Stuart Wilson - Making Croke Park pitch perfect
By John Harrington
At 1.30am early last Saturday morning, Croke Park’s Pitch Manager Stuart Wilson was woken from his slumber by the noise of loud rain.
In that situation most of us would pull the duvet up a little higher and head back to the land of nod as quickly as possible, but Wilson’s brain immediately clicked into work-mode.
He reached for his lap-top and remotely activated Croke Park’s FAV system (Forced air ventilation vacuum system) in order to draw any excess moisture through pitch and help ensure it was in the best possible condition for Saturday night’s Allianz Football League Division One clash between Dublin and Donegal.
In Wilson’s line of work it pays to be an obsessive and a perfectionist, and if you spend some time in his company you’ll quickly realise he’s both.
“You can't switch off from it,” Wilson told GAA.ie “My mind is always thinking about the next match that will be played here and we want the pitch to perform the best it can.
“You're dealing with something that's living. It's not a desk-job that you can just leave on a Friday afternoon and return to on a Monday morning.”
The technology installed in the stadium means he always knows exactly what sort of condition the pitch is in, even when he’s not physically there.
There’s a mind-boggling 25 miles of pipe-work under the turf used to regulate the temperature and moisture of the soil, and Wilson can control it with a few key-strokes of his lap-top.
“It's remote access and at all times we can see the moisture content in the pitch, the temperature, the salinity,” he said.
“Nothing really to worry about that last one, but moisture and temperature are key.
“We try to maintain a soil temperature throughout the winter months of around about nine degrees Celsius. We just need to keep the growth ticking over. If you start to drop below that you'll see things really slow down.
“That also then relates to air temperatures as well. We've done a lot of work with DCU in their labs and we're doing trials with different growth light technologies.
“Anything below a six degrees Celsius air temperature, you're really going to start to see photosynthesis slow down.”
Photosynthesis has slowed to a crawl in recent weeks because of the extended spell of frigid weather, which obviously makes Wilson and his team’s job all the more difficult.
That’s never taken as an excuse not to have the pitch in as perfect a condition as possible, though.
The performance of the turf is constantly being assessed, and Wilson carried out the latest battery of tests last Saturday afternoon with the help of Ian McClements from STRI (Sports Turf Research Institute), the stadium’s pitch consultants.
First came the vertical ball rebound test which entailed dropping a football from a height of two metres at various locations around the pitch to measure how high it bounced.
The traction of the pitch was tested by dropping a torque wrench with a studded metal plate weighing 30kg onto the turf to replicate what the STRI have gauged to be the downward force of a player hitting the surface with his foot.
A Longchamp Penetrometer, commonly used on race-tracks to measure the ‘going’, was also used to gauge how much penetration ad player would get on the surface of the pitch.
A 2.25 kilogram Clegg Hammer provided a reading in gravity that measured the firmness of the pitch, and the percentage of moisture in the soil was also tested.
Armed with this knowledge, Wilson can quickly take steps if required to have the pitch in a more optimal condition.
“You can do a huge amount very quickly, especially you're talking about firmness levels and moisture content,” he said. “No problem, you can just put the irrigation on.
“And if the pitch is too firm we use a spiking machine which basically puts holes into the pitch and allows more give, it softens the pitch.”
The data provided by the sort of testing he and McClements carried out on Saturday is particularly relevant when the turf at the Hill 16 end of the stadium is replaced after summer music concerts.
Because they know exactly how the pitch should be performing at that time of the year, they can quickly find out if the newly laid turf is performing to the same level as the rest of the pitch and take steps to ensure it is.
The bi-annual process of re-laying that portion of the pitch after concerts is the most demanding and stressful part of Wilson’s job, but it should be made easier when the GAA’s newly purchased turf farm is up and running and they no longer have to import turf from England.
Preparatory work began on the turf farm this week to kill off all existing vegetation growing on the designated 40,000 square metres, which equates in size to just over two GAA pitches.
The land is very free-draining as it is, but additional drains will also need to be put in place because some harvesting of turf might be required in winter.
Once that work has been carried out a full irrigation infrastructure will be put in place and the field can be seeded. The turf is unlikely to be ready for this year’s concerts in Croke Park, but definitely will be for 2019's.
“It's a really positive step for the stadium to take, without a doubt,” said Wilson.
“There's a lot of risks involved transporting turf from England overnight and in lorries for 16 to 18 hours.
“Now we'll be able to harvest turf in North County Dublin and be laying it two hours later really, so it's a huge, huge difference.”
Wilson was previously deputy head groundsman at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium and then the Aviva Stadium before taking up his position in Croke Park six years ago.
When he arrived first he quickly discovered that keeping GAA Headquarters pitch perfect was a challenge like no other in his industry.
“The biggest challenge in Croke Park is the volume of fixtures. It's phenomenal compared to other places,” he said.
“You're talking 70 fixtures pretty much a year. 15 Go Games days, Cumann na mBunscol Finals, and then concerts on top of that.
“The concerts are in the middle of the season so it's not like your soccer or other national stadiums where they finish a season and have concerts and then they can renovate the pitch and have them ready for the start of the next season.
“Whereas the only off-season we have is the winter-time and you can't really do the work on the pitch because you just won't get the growth and recovery.
“Even the Cumann na mBunscol Finals that we have here at the end of October, there's a huge amount of wear and tear on the pitch and there would still be signs on this pitch now of where they were played."
Those signs were invisible to my untrained eye when I walked the pitch with Wilson and McClements last Saturday.
Despite the frigid weather we’ve had recently, the grass was lush and pristinely maintained and there was a good spring in the turf.
McClements has been working in the stadium since 2007 and believes the quality of the pitch has “improved significantly” in recent years.
That’s thanks to Stuart Wilson and his team’s shared obsession to provide the best surface possible for every player who gets the opportunity to perform on the GAA's greatest stage.