Tuesday 17 July 2018

Irishman who pitched for World Cup glory will watch from home

George Mullan (right) with Maxim Radomsky, the head groundsman at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow
George Mullan (right) with Maxim Radomsky, the head groundsman at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

IF the figures match up with 2014, then a billion viewers will tune in to tomorrow afternoon's World Cup final in Moscow.

But the Irishman charged with making sure that the pitch is of an acceptable standard will be watching from his home in Sligo.

That's because George Mullan, the CEO and owner of SIS Pitches, the company which secured the contract for installing pitches in six of the twelve World Cup stadiums, has no fears about the state of the Luzhniki Stadium surface for the clash between France and Croatia.

Four years of work have gone into hitting all the right deadlines and Mullan left Russia on Thursday morning confident that his team of mainly Russian workers who have managed the surface throughout the tournament will be able to see it through.

He also has to fly out to America on Monday morning for a meeting with Green Bay Packers, a new client that have sought out his services for the installation of an ultra-modern playing surface for their needs.

The business is thriving, and it has come a long way from humble beginnings and a gamble from Mullan in 2001 that came with the cost of a 98.4pc paycut.

He was working for a pharmaceutical company in Amsterdam when he learned that his PA's husband was involved in a company that specialised in pitch installation and Mullan and his English wife Jo decided to buy into it.

Mullan hailed from a farming background in Sligo, but the main driver in getting involved was a desire to run his own business.

"My company was about to transfer me back to Kansas City, but I didn't want to go back. The business came up, we bought a share and, over the next couple of years, we basically bought the business."

There were rocky periods in the early years, with Mullan freely admitting that he learned from making plenty of mistakes. He came into the industry at an interesting time as modern stadia - especially those with retractable roofs - were finding that the shortage of access to natural light was affecting the quality of the surfaces.

Mullan's company worked in the area of returfing pitches, although their main revenue driver became the construction of artificial surfaces in a variety of sports.

"We moved to England, which was the biggest market, and began to make our own artificial carpet which we've supplied to teams and schools all around the UK and then to Ireland. We've done GAA pitches, soccer pitches, a lot of the schools in Dublin. We must have at least 50 to 60 pitches in Ireland now and it's just evolved."

However, the real international breakthrough has come in the construction of hybrid pitches for major stadiums which consist of a base of natural turf which is synthetically reinforced to stabilise the soil and strengthen the roots.

Over time, the their technology has evolved. SIS steadily made a name for themselves and provided the pitch in Schalke for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. However, their profile soared when they embraced the ambitious project of looking after all of the pitches for the 2010 African Cup of Nations in Angola, a country that had only emerged from civil war eight years previously.

"We weren't that well known and when we said we would build 14 pitches, the whole industry said it couldn't be done," Mullan explains, "We got it done. There were no water tanks at some of the stadiums, we had to improvise and it made us a lot sharper. Suddenly other people started to pay attention and realised these guys can actually do this."

Further offers came in from there. SIS has now provided the pitches for five Champions League finals, but made a conscious decision to target this World Cup. They tied up deals for three of the pitches - the two Moscow venues and Kaliningrad - and were then approached with just 14 months notice by local organisers responsible for the stadiums in Saransk, Samara and Rostov.

But the Luzhniki has been the focus because it will host a game that will be shown all around the globe, and it's the first time that the showcase will be played on a surface that is not 100pc natural grass

The pitch was essentially formed in the space of an eight week window ahead of last summer's Confederations Cup.

SIS staff lay the underground foundations which includes undersoil heating and 45km of pipe which facilitates the installation of SIS aeration technology which manages the moisture of the soil and can remove excess water from the surface with the touch of a button. It can also blow hot or cold air depending on the prevailing temperatures.

The pitch was sown with grass seeds with SIS machines then stitching in the artificial fibers which make it more durable. Mullan described it as the most technologically advanced pitch that has been used for the final.

There have been challenges, with three games in six days at the beginning of the tournament aligned with training sessions and rehearsals for the opening ceremony putting a lot of strain on the surface. On Thursday, there was another troupe on the pitch readying themselves for the closing ceremony.

The combined 65 hours of use in a four week window is comparable with the entirety of a Premier League season, so Mullan's staff have been working overtime.

When nobody is talking about the pitches, then it's a job well done and Mullan is extremely satisfied with the feedback from a tournament that will be remembered for the positive football.

He made the decision to move back to Sligo from England so his children could go to secondary school there, but travel commitments means he spends a lot of time on the road.

With offices in Moscow, Istanbul and Dubai as well as in England, it's a demanding role. SIS employ close to 350 staff and, at this moment, have 11 active sites in the UK, four in Dubai, and one each in Japan and Denmark as well as the Green Bay project.

There's little time to pause and reflect. But an active role in sport's biggest game is a cause for quiet satisfaction.

Irish Independent

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