set up education and training for all levels of groundsmanship from volunteers to the leading professionals, which alongside the FA’s announcement of increased investment for natural turf at grassroots facilities should start to make a difference. The Pitch Improvement Programme was launched in March 2016 with an initial £8m commitment to help with more than 2,000 grass pitches across the country.

The football played in the Premier League may not match La Liga or the Bundesliga, but English pitches are at the very pinnacle, especially the one at Villa Park. By a strange twist of fate, the Parc de Princes pitch, which was acknowledged as one of the best at Euro 2016, was the responsibility of Northern Irishman Jonathan Calderwood, who just happens to be the former groundsman at Aston Villa.

By Richard Foster, Guardian Sport Network.