Miles of mowing, three separates sites to maintain, watering in the heat of June and a special NHS message - all in a day's work for our team of groundsmen during a strange period for everyone in the football industry. We caught up with Grounds Manager Adam Grantham and Head Groundsman Chris Last for an in-depth update on how they have been keeping the training ground and our stadium surfaces in superb condition...
Q. How have the last three months been for a football club groundsman?
AG: "Very busy, a lot to take in. The way we would normally work has not been possible as we've had to reduce our output as we've reduced the team of groundstaff who have been working.
"We've still been overseeing all three sites, with Chris at the Stadium, Phil and James at Hogwood and myself, Matt and Scott at Bearwood. We have had to be realistic in what we can achieve and maintain but, as a department, I’m very happy with how hard all the staff have worked in these very strange times. To a man, they have shown very good attitudes - not just towards the pitch works but in terms of the new protocol we have to follow, enhanced cleanliness and social distancing practices which the club has enforced on a daily basis."
CL: It’s definitely had its challenges that’s for sure. Being a football groundsman always presents new challenges when you least expect them so, although the unexpected is always just around the corner, 2020 will be one of the most memorable in my career for being unique.
Q: Has this period without football been good for the pitches, giving them time to rest and grow? Or, as they are going to need to last for months longer than anticipated, is that going to take its toll?
CL: "The pitch at the stadium needed the break and our first goal was to get the pitch back to a standard that we were happy with, so it could be at its very best for when games were to return.
"This took around 3-4 weeks to get back to where we needed it to be but trying to maintain that standard of pitch has been hard work in these strange circumstances, so we always have room for improvement."
AG: "With first team training now back at Bearwood, it is great to be honest - it feels like a bit of normality is back.
"The pitches recovered very well especially with all the nice weather we are having currently. And the pitches do need the team back as they can get quite dense and football being played on them will naturally thin them out for us.
"With the uncertainty of the when games will commence again, there will be ongoing discussions about how we manage these pitches going through the summer and what sort of pitch renovations will be needed going forward."
Q: Without getting too technical, what sort of processes have been undertaken to keep the pitches looking as pristine as they do?
CL: "Initially we needed to groom and clean the grass sward as best we could with the tools we have to promote new healthy growth and reduce the chance of any disease to develop. We then added seed to areas of the pitch where coverage wasn’t acceptable, to get us back up to full coverage.
"Following this, I have reduced feeding inputs dramatically and used a PGR (plant growth regulator) to promote lateral growth, root growth and to reduce vertical growth - too much cutting causes extra stress on the grass.
"Once the pitch had got back to full coverage, I began grooming weekly to help remove any decaying leaves and allow good airflow in amongst the grass."
AG: "We too have been using products on all the site at Bearwood to slow the plant down using PGRs to enable us not to be cutting so regularly, allowing us to get on with other tasks at the facility as well.
"We've had a regular cutting scheme to keep on top, and a lot of watering; checking all the arcs of the sprinklers are correct and in some cases we are hand watering areas of drought."
Q: Have you been able to get some down time during lockdown too?
AG:"We have been sensible on our approach to working in this period, trying to establish a consistent work pattern with an achievable plan, day to day, and plenty of down time for rest before going again.
CL: "Since lockdown began, I have managed to keep to a normal working week of Monday-Friday which has brought some good routine to these strange times.
"This is the first time in a 13-year career that I’ve not worked weekends for an extended period - so that’s been nice. But the weekends have been needed to recover from the amount of miles I am walking a week now."
Q: Much like the players, it must be hard work preparing pitches without a firm prospect of football to work towards for so long?
CL: "Like most football managers say, as soon as the final whistle goes in any match we start the preparations for the next match, working to tight deadlines, so not having a matchday deadline is unusual.
"Knowing this, it was important for me to set new deadlines and keep up with routines that we would normally do. I have been working alone for the last six weeks, so it's been hard work, both mentally and physically."
Q: How is Bearwood shaping up as a facility? Is it an exciting project to be part of?
AG: "Bearwood is looking fantastic and it has so much further potential. It has been a long project but know it’s all happening at pace now and it’s great to see all the hard work and planning designs become reality.
"It really is a special place and all the staff at Reading Football Club will be so privileged to work here, in such amazing surroundings at such a fantastic facility.
Q: Is this period of hot weather good for the pitches or not? And how many miles are you racking up in cutting the grass?
AG: "Hot weather is great for recovering the pitches, we do rely on the warm weather to aid recoverym, to fill in as much as possible and get the grass strong and ready for in the autumn and winter months.
"We are using plenty of water to cope with the demand of the warm weather down at Bearwood, to hold moisture within the soil profile. We are probably doing around 10-12k per day but Chris will be winning this one as all the kit at the stadium is pedestrian, so a lot of us of the walking mower is going on up there."
CL: "Yes, wach cutting day I average around 26,000 steps or 15 miles. And I am carrying that out 2-3 times a week. In between cuts, my mileage varies from 5-10 miles a day...so I have had plenty of miles in the legs throughout this period, and a few aches and sore feet!
"Ultimately the hot weather isn't all good for the stadium pitch. At the moment the temperature on the surface of the pitch has been peaking around 30-32 degrees centigrade. Rye grass thrives in temperatures between 16-20 degrees, so I am having to water heavily and use wetting agents to help the grass hold onto moisture in and around the roots of the grass.
"And watering heavily means plenty of growth so I am cutting twice a week and 'vertical cutting' or 'grooming' once a week to keep the surface in good shape.
Q: Will the challenge come next season, trying to prepare pitches for the new season without the benefit of a summer’s rejuvenation period?
AG: "We have done some in house works already at the stadium to help the pitch surface, but when we know when the end of this season with be complete and the new season is due to start, then we can have conversations about what is possible in what we assume will be a short window for renovations.
CL: "Not renovating the pitch is detrimental for the pitch in the long term with the build of organic matter getting thicker and thicker each year. Looks can be deceiving when you see a pitch full of grass!
"So we are going to have to put working routines and practices in place to try and ensure that organic matter doesn’t build up too much enabling the pitch to perform at its best."
Q: The NHS message on the Madejski pitch looked fantastic. Have you got any other tricks up your sleeve for the restart of the season?
CL: "Doing it was a lot of fun - I have not had the opportunity to do this sort of thing before, so I was excited when the idea came about. I don’t have any firm plans to doing anything new yet, but maybe it's something we could consider.
AG: "Watch this space, I don’t want to give anything away. Chris did a fantastic job of the NHS message for such a great cause. I'm just looking forward to football coming back home to Madejski Stadium."