Tuesday 27 September 2016

Sinead Kissane: The secret to why the Croke Park pitch is the best there is

Published 26/06/2015 | 02:30

Croke Park pitch manager Stuart Wilson at work in his ‘office’ (Sportsfile)
Croke Park pitch manager Stuart Wilson at work in his ‘office’ (Sportsfile)

What's the first thing you look at as you take your seat in the stand or your place on the Hill at Croke Park? It's the pitch, isn't it? Tune into the hum in the stadium and one line you'll probably hear is "the pitch looks great doesn't it". It gives a certain bang of pride when the grass looks pitch perfect. It is, after all, our field.

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And it ain't any old field; this is one of the hardest working grounds in Europe. The Script played there last Saturday night. And when fans eye up the pitch for tomorrow's Leinster football semi-finals, the Croke Park pitch manager Stuart Wilson hopes there will be little or no evidence that a concert took place there last weekend.

Now, I'm not a grass, turf or botany nerd of any kind but the level of detail Wilson and his three staff members operate at is quite extraordinary. For example, for four weeks before The Script concert the nutrient input for the grass was reduced.

Why? "So the grass isn't growing under the flooring. The warm, damp environment is very conducive to disease and young grass is more prone to damage. We apply growth regulators and fungicides to help keep disease at bay while the pitch is covered," Wilson explains.

"We analyse the risks to the playing surface and emphasise the need for a very tight turnaround to minimise damage."

One of the main challenges of having a concert at Croker is the removal and replacement of the turf for under the stage. For The Script, a section measuring 6.15m x 93m (width of the grass) at the Hill end to a depth of 40mm was removed. When the stage was taken down, new turf was transported overnight and arrived at Croker at 2pm on Tuesday. It took ten hours to prepare and lay the new grass.

So the new turf is down, is that the work done? Not at all.

"Post-concert we brush the grass back up, cut and fertilise it so that less than 24 hours after the concert the pitch is back in recovery mode. The pitch is spiked and the grass cut every day. We then work for the rest of the week on match day presentation and playability level."

If you think cutting the grass at Croker must be easy as, think again. No tractor lawnmowers here (leaves too many marks), it's all manual lawnmowers which gives it that sleek manicured sheen.

Yesterday, staff would have mowed the pitch three times which is a seven-kilometre walk. There's so much more - like the prep to find the right new turf. It has to go through rigorous tests like surface traction, tear strength and moisture content - all to make sure it's the perfect fit for our field.

So what's it like giving the ground a huge amount of TLC, only to have to remove a section for a concert? "It can be tough," Wilson admits. "You put a huge amount of work in to get the pitch to a high standard and it's gone in a matter of minutes! It's slightly heart-breaking but you have to go with it because there's always so much happening at Croke Park."

Like the players who play on the pitch, Wilson's work is there for everyone to judge. "There's an added pressure, without a doubt," Wilson concedes.

Since joining in January 2012, he was told that people will make comments about the pitch but not to take it personally. He quickly learned that "nearly every GAA fan is a pitch critic".

He gets asked all kinds of questions from the public and stadium tours. When one visitor saw the usual light and dark shades after the grass was cut in opposite directions, he was asked "do you spray the grass two different colours?" No, that's just good mowing skills.

Wilson has Arsenal FC to thank for setting his standards. He worked for just under two years at the award-winning Emirates Stadium. Just recently, a few of the ground staff from Manchester City visited to see how it's done at GAA HQ. Yes, that's the same City which is owned by Sheikh Mansour who's got a personal fortune of about £17 billion. It tells you something about Wilson and his team's standing in their field.

Advanced

Wilson believes it's vital to keep updated on new technology. He's able to operate their technology remotely via a BMS system which is one of the "most advanced set-ups in stadia". The pitch technology consists of undersoil heating, FAVVS (Forced Air Ventilation Vacuum System, which pulls moisture through the pitch during very wet spells) and SGL. The Stadium Grow Lights "produce grass growth during the winter months when there is no sunlight in the stadium. It's the single most important piece of technology we have."

He always looks at other pitches and courses. It was hard to see the green from the broccoli and cauliflower criticism during the US Open at Chambers Bay last week. But Wilson, who previously worked in golf, had huge empathy for the course manager. "I can tell you that guy probably didn't sleep during the tournament with all the criticism. It must have been a really tough time."

Wilson knows exactly how much effort is put into a job you love but one which everyone has an opinion about. He takes huge pride at the work his staff have done in a week like this. But it's all about September, All-Ireland final days and seeing the players run out onto the pitch.

Yep. Our field is in good hands.

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