Stoke City FC

Field Management Practices in the UK

In the worlds of field maintenance and sport, some things are different, and others are the same. The ultimate aim is to produce the best field possible and win games, but the methods of achieving both can vary. Whether it’s preparing the gridiron at the University of Florida’s fearsome home, “The Swamp,” or readying the turf for another cold and windy night at Stoke City Football Club’s bet365 stadium in England, the goals always remain the same – produce the best and win.

Working to those aims at Stoke City FC is Head Groundsman Andy Jackson. Jackson started his career at the current English Championship football club 25 years ago, and has seen the landscape of turf technology change dramatically during that time. Jackson recently shared the field maintenance practices he implements on his own pitches and how they compare and vary from what field managers do in the U.S. 

“Some of the renovation techniques in the UK have come a long way in the last 10 years, with constant development,” he said. “For instance, when a field was renovated 10 years ago, it was done using a Koro Field Top Maker, and the difference in quality from a standard renovation was massive. But there was still the issue of the field being out of action for seven to eight weeks, which for most stadiums or practice fields these days wouldn’t be acceptable due to the revenue income and preseason training schedules we have now. But now, we can achieve as little as a three- to four-week downtime with the new technologies at our disposal. The fields are renovated more precisely, and quicker using the Campey Universe Rotor or Terraplane Rotor.”

Jackson added, “The seed has also developed further, and soil amendments have played a key part in the process, with the core of the products coming from the U.S. market. I’d estimate around 30 percent of the maintenance products I use come from North America.

“The Field grow lighting systems in Europe have also helped to take pitches to a new level, and now alongside artificial carpets and stitching have been a very significant development. We have all the technology now to produce a natural pitch instead of artificial because – for those with the budgets – shade and a general lack of natural light is no longer an issue in a stadium environment.

According to Jackson, many accepted European field management practices are difficult to adapt in North America, due to differences in the length of playing seasons between Europe and the U.S. This is because there isn’t a suitable period available to the field manager to implement these often-disruptive renovation/maintenance practices in the growing season due to the game schedules.

“Another issue is the many regional, and geographical challenges that can severely restrict the suitability of successful European practices,” he added. “The distance between the furthest apart English Premier League clubs is approximately 350 miles, and in that short distance, we notice a regional climatic difference. In MLS, the distance is closer to 3,500 miles so often only the games played in the stadium is a comparison from one venue to another. I think sharing practices with other groundsmen from similar climates would result in better maintenance methods going forward.”

Jackson’s organic maintenance is done using products almost entirely from the U.S market. His view is that they are among the best researched available and ties in with his belief that the education of turfgrass professionals in the U.S. is ahead of what is offered in Europe. A part of that education process is meeting other field managers and discussing their methods, what has worked and what hasn’t. 

According to Jackson, it is through face-to-face interaction at events such as the STMA Conference that ideas can be shared and learned from. One area this is especially important is multi-use stadium where European field managers have used hybrid pitches and grow lights to help facilitate renovations.

“The grounds teams that work in these multi-use stadiums do a terrific job in maintaining the pitches, but most of these stadiums now have hybrid pitches and grow lights,” he said. “Stadium growing lights give the manager the security to undertake a full renovation each season because if Mother Nature is not helpful, the lighting technology can assist and help ensure a successful renovation. These two technologies have helped venues like Wembley Stadium complete winter renovations because that’s the only time free in their schedule.

“Sports like American football can be brutal to the surface and even more so to the grass plant. Clubs like Tottenham Hotspur have taken greater steps by developing a stadium with two pitches. This means when they host NFL games, their hybrid pitch slides underneath the stand and an artificial one slides into the stadium. This development has taken multi-use to another level in England.”

Jackson added, “I think this is the way forward for big city stadiums as revenue is required and often the driving factor for the business model. But a key factor to all of this is groundsman understanding the business needs and the business understanding the groundsman and agronomical needs. The groundsmen also need the tools to carry out the job and provide the desired pitch/field quality. It’s a very fine line between under usage and over usage. So, working relationships between event coordinators and the grounds team are key to successful pitch and event management plan.”

Although some aspects of the job differ between the U.S. and UK, some areas are no different, including work-life balance, common challenges, and always wanting to achieve the best.

“I think it’s the same for all grounds managers across the world, because we want to achieve the best,” said Jackson. “But I can only speak for myself when I say I think you have to live and breathe the job. You need passion and the plans A, B and C in your head at all times, because, at the end of the day, we are dealing with hundreds of players beating our grass up daily in sometimes very challenging circumstances.

“The biggest challenge I have is not knowing the weather in one month’s time! In all honesty, every day brings a different challenge – weather, training schedules, staff allocation, disease pressure,” he said. “This is what makes us enjoy the job as a challenge. I’m very lucky in having a fantastic team behind me who work incredibly hard. I also have the backup from key companies in the industry, which will always be at the end of the phone to help me with a solution to a problem. A big assist for me are the friends and fellow field managers that share their knowledge, coming up with new ideas. I don’t think we’d be where we are now without that.

Jackson added, “Be brave, don’t be afraid to try new ways in improving your field. Then believe in your decisions and share practices with fellow sports field managers. Sharing knowledge is the key to our industry.”

Editor’s Note: These materials were provided by Campey Turf Care Systems.