The Millennium Conundrum
The original Cardiff Arms Park , where I had worked as Head Groundsman since 1985 closed down in 1997, and the ambitious project to build the Millennium Stadium started. I spent two years working for the main contractor, Laings, as a general labourer, helping to construct the stands and the pitch until it was officially opened in 1999. I was re-instated as Head Groundsman and took over the new pitch construction.
The pitch, consisting of a palletised system of turf, is set out on top of a tarmac base, strong enough to carry lorry and crane traffic. The system allows for the entire pitch to be removed and stored elsewhere, while the stadium is used for other non-grass events. Incorporated within the tarmac base there is a Sub-air system, a series of pipes and vents that allow warm air to be circulated around the pallets from underneath.
The last four years have been a massive learning curve for me, a huge personal challenge, but I have no regrets. We hold a large and diverse number of events here, that range from concerts to Celtic football, gala evening meals to soccer and of course our beloved rugby. At the moment we are removing about half of the pallets to the parade square at St Athan, the RAF base nearby. The perimeter of the pitch will be replaced with 3000 tonnes of shale in time for next weekend, when the speedway moves in.
We have hosted over forty events this season, including 14 games since Easter. The pitch was relaid with new turf prior to the FA Cup Final three weeks ago and we were only going to relay one half, but the FA asked us to do the whole surface, so the contractor, 'Support in Sport', stripped off the existing grass sward, levelled the root zone and re-turfed the surface. The job was completed by the Thursday, two days before the Arsenal/Southampton final.
We have taken the pallets out of the stadium a few times now. The original handlers and installers of the system were Inturf but, to cut costs, we decided to take on the operation ourselves. Now Dave Pierce, my assistant, and I organise the transportation.
We have continually improved this moving process, and have now had a machine specifically designed to cut the turves to the shape of the pallets. The machine we're using now is actually our Mark III prototype. Everything we do is evaluated and explored, looking to see how we can produce the most cost effective system to cope with the Stadium environment and event usage.
The stadium itself is fantastic, it has a seating capacity of 72,500 and the atmosphere for events is magnificent. It is perhaps the most advanced stadium development in the Northern Hemisphere.The stand design is 'wrap around' with no open corners and of course we have the addition of a closing roof. The design, though, comes with a host of problems associated with growing grass in a confined space. We suffer from a severe lack of sunlight and air movement, and the micro-climate within the stadium is quite unique.
Much of the pitch never sees direct sunlight and, with no open corners, wind movement is virtually non-existent. When the pallet system was brought in, it was the first and only system in this country. It works well in other countries but, like many of the pitch systems available in the UK, it has had its teething problems. I believe that the specification for the root zone used inside the pallets was too fine but, at the time, it was decided that it would provide stability, particularly from scrummaging during rugby matches.
The root zone has become very compacted during the last four years, and because the profile depth from the top of the pallet to the grass surface is only three inches (75mm), we are unable to carry out any deep aeration to alleviate the problems. Therefore there is now a compacted layer that stops water percolating down, air circulating up through the Sub Air system and root growth.
Our next event here after the speedway will be the Charity Shield Match on the 10th August. The turf pallets that are being removed at the moment will be watered and mowed at the RAF base until after the speedway. Then the pallets will be transported in and put back in place. Once replaced the existing grass will again be stripped off using a Koro machine, the levels adjusted and new turf laid.
We have a new General Manager at the stadium, Paul Sergeant, and he is looking at the options available to us for the future. There are three options being considered, one is to construct a more traditional in-situ playing surface, like other stadiums, and work on a regular re-turfing programme.
The second is to re-vamp the current system and have an additional pitch grown using the pallets. The existing pallets and the new ones will be emptied and re-filled with a more appropriate root zone and seeded. The extra pitch will be maintained at the RAF base and then brought in when required to replace problem areas on the pitch. The worn pallets of grass being removed in the stadium will then be nursed back to health at the base.
The third system is the re-inforced turf roll known as the Motz system. This is a synthetic mat of plastic filaments, in-filled with sand or root zone with natural grass rooting in it. The mat would be laid on to a root zone base.
Although we have had lots of bad press, the pitch has always stood up well for each event. It may not always have looked pretty but, as of yet, we've not had any criticism from the teams that have played here. However, given the media criticism that we have endured, the system that is finally chosen this time will again be after extensive research, trials and development.
In our Industry it is impossible to trial a new system before it actually arrives in a stadium environment. We end up with the teething problems and all the while the pitch is being used for high profile events. Of course it is just not feasible to set up a mock Millennium Stadium under the same conditions with real play and wear, sunlight and air deprivation on the pitch, so we work with the associated problems in a real situation and overcome them.
David and I look after the pitch on the day to day basis but, on match days, we employ an additional three people to help out with duties. We tend to cut the pitch with our two Dennis Premier 36" cylinder mowers and our Toro 2300 ride-on triple mower. Other operations that we carry out include spiking with Wiedenmann 1.6 metre Terraspike although, as I said, we're limited to the depth that we can go with this implement.
We have tried all sorts of fertilisers and soil conditioners, including liquid feeds, but at the moment I have settled on the Vitax Microgran range. It depends on fixtures, but we aim to feed the pitch every three to four weeks with the appropriate NPK analysis.
As with many of the larger stadiums we suffer from disease, so we tend to spot treat any outbreaks with fungicide as soon as we identify a problem. We also have our own Blec over seeder and we use this to sow grass into the thinner areas.
There have been problems with the pitch, an issue much discussed in the media, but people seem bent on jumping on the bandwagon to criticise without actually taking time to come and talk to me about the finer workings of such a system and the growing environment we find ourselves with at the Millennium Stadium. Hopefully we will be able to make a decision on the pitch shortly and continue to move forward as the Premier venue.
We have staged 120 plus major events in just over four years and while pitch has been a major topic for discussion, we have delivered every time, but that's mainly due to the dedication of the staff.
By Tony Horne