Pitch Perfect

Friday 14 June 2013 15:30

The First Team may be away on holiday at present, but the hard work never stops at Fulham. We caught up with Venues Operations Director Graham Gilmore and Head Groundsman Bruce Elliot to see what work is being done at Craven Cottage and Motspur Park over the summer.

How much of an undertaking actually needs to be done in the summer months – is it the same every year?

Graham Gilmore: It depends on what we’re going to do. We’ll try and do the Cottage on a two-year cycle where we completely renovate the pitch, then we part-renovate it.

Bruce Elliot: The pitch at the Cottage is a Fibrelastic pitch and what that means is that it’s a mixture of artificial fibres within the first four inches of the root zone, plus elastic in there to make the pitch softer for the players to play on. This year we’ve stripped the pitch and just seeded straight into the root zone that we have at the moment. The next season – which is what we did last season – will see us add more fibres because obviously we’ll lose fibres over the two year period. It just freshens the pitch back up again but the fibres are there to hold the root zone together as a flat playing surface.

GG: This year we’ve done the lesser renovation because we had a full renovation the year before. But we could only start that after two-and-a-half weeks of corporate events, private events and academy events. Bruce needs about eight to 10 weeks to make sure that the pitch is bedded in and grown before we can play on it. We’ve actually got it earlier due to the cancellation of the international friendly matches, so we pulled it back and started earlier. That meant we could have the Real Betis and Parma games sooner because we’ve got enough time to do the pitch. With the pitches here at Motspur Park, I’ll let Bruce go through it but we turn over all six pitches to various degrees of renovation.

BE: We have two Fibresand pitches here which are similar to the stadium – that’s our Arena pitch [where the Under-21s play their matches] and Pitch One – and, again, they’ll get turned over on a two-year cycle and have more fibres added in, which is what we’ve done to those two pitches this year. Like Graham said, the other pitches will have varying degrees of work done, depending on what they had done the previous season. Some of the pitches we’ve just ‘fraise mowed’ which is where we just basically go down to the crown of the plant and take off all the rest of the leaf; it will take out the weaker rooted plants and then we’ll seed into that. It’ll be heavily scarified to remove any organic matter and thatch build-up.

Have these fibres been around for a while, and what’s the benefit they bring?

BE: Reinforcement has been in pitches for a while and there are three main products: Desso, Fibresand and Fibrelastic. Fibrelastic is the newest revolution; it’s been around for a few years. There are around about eight clubs in the country probably that have got Fibrelastic in their pitches, the rest being generally Desso or Fibresand. The reason you have them is they’re a reinforcement for the root zone – we’ve all seen the pictures from the 80s where they were built with soil and drained poorly, and because the whole game’s been revolutionised by things like Sky TV, it’s an expensive business if the game gets called off. So what we all did was move to sand-based pitches which drain freely. The only problem with that is when you lose the grass coverage, the sand tends to fall apart. That’s why now there’s been these reinforcements invented – it’s not an artificial pitch but it has artificial fibres in it. The Club opted for Fibrelastic because it’s the most comfortable for the players – it’s supposed to react like a soft clay pitch.

GG: It’s good for shock absorbing of the joints such as knees and ankles. You will find that players should get fewer injuries playing on a Fibrelastic pitch, just due to the fact that their impact on the pitch is absorbed more effectively through the elastic being softer.

Have you had much feedback as to how well it’s working in that respect?

GG: A lot of the players have said that they notice the difference between our pitch and the pitches they play on away from home. The way they feel after the games, especially the next day, when they wake up they say their joints don’t feel as bad. That was more the case with the older players when they first experienced it, people like Danny Murphy and Simon Davies. They really were complimentary of the pitch.

BE: This is why companies have gone Fibrelastic, because a reinforced pitch can generally be a firm surface, which is fine for some players, but other players are very susceptible to injury so this is why they’ve now come down to the lines of a Fibrelastic pitch. Like Graham was saying, we’ve generally had very good feedback from it – they like the feel of the pitch, rather than walking on concrete basically.

How long have we had Fibrelastic for?

BE: This will be our third season.

GG: We had trouble with it the first year so we got together with the company and realised that there were issues with the mix. Wolverhampton Wanderers had the same issue so they changed the mix and we replaced the pitch again the next year. I think we’re now seeing the benefits of the pitch. Last year we were in the top part of the Premier League with marks for our pitch; our marks were always above 4.5, around 4.7 out of 5 so we did very, very well. We still had some issues during January and February with grass coverage but we were lucky that we had a month’s break in March when there were no home matches, so Bruce could reseed the pitch and cover it, and the temperature turned and got a little bit better so we could actually get some more grass on there. 

A lot of fans and visitors were very complimentary about the calibre of the turf last season – that must be satisfying to hear?

GG: I think the biggest compliment the groundstaff got was when Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger was extremely impressed - he thought it was one of the best pitches he’d seen in the Premier League. He actually called the groundsmen over and he had quite a lengthy discussion with them. Considering Arsenal had spent millions on their Desso pitch, it was nice to have someone like him actually compliment our pitch and say it was one of the best he’d seen in the Premier League, so we were really pleased with that.

BE: We all know now that there are very few poor surfaces in the Premier League, because there’s a lot of investment in them. A lot of technology goes into them now - growlights are a huge factor in maintaining the coverage of grass – so there are very few poor surfaces. That means there are high standards to be kept.

What other changes are being made?

GG: At the stadium we go through recertification which is everything from electrics to checking the nuts and the bolts on the stands, checking the barriers, checking the lighting, checking the audio system – all that has to be checked before we go back to the council with all our certification. Then they rubber-stamp it and we get our certificate to operate and open as a football stadium that can take people in. Then there’s the general repainting and there’ll obviously be some rebranding because of the new kit supplier. So at the Cottage it’s more of a general maintenance for us. It always makes me laugh when people say to me ‘there’s 90 days until the football season starts, you must be putting your feet up.’ That’s 90 days for me to repair what’s happened in the last nine months to get ready to open the doors in August.