I went out to visit general manager Martin O’Connor and stadium director / head groundsman Declan Cranley of Bray Wanderers to see how they are preparing for the upcoming Airtricity Premier League 2017. The Carlisle Grounds pitch came in for glowing praise last year and the grounds team are looking to impress again this year.
“I’ve been here 3 years, when I first arrived the pitch was extremely poor. The goalmouth on the dressing room side was actually ‘moving!’ We had to put down a lot of sand. That first year was tough, we had to put up with a lot of criticism for the first few weeks of that season, the main criticism being that it was like playing on a beach. Well it was considerably worse to begin with. As the season went on however, with a good deal of TLC, we started to get good growth out of it. We got it right.”
“Last year, our second full season, we put a serious effort into the pitch. We went out and took some soil samples to see what we were working with. The soil analysis results, strangely enough, were hugely different from one side of the pitch to the other. Now if you consider that beyond the far side of the pitch is the Irish Sea, that has to have an influence on the soil. It’s a strange situation were the two sides of the pitch grow differently, the grass grows stronger and faster sea side. I don’t know if that has to do with climate of the soil, perhaps there is a natural sanding blowing in from the sea.”
“A big issue we had that first season was all along the dugout side of the pitch, from the dugout to the corner flag was a marsh. We had to put down AstroTurf and all sorts of quick fixes because we were starting to lose linesmen in it! It was a quagmire. One day, a long-time fan of the club came up to me after a match and told me, ‘All the water from this stand is pooling up between the stand and the pitch and is flooding the pitch’. So we investigated why the water was going out and pooling on the pitch. What we found out was, that the old gullies that were catching the water off the stand were not moving the water anywhere. It was going down the gully and out onto the pitch! So we got out and filled in all the old gullies with concrete, dug out a trench that ran the length of the pitch and steered the water into the sewer. Within about four weeks, the ground firmed up. Now we have had dreadful weather this last few weeks and the old problem area, is still firm to walk on. There’s a problem solved. Sometimes, a small thing like this can really help your preparations for the season.”
“We are ground sharing here, so we have rugby league being played here as well. When the rugby boys got involved, we had to change the goalposts, we now have adjustable goalposts! The crossbar is on Allen key sockets and can be changed to rugby posts without too much drama. We can now however, easily adjust the height of the football goal frame. If you have a fixed goalpost, every time you put sand down on the pitch, the distance between your foot level and the crossbar is narrowing. So we find the adjustable posts a great help in match preparation, Declan only recently adjusted them, they had to go up a half an inch to get the required eight foot. Again, this is a small thing, but it all helps with preparation”
“We had an instance were a team came here and prior to kick off, told us that the goals didn’t look the right height. Declan had no problem getting out with the Allen key and the measuring tape, the goal posts as it turns out were fine, but if we had to adjust, it could have been done there and then in the space of two minutes.”
“Nets, and again, this something went away and studied and it’s a pity the nets are not up now, but on match day they look spectacular. We have two uprights behind the goal frame with a wire stretcher running across both poles to hold the net. That net gets stretched out perfectly. If you pea-roll a football into that goal, when it hits the back of the net, it naturally shoots straight up the back of the net. That is all in how Declan hangs the nets.”
“Another thing we have looked to improve on is the pitch line markings. We came in for great praise last year for our lines. We use a sprayer machine and like everything, you need to get a little bit lucky with the weather. Now your goal line has to be four inches wide, to match the posts, but apart from the goalmouths, every other line on the pitch is five inches wide. It’s a little unusual but what it does is, everything stands out, from the supporter’s perspective and the television perspective, it just stands out.”
“Declan came in 18 months ago as a volunteer. The club sent him out on his Fetac course and some extra courses. Now, he is highly regarded within the FAI as a very good grounds man. He is out on match day liaising with the referees, who like to make sure everything is right prior to kick off. I often say to Declan that he should always leave something wrong with the pitch on purpose, because after they find that, they will bugger off!”
“I have been here 18 months now, and have been full-time for eight. I arrived with the Tús community work placement initiative, from the social welfare, and now I am in charge of the pitch at the Carlisle Grounds.” Declans rise at Bray Wanders is a great accomplishment, he is very passionate about the work and proud of how the pitch looks. “We were disappointed that we didn’t win ‘Pitch of the Year’ last year.” Which went to first division team Limerick FC’s Markets Field, it’s refreshing to see a healthy sense of competition in Declan. “We never realised the first division were in it as well, we had a spectacular pitch here last year and I was very disappointed.”
“The pitch held up great last year, we had the team training here, as well as playing here. So we would train two or three times a week and the pitch was still immaculate. There were very few premier division teams playing and training on their match day pitch. That shows there effort and care we put into the pitch.”
“One thing you won’t see here on this pitch is weeds. No clover, no dandelions. We get Ollie from Sportworks in to spray it, which we will continue to do until myself or one of the lads goes off to do a spraying course to get a certified spraying licence. You need a certified person to do the spraying due to some changes to the law in this country, so until we have such a person, we will continue to have Ollie come over to help out. We actually picked up a great piece of kit off Ollie, which has been a big help to us. It’s a plugger (Hexagon Turf Doctor), you can take a section out of the pitch and simply replace it with a sward of grass from another patch of turf. So any, bald patches etc., we can simply whip them out and plug them up. We recently had to replace a penalty spot, it was a breeze.”
How are preparations for the upcoming season coming along?
“This year, for this time of year, we are in great shape. Everybody prepares differently, if you look at some of the pitches were they have been playing friendlies on them, they have had to cut the grass to match day levels. We have only had one game on ours, last week against Pats, and we just ‘clipped’ the grass. We didn’t cut the grass over the winter break, not since the last game of the season. We let it grow away, this lets us avoid getting into problems with frost. We don’t have our first home game now until the 3rd of March, the pitch will look perfect for it.”
“We are better prepared this season than we were last year, it’s a learning curve like everything else. Last year, we didn’t sand the pitch until March, we had five weeks of straight rain this time last year. This year, we have had a bit of rain, but we have got 60 tonne of sand down already. Next season we will be better prepared again. We plan to put 60-90 tonnes of sand down right after the last game of the season and have it sitting there for the winter. What else can you do for the winter really, you can’t get equipment on it, and you can’t get mowers on it.”
“Now, this mower is a dinosaur, but it fairly flies along. There is a bit of an art to using this one, once you accelerate, you have to be careful because if you let it go, that’s it, it’s gone! You won’t catch it before it gets to the other end of the pitch”. The mower has an ancient brake stop on it, it kind of looks like a bicycle brake. Declan tells me that the guy who looks after the mower is going to replace the old break with a newer, emergency brake stop. “We have to change the old brake, I’d ask if that’s even legal these days!” Declan jokes. “But again, I wouldn’t change it for anything, the machine is precise.”
So that’s obviously your best bit of kit, what’s on the wish-list?
“A modern version of the Ransome mower.” Declan started up the mower, it is indeed a beast.
So, what’s your biggest money saving tip?
“Get a good second hand mower. You can have state of the art all you want but if you want quality, it’s all about precision. Just a good push along mower, it doesn’t have to be the most expensive in the world.”
Do you have a preferred cut height?
“We go with the manager. You take Dundalk for example, they play on astro, and it’s a fast ball. There is no plan B. We have the option to keep it a bit longer, slow down the play, whatever Harry (Kenny) wants.”
Any special maintenance techniques?
“No, just TLC, we get all the lads out after a game, we try and repair as best we can. Unlike the premiership in the UK, where you could have up to 20 grounds men, here with me, I have 4 or 5 lads who were on the same course I was on. At one stage it was only me! We break the work up, some of the lads don’t like doing ‘green fingers’, others love it. The lads that don’t like it, they do the painting and general maintenance around the ground. This year, for the first time, we got some of the original brickwork painted with the new Bray Wanderers colours and it makes a huge difference to the look of the place.”
How does ground sharing with a rugby union team affect your work?
“The rugby lads play four games here a year, one league match and three international. I don’t have any problems with it, because its rugby league, there are no scrums! It’s more footprints in the grass than anything else I have to worry about.”
How would you describe the pitch’s soil profile?
ICL ProTurf 20-0-7 +3MgO fertiliser with an ICL Accupro 2000 Rotary Seed & Fertiliser Spreader on the Carlisle Grounds pitch this year.
Whats the drainage like on the pitch?
“Brilliant, absolutely brilliant”. We walked out onto the pitch and Declan reiterated the problem that they had had with the old gullies and how such a simple fix had made such a huge difference. “This is an old pitch, the site goes back to the old rail road. The old rail workers used to dump all their waste materials in the ground here, but all of the minerals that came from that, has actually helped the pitch, it nearly looks after itself!”
What are the grass cutting preparations like for match day?
“We don’t use a heavy roller on the pitch here, when we use the Ransome mower, we have a roller on the back of it. It’s a very light roller, but it does the job fine. The mower does a little bit of flattening out, each time we use it, flattening the pitch out progressively as we go. You take a guy sitting on a John Deere, he will probably have the pitch cut in an hour. It takes us three hours to cut it length ways and five hours to cut crossways. So we will cut it length ways one day and then, the day before the match, we go out and cut it crossways. By the time the grass has settled for kick-off, all our squares are there. It looks perfect.”
The Carlisle Grounds have a small training area on the north end of the ground. “That area is as good as the pitch. We are letting the kids use this part now because we want to try and bring the club back into the community. So the training pitch suits the under 8’s and 9’s, who come down and play on it. We will even mark out the pitch for them if they want it.”
“We are heading in the right direction now and we will very much be going for ‘Pitch of the Year’ this season. Again, it’s mostly tender loving care here for this pitch. When we get the basics right, the pitch looks after itself. The compliments of the referees last year were very positive.”
How do you consider the state of the grounds keeping industry in this country?
“Well, you have to look at it this way, you take any of the council backed grounds. They have 5-6 council workers employed to look after the grounds. We don’t, it could be just one man working on any given day. Now, we are lucky that we have the lads from Tús helping out, but there have been days when we haven’t had them. So it’s sometimes just you out on the pitch, working after a match, repairing the pitch, cutting the grass, line marking etc. I think the grounds man job is one of the hardest in the country. It only takes one referee to walk onto the pitch, no disrespect to anybody, and to say the ground is too soft etc. Now, we could have had a match played on it the previous day or even that day, we could have had six weeks of rain, we can’t control these things. Last year, in fairness, we gave the referees nothing to complain about.”
There is very little profile for grounds men in this country compared to the UK.
The Cork City manager, John Caulfield, last year was not happy and very vocal about the state of pitches in the Airtricity Premier division last year. Do you think his criticism is fair?
“I’ll say this, John Caulfield never said anything about this pitch. He was one of the first to come up and compliment us on it. But yeah, there were a lot of grounds we visited last year that could improve on their pitches. One pitch in particular, we were convinced they had used very heavy roller on it because within about 55 minutes we had four injuries and were forced down to ten men. It was like a skating rink. I think it could just be panic at this time of the season, the pitch looks bumpy and the go-to solution is to smash it with a roller and compact it down.”
Declan asks Martin about John Caulfield, to which he replies, “John had some great feedback for us last season, he told us that ‘this is one of the best pitches we have played on, and I include European football in that!’.”
How do you feel about the new 10 team leagues format being worked in this season to commence next year?
“It’s going to make a huge difference to the top division this year with three teams going down. Every point is going to be massive. The teams sitting in 5th and 6th spot in previous seasons always considered themselves safe. Well not this year. If you want to stay up, you are going to have to fight for every single point.”