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Friday 14 September 2012

Pitch perfect: Making a stage fit for the show

Find out how a groundman's work has changed over the last 20 seasons of the Premier League

The technology that goes into preparing a Premier League pitch has advanced massively

There is an argument for saying nothing has changed across the 20 seasons of
the Premier League: it’s still 11 v 11 and the Premier League trophy of the first season
season doesn’t look that different to the 20th. But behind the scenes much has changed, particularly in the support given to the players. To see why this is the case we look at the work of three men whose professionalism affects what happens on every Premier League match weekend.

In our first feature, Aston Villa groundsman Jonathan Calderwood, who has also worked for Wolverhampton Wanderers and was deputy head groundsman at the old Wembley Stadium, talks about how things have changed.

"People have this image of a groundsman being a retired guy sitting on a big tractor with a roller just to keep the pitch flat, but that is completely the opposite of what we do now. What we do is a science.

"The pitch at Villa Park is 98% sand and because of that, you don’t get that dirt or waterlogging"
Jonathan Calderwood

"You can't really put into words how things have improved over the last 20 years. Sometimes it’s nice to go home at night and watch an old match on the TV, because it gives a reminder of just how far we have come.

"You might have spent the day worrying about a little speckle on the pitch and then you see one of these mud baths and you realise that perhaps the problem is not as bad as you think.

"Our pitches have basically become one giant golf green. The pitch at Villa Park is 98% sand and because of that, you don’t get that dirt or waterlogging. It makes the drainage a lot better. Players used to come off the pitch covered in mud. You don’t see that any more, or divots. Artificial grass is added into the sand, which is what helps the pitch become more stable.

"The products we use on the pitch have also improved massively. The grass seed we buy has been designed and modified to be hard-wearing, have quick recovery, good root growth and shade tolerance because of these big stadiums. We are also now able to grow grass 12 months of the year, thanks to a lighting system we use on the pitch. Years ago the grass would only have grown from April to October, but these lights are pretty much creating a summer’s day in December and January.

The pitch plays an important role in player welfare as well. The clubs cannot afford to be without players, so you have got to try to produce a pitch the best you can so that nothing happens to them out there.

Non-footballing events are always going to have an impact on the pitch. Last summer we had Take That at Villa Park and we had a total of 400 articulated lorries driving on the pitch. Watching them made me cringe but luckily there are some superb pitch protection systems out there now.

The standard of the pitches has become so important now in terms of TV coverage, the quality of players we have got in the Premier League and the passing game that teams want to play. Years ago it was just a case of marking out a green piece of grass, goals up, and just get on with it. Now it’s the stage for the show."

Click here to read the Premier League 2011/12 Season Review

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Key Points

  • There have been lots of changes behind the scenes over the 20 seasons of the Premier League
  • Pitch preparation, sports science and medical care have advanced greatly
  • Groundsman Jonathan Calderwood speaks about his job at Aston Villa