By Thomas Coupland
It has been a challenging few months for St. George’s Park Head Groundsman Alan Ferguson and his team.
A long and harsh winter brought heavy snowfall as well as regular frosts that challenged the facility’s outdoor pitches.
But the centre’s ground staff worked tirelessly to keep the facility open for business with half of the site’s pitches regularly made available for use.
He explained: “It has almost been five months of winter now, starting from the early part of October 2012 and only finishing in the last 8-10 days.
“I am happy to say that we have coped really well. We had 50 per cent of the centre active through under-soil heating and use of the indoor 3G pitch."
It was quite an achievement, especially considering that the number of pitches benefiting from under-soil heating suddenly had to cope with an upsurge in bookings.
Ferguson added: “I think the winter has probably stopped at the right time for us and allowed us to recover the pitches that have been intensively used."
The use of under-soil heating proved pivotal in ensuring the centre remained open, but there were some surprising effects on the grass that needed careful attention from Ferguson and his team.
“Because the cold air is heavier than the warm air coming through, you get icing on the leaf [the grass]. A lot of mornings we came in and saw a white icing on top.
“There was no frost on the ground, but it just appeared from the side that it was frozen.
“At that stage, the plant doesn’t know whether it is coming or going. In the soil, it still thinks it is spring or summer but a few millimetres above the surface it is still in the depths of winter.”
With the pitches taking quite a strain, it would have been understandable if some were closed down to allow for recovery and to ensure their long-term health.
Ferguson and his team have worked wonders to not only keep the pitches open but also to keep them in good health ready for the spring and summer.
“It is a difficult because the business plan for St. George’s Park clearly said that we would be open 365 days a year, and in order to do that we have had to keep the pitches ready," said Ferguson.
“I think what we have seen over the first half of the operational year was that when the weather set in, half of the pitches became unusable and the other half had to take on that extra strain.
“There’s not a lot you can do as a groundsman at that point, other than try and keep a level surface and save as much grass as you can while knowing the pitches are going to get set back.
“You just hope that you have done enough in the autumn. I think that is what we have seen here and what pleases me most.
"We did our homework going into the winter and now our pitches are recovering very, very quickly.
“We are only 10-15 days on from the last real cold snap and already our pitches are well on their way into spring.
"We are cutting grass a bit more than I thought we would cut this year after such a spell. We are quite happy with where we are right now.”
And the work of the St. George’s Park ground staff is not just limited to the 12 pitches across the facility.
They are also responsible for the upkeep of the entire 330-acre plot, which features a host of new challenges. Most notable is the conservation of the multitude of protected trees that adorn the St. George’s Park landscape.
“The conservation side of the work is becoming ever increasing,” admits Ferguson.
“We were only ever meant to produce 12 pitches, but it became quite apparent early in the project that there was going to be quite a considerable cost to maintain the wider estate.
“It is 330 acres overall, and I think we have developed only 30 per cent of it to date.
“It has been challenging for my guys because they are not from that background and we have had to learn very quickly.
“It has probably been the steepest part of the learning curve, not least for myself because of the legislation that is in place to protect the veteran trees, which are magnificent specimens of 175 years old.
“I may not have given too much of a second-look before, but now I am looking at them every day to make sure they are alright.”