As an opening, I would like you to regard this as a discussion piece, I do not have all the answers, but, I am seeking them. Everyday I learn something new and that is how I like it. If this article promotes thought and discussion, then the aims of it will have been met.
If you are only wanting to see the 11 things you need to know, without reading the article in full, that I admit, gets pretty involved in the mechanisms. Shoot down to the last 1/3rd - Please be mindful, that there are more than 11 aspects to consider, but I feel these are important to know. - Phil Sharples, ITMG
Football, or Soccer; depending on your location, it is a specific sport played on specific surface and this surface should portray specific characteristics.
Like all sports that require a pitch or a field to play on, the most important aspect, is, without doubt, the pitch as with no pitch, there is no game. You can get other footballers, you can get other balls, but you cannot get another pitch! UEFA state that the pitch condition and quality is the number one priority for their matches and if this is the case, you know it is important.
Before we get into what is required and desirable from a perfect pitch, lets think about and understand just a few of the issues that may be behind the need. It makes sense to establish the need initially.
A poorly constructed, conditioned or managed pitch can and will have an affect on the players and sometimes outcomes of matches as pitches interact with both the ball and players, these being the ingredients of essentially, the ‘game’ - ball, player, something to play on.
The playing surface has an effect on player tiredness, motivation and well being. It can create or reduce injuries, accelerate body muscle tiredness, or not and has a large impact on player accuracy, control, grip, overall performance and stability to name a few! I have never herad of a player looking forward to playing on a poor surface. Unless it gives an advantage to them over their opponent. Let’s say the other team is known to be stronger. So there also maybe a hidden psychological impact.
Obviously, this will affect both ball and player
As will this . . .
It is worthy to note that poorly managed, overused or constructed surfaces have also led to significant rise in the number of artificial surfaces introduced into sports. The use of artificial is another story for another day, and for the scope of this article, not important.
You probably don’t have much time to spend reading this article (it is a big one!) and as you are probably speed reading, let's try and keep it simple and look at one aspect from the above, accuracy! There are many other aspects to consider, but we will focus attention on this particular one.
As a professional footballer you will spend a lot of your time doing cognitive repetition on a certain type of playing surface, known as training, carried out, usually on a daily basis. For argument's sake we should imagine this surface is great and displays constant characteristics. Passing accuracy for both long and short balls and knowing the approximate final positioning is important to outcomes and tactics and repetition allows the player to get a feel for this.
Passing and making the correct adjustments to force applied to the ball, direction required from the pass, type and amount of spin applied to the ball, final destination of the pass, the speed or current position of the player you are looking to pass to etc. (Multiple Simultaneous Attention) the programming learned in training is hard to adjust quickly from what you have become used to. You get a feel for what is needed from yourself, from your body parts and of course, from the pitch! All from what you have practiced many times before.
Eventually, you will expect similar results for your effort and instantly control your body without the need for thinking about it too much during a match. This allows a player to focus on other things, such as the move after the pass and further outcomes. You don’t want to be thinking, will that reach him? Not even for a a split second! It should be a natural reaction. And if it does not reach, for reasons such as a poor pitch, everything, suddenly changes. The player imagines that maybe it was them at mistake, was it? Or something else? Maybe the usual conditions did not apply? Consistency!
When the pitch is poor, waterlogged, bare of grass, diseased, distressed, too hard, too soft, or bumpy, to name a few issues you need to adjust what you have been practicing and the outcomes are not what you expect, as the ball / surface interaction is suddenly different as the ball can deviate from normal expectations - the pass gets intercepted, that eventually leads to a goal against is just one scenario. This essentially, is no fault of the player! Away from passing and accuracy, remember the Steven Gerard slip? Was this a pitch problem or something else? The issue ended costing the club dearly financially! We will never know the answer, but it is food for thought!
When playing in a Sunday league team a poor surface may not be such a huge hurdle to overcome and people just deal with it in their own way and generally are only there playing for fun. But when you have a squad of players worth multi-millions of dollars, you want their very best, every move, pass outcome is important over the 90 minute period. The outcome of the game when you are playing in competitions also worth multi-millions of dollars becomes very important and vital for the business. Football at a high level is a business after all.
It is only right that an owner or a shareholder or manager would want to eliminate any outside factor that could influence the game result and provide the best possible playing surface for those using it. Essentially, you want to protect your investments, as a manager; protect the squad, eliminate or negate any and all risk (an injured player gives no return) and provide consistent and reliable conditions that allows all players to focus on what they are doing. Without interference! Basically, allowing them to use their skills and abilities that you bought them for!
It may also be the case that if a club has complete consisteny with all it’s surfaces, from training and practice to match. It may well lead to an advantage for all home games as the players are used to conditions and their pass accuracy may indeed increase.
How many times have you heard a coach blame a poor result on the surface? Sometimes this is very true and sometimes just an excuse. I know, there is definitely something in this! A pitch can have a huge effect on the game played and of course its outcome.
This was the condition of a stadium I took over the management of back in 2016. Today's condition can be seen in the title photo.
Is the perfect pitch something that is really attainable and worth chasing? Well, in my opinion, of course, yes, but there must be stringent rules applied to ensure quality and this is very much down to the type and quality of management the surface receives. There are lots to think about and the answer is not as simple as you may think!
Cost? You cannot get great results without paying something for them. Which leads to another issue to deal with, people wanting the very best, but not being prepared to pay for this! The perfect pitch needs time, attention and is a high maintenance aspect of infrastructure. This is where the old adage of ‘Anyone can grow grass’ should come under scrutiny!
It is said, “Anyone, can grow grass”, well, yes, they can, but “grass will grow itself” without the help of ‘anyone’ is a little more accurate. In terms of producing a resilient, consistent and reliable performance surface, then the answer is, no, not just anyone can grow grass and grass cannot do this itself either! Sometimes, even the guys growing the grass, cannot grow grass, well they can, but in a muddled and round-about way that has no real consistency to it!
Being completely honest, I have met many so called experts in my time, and whilst people I have met do a good job and many more do a great job, it soon becomes apparent that some lack some fundamental knowledge and this plays a vital role with consistency. It is the lack consistency that adds to the cost of the surface. More problems can only equal more cost and time spent. Especially when there are match schedules to meet.
Education, as we are dealing with biology, is vital. Sometimes, you don’t know things until someone tells you, right!? I have a feeling that many thousands of dollars has been spent rectifying problems that were not necessarily the fault of the plant, but a fault with it’s conditioning somewhere down the line.
This is where biology bites, as just one example; if thinking about the spread of disease within a plant. The dead leaves (known as symptoms) are actually one of the very last stages of disease development. Time is spent then trying to kill it off, all a little too late! The actual infection itself may well have taken place weeks or even months before. The symptoms appear when the environment is right. Timing is key as we will discuss later.
Getting back on track, lets now add a stadium, an environment where grass does not want to grow due to a number of environmental factors; such as lack of sunlight, lack of air movement, fluctuating temperatures from one side of the pitch to the other, then the management of the surface starts to costs more.
Turk Telekom Arena, Istanbul
Anything is possible, but, like great football players, it comes at a cost. When was the last time you saw grass growing directly under a fully grown large tree? You can see some, usually it is thin and sparse, but away from the shade, it grows better and stronger, right? Is it impossible to grow grass under the tree? No! But to do it, will take knowledge, time and attention.
There are many factors, but in my opinion there are two ‘major’ requirements to produce a perfect consistent performance surface.
Number one for me, without any doubt, is the staff employed, their skills, experience and knowledge. Not just vital but imperatively vital! A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, so they say.
Daily maintenance and management decisions made are extremely important and have total control over what the surface plays like. Generally the pitches staff will work long hours, including weekends. They do not do this for fun necessarily, it is required. care and attention to details is key as is dedication.
Technology forms part of knowledge for some situations
Number two is the connection between the club and the staff. If the club disregards advice given as to when and how to use the surface(s) then issues without doubt will occur. Grass is a plant, and whilst this plant can be encouraged to do things that are not completely natural to its normal growth behaviour (effectively forced to grow). Plants, also, do not do things instantly. They require time, although this time factor can be reduced with knowledge, nothing in biology of this type is instant. Many people don’t understand this. But we can speed up the entire process, with care.
It becomes a bit of a conundrum as if the pitch looks great, therefore the team want to use it, sometimes a little too much! And this in turn affects how great the pitch is and weakens it over time. Back to the biology aspect. Plants take time to grow and develop! There must be a mutual trust. If there is opportunity to use, it should be used as this is what the pitch is for! To be played upon!
However, if all is not well, it should not. This decision should be made by those managing it, they are the experts! We all have opinions and this particular one should the responsibility of those managing the pitch just like team selection is the responsibility of the manager of the team. We must remember the pitch is an asset and this asset should be used wisely. Unless money is unlimited?
Other factors include the quality of the construction and the suitability of the growing media (usually sand based), working budget, available equipment and machinery, area of the World the stadium resides; not all places are cool and temperate like we find in Europe where the cool season grass species grow well. Some areas use cool season grasses in high temperature climates. Like where I work. Also, the choice of grass plant you deicide upon.
Then there are the external factors, quality of sunlight, water amounts, disease presence, shade type, compaction, speed of root development and movement (largely determined by management), type and conditions of the medium you are growing it on, speed of plant leaf growth and it’s method of self propagation, time of year, match and training schedules, plant reaction to wear, type of wear, species of grass grown (there are thousands) and many more. All need considering (and more) and adjustments should be made to management to compensate.
Add to this that football is played through the winter period, a time when plants stop producing leafy growth, things can get tricky. How many of you mow your lawn in January and February?
Root cross sections picture courtesy of Penn State University website - Vegetive growth and development
To list the number of things that can wrong with a pitch is actually limitless, it’s amazing how many there actually are. From biological problems, to environmental problems to pest problems and more. A playing surface can develop an issue overnight, but it will not repair itself the next night. Once a problem hits it can take weeks to recover.
All stadiums and areas exhibit different environmental conditions that will have an affect on the grass. Grass health can, does and will change everyday. There are no rest periods, and there are endless problems that need solving. With the invention of undersoil heating and lighting rigs, we can now grow the plant 24 hours a day, everyday.
It is how arising problems are solved that is important.
It only takes one wrong chemical application or an unthoughtful or reactive application or operation of something that will will have an affect on the biology of the surface. If not immediately, then a week or a month later. On many occasions I have seen applications of chemicals that will not solve the issue present. Blind management!
So how difficult is it to manage grass? Well, it’s not difficult if the grass is left alone (as prior discussed) in an open field to do what to was designed to do. Grow to its maximum potential, build up a large reserve of carbohydrates (for the hard times) and then propagate itself via seed to continue its evolution and ensure survival.
The issue is we want to put this plant in environments where growth is not encouragable, we want to make it suitable for sport, pleasing and beautiful to look at play football on it, train on it, using boots with studs on them, run machines and equipment all over it, and then play around with its natural growth habits to make it give us some characteristics we like.
When mowing, we are effectively cutting off its arms that it uses to photosynthesis. It grows the leaf and it wants to grow this to maximum length for maximum effectiveness of course, but, we cut it off, ad infinum! It wants to seed, we don’t allow it!
Sports require that we make it suitable for the sport played. Such as a carpet like appearance that is comfortable, strong and beautiful to look at on TV.
I am in danger of sounding like some kind of grass rights activist here! I am not, but as mentioned, understanding the biology is an important aspect. You would expect an expert to have a deep understanding of the subject, right?
We want it to be turgid (ability to stand upright), have a good leaf texture and structure, have the right type of growing habit (generally three types of growing habit), offer resistance to wear, disease and drought stress, have a good colour, be strong, be reliable in all weathers and conditions. Be smooth and uniform, clearly marked out and perfect in size. Usually 105m x 68m
Suraxani, Azerbaijan. Azersun Arena
As discussed, naturally, what does the grass want to do? Grow, develop a full canopy to take in all the sunlight and gases to make sugars used as food, develop a full root system to take in the water and nutrients and gases seed itself, then die. That’s pretty much it. It does this all for free too, using sunlight as energy. It’s very clever in reality.
We don’t allow the plant to do what it wants, for instance seeding. It can never get to this point as it is mowed too often and never develops a seed head. There is really only one grass that is suited to seeding even when mowed and that particular grass species is seen as a weed, as it displays characteristics that are not required. One of them being shallow rooted and shallow rooted grasses do not add great stability when a 80kg footballer with studs in his/her shoes is running around on it, plus it never really looks great on TV unless you throw lots of Nitrogen on it and that, just leads to, you guessed it, more issues down the line.
So, we need to apply some strategic thinking; how can we manage this plant and make it give us what we want, wherever we want it and not affect it too much? This, is the cause of the issues and this is why you cannot see great grass surfaces everywhere, lack of thinking. Thought, understanding, knowledge, technology and skill make the best pitches. Naturally, it is not possible. But we can and do make it possible.
Teamwork, like in all business, is vital
There are a million ways to manage a grass plant. Everyone has their own technique and over the years we have figured out generally what works and what does not. We know what to do for many difficult situations and most generally understand the reaction and what happens when we apply this chemical or that chemical.
The issue is biology. It takes not only knowledge of what the main problems are and avoid doing them, but, there is the issue of people understanding biology and understanding the long term consequences of their actions and or applications. We are all still learning!
Along with millions of different methods for managing grass there is the million and one chemicals you can apply to force the plant to this, or that or prevent this, or that occurring. And here, in my opinion is where we get maintenance induced issues.
We have already discussed that each pitch will have a differing environment. Therefore, it makes no sense to manage all pitches in the same way. You could have a training pitch outside a stadium. It would be easy to simply do the same things to each, but it would not be wise to do so.
To get the best results, you need to manage the surface as it stands and look to manage each particular surface as is needed, from what the plant or sward (a stand of grass) is telling you, individually. The plant maybe the same, but the environment is different, they will develop differently.
Thoughtful, knowledgeable advice is needed for results. Anyone can offer advice, but sometimes this advice will only end up costing you more, there is a lot of quick fix methods that bite later.
Qarabag FK’s stadium (one of two). The Azersun Arena
The pitch is integral part of the team and the guys who manage it all, keep the wheel turning and provide consistency. You should want the very best from your surfaces, just like you require from players you choose to buy. You spend a lot of time training players, perhaps, occasionally you should also spend time training the staff who play a key role in player performance and results. When chasing perfection, this aspect is key.
As for the answer to what makes the perfect pitch? I add more pictures below, please take a read of their descriptions. As here, you will see a handful of the conditions required to make the perfect surface. It is very achievable These are not an exhaustible list of what it takes, but each is important and each requires specific knowledge and management to attain.
Bakcell Arena, Baku. National Team training before match.
So as the article's title asks, can we really chase and achieve grass perfection? Yes of course we can and we do. The pictures included in the article show the quality that can be achieved. But, speaking as an agronomist, chasing grass perfection, when it comes to literally millions of blades of grass and individual grass plants growing closely to each other, you must ask is perfection actually a reality? All you can do is constantly aim for perfection, one match and one day at a time. Shoot for the stars.
11 Things you need to know
(1) Uniform leaf density and texture. Leaves should be uniform in texture and width. This allows the plant to fill all space evenly (like a thick rain forest canopy) and give a carpet like appearance that promotes smoothness, a degree of softness and comfort and improves overall playability of the surface. For consistency of play, leaf density should be uniform across the entire surface.
Perfect density and leaf texture
(2) Growth habit of the grass species used, ideally something that produces a tiller, either above or below the ground, as this aids in wear recovery and increases the surfaces’ strength.
Picture from https://feedxl.com/24-identifying-pastures-part-1/
(3) Turgidity, the plant needs to be upright. Ensuring correct levels of light, nutrients and water are vital for this and this aspect also aids surface smoothness. Turgidity enables the plant to stand itself upright after being walked upon.
The plant should stand itself upright after being compressed
(4) Colour, should be green, not too light or yellow. We don’t have a perfect shade or RAL definition as yet, sure it will come soon though! A medium green colour usually works well. Colour is controlled by chlorophyll in the plant, chlorophyll reflects green spectrum light. Hence, why grass is green!
An even and uniform colour allows striping and patterning for visual effects and defines the playing surface against backdrops
(5) Plant selection. Choose the best grass possible for the budget you have. Grass technology and breeding has moved on 100 fold over the past 10 years. With time and research, you can find a type that fits the environment you have perfectly. Make sure you buy enough to over seed with the same and make sure it will be available to purchase in future years. Of the three growth habits.
Previously noted, there were three types, bunched, creeping with stolons (above ground) or creeping with rhizomes (below ground). These days you can get plants that have both stolons and rhizomes - best solution? Sometimes! Not all the time. Better to use what suits your environment and I advise using one or two varieties and/or species to cover disease resistance. You would not want all plants susceptible to exactly the same types of disease.
The type and quality of seed is very variable. Especially important for meeting texture and density requirements. Choose wisely and manage the species you have. Not all will be managed the same even though they are all grasses
(6) Disease resistance. There are many turf grass diseases, best management will be to select plant that have a high resistance to the diseases generally associated with the local climate as will controlling and not over using chemicals such as fertilisers and tonics. Water management is also vital.
When disease hits you, all bets are off. Disease is a sometimes inevitable aspect of turfgrass management, ever present and waiting to strike
(7) Drought stress resistance. The more able the plant can cope with drought stress the better. Over watering leads to many issues and problems. Drought reistant plants require less water, a good thing.
(8) Sand that is free draining. Allowing water to pass freely through the rooting layer allows play to continue during bad weather without causing problems. The surface will need to be able to cope with the most adverse weather. Without faltering! Not always possible as seen below! A free draining rooting zone will also have plentiful supplies of oxygen for the roots to utilise and provide excellent gas exchange capabilities. The roots take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide , opposite to the leaves above, that take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. The best medium to use is that of a sand. Coarse / medium sized, sub-angular shaped (particles) and with very little silt and clay within. A low to middle pH is best aimed for. But, I use medium/fine sands in many situations without issue. Not ‘zero’ silt and clay, in my opinion, just minimal. Obviously, no stones should be present within it.
(9) Aim for minimum thatch levels. Thatch is an organic layer found under the leaves and above the soil/sand. It is a build up of old and new organic material form the grass plant. Thatch levels generally increase when water and fertiliser is over or misused. High thatch can lead to many undesirable issues, just assume minimal is desirable.
This surface is over 5 years old, still minimal thatch levels. A rhizomatous grass species is used. Never scarified
(10) Employ technology only where thinking objectively cannot solve the problem. Don’t be swayed with sales talk. Understand the need, understand the issue behind the problem and source a solution that you feel will fix the issue … for good! Ask a lot of questions, just be sure you know the answers to the questions you ask and if you don’t, get independent advice. Technology has moved on quickly and continues to do so, this is a good thing. Factor in all costs before deciding on the way forward. Many times, with new tech, the cost of purchase is only the beginning…know the facts and all costs then decide if it really is the right way forward. This money may well be better spent elsewhere or in another way long term.
(11) Plan and understand all management tasks. The key is to fully understand what you want to achieve, the issues you want to solve, and solve them quickly. Set goals and stick to making the goal a reality. If there are no issues, planning should focus on how it will improve the overall condition or maintain the overall condition and of course, consistency.
Timing is very important, for all operations but especially so those that incorporate oxygen into the root zone of involve chemical application. Fertiliser and water applications should be well managed. The crux of many issues! Know exactly why you are doing each task (not because Joe down the road did it, or because your read it on the internet) and know exactly what results you will achieve with all operations, long and short term. At professional level, we do not work to calendar dates. There is no need, we can make the surface grow steadily with technology all year around.
Management follows understanding. Teach your team well. You are only as good as your team!
For now, this ends the discussion. There are many other aspects I have not mentioned for purposes of keeping it all reasonable in size! To cover all aspects of turf management does require something the size of many books. if you break down all aspects in further detail, we are talking hundreds of books. From those looking into photosynthesis, to the water molecule and it’s role in the plant to those covering management of budgets and staff moral. It goes on.
I hope you got something from this particular read.
If this has sparked an interest in you to find out more about growing grass. My book (ebook) is available from Amazon. Details here.