United’s stadium manager Dave Mitchell has had a busy few weeks following the strip-out from the UB40 and Olly Murs concerts as work on the training pitches and the main pitch now take centre stage.
With just seven weeks to go until the new season kicks off the main focus is obviously on the Brunton Park playing surface, and the award winning groundsman confirmed that a lot of work goes in to getting the surface back to its now expected excellent condition.
“We’d planned to start the work on the pitch on the Tuesday after the Olly Murs concert but we had a fair bit of rain that week and it meant that we lost two or three days,” he explained. “We eventually made a start on the Friday of that week and then we left it to dry out over the following weekend.
“We continued to work on it through the first three days of last week and that got us to a position where we could start to seed it on Thursday. To be fair, it’s been a fairly smooth process. We learned a lot of from having been through the process of having had a concert on the pitch last year and that put us in good stead.
“With Rod Stewart it was an almost capacity crowd of people who stood on the pitch and I think the way concerts are done at football stadiums is much more professional these days anyway. There’s more attention to detail and a lot more thought goes into it in terms of speaking to the groundsmen who work at the venue every day to get their opinions on what works and what doesn’t.”
“The plastic covering they use for the fan areas is good and the aluminium tracking for the stage area works well,” he continued. “It doesn’t change the fact that the ground beneath it all still gets compacted, so when you add the heavy rain we suffered into the mix the playing surface wasn’t too much of a pretty sight once it was all stripped away. It certainly opened our eyes to the condition it was in.
“I know people ask why we do this to the pitch every year but when you see the pitch when it’s waterlogged, compacted and in a poor state just after the concerts you’d have to say there just isn’t any other way back from it than to do the work we do on it each year.”
“The situation we were in was complicated anyway, in that we had to lay new turf following the last big floods,” he told us. “The 40mm thickness of turf we bought in was sufficient, but it wasn’t as good as what we’d had before. Ultimately, at some stage, that has to completely disappear so you can start to get the pitch back to how it needs to be.
“Last summer we took about 20mm of it off and, with what we did last week, we’ve now almost got rid of it all. There are some bits and pieces still hanging around at the 40mm depth but hopefully come next year we’ll have got rid of the last remnants.
The ongoing job for us now is that we’ve got to keep it clean and keep it in the best condition it can be ...
“The ongoing job for us now is that we’ve got to keep it clean and keep it in the best condition it can be. You’ll notice through the season that we rake it by hand, particularly from November through to March, just to keep all of the debris out of it. Anyone who looks after lawns or other grass venues will understand what I mean by that.
“Basically if you get a build-up of debris it’s like stretching a sealant over the top of the whole surface and, if it rains, for example, the water isn’t going to be able to go anywhere. You really have to try to avoid things like that as much as you possibly can.”
With the clock effectively ticking down to the first fixture on the new pitch – a home friendly against Blackburn Rovers at the end of July – he confirmed that the tightness of the schedule is something he and his team take in their stride as each day goes by.
“The work we do now, backed up by a structured nine-month programme of pitch care, is why we get to a point where we are able to win a few awards,” he said. “The objective is to produce a crop of grass which suits a specific purpose, and there’s obviously a bit of hard work that has to go into it.
“This year our timescale from seeding to first friendly will be one day longer than it was last year. We had six weeks last summer, so things are a bit tight again for us. I’ve had the discussion that six weeks isn’t really long enough with a number of people but we just about managed it last year.
“We’ll see how it all pans out with how the fixtures run, when we’re home and away and how the cup fixtures come at us, but it will be tight. It keeps us on our toes if nothing else.”