The Women’s Euro 2022 tournament had a fairytale running and will, hopefully, lay the foundation for the future of women’s football. Like in many other countries, women’s football has come a long way, and certainly when it comes to the infrastructure. Charles Henderson, Managing Director at PSD & TGMS, reflects.
In 2019, we were approached by Hannah Buckley of The FA, who handles the Women’s Super League (WSL) and Women’s Championship (WC) infrastructure. Pitches were one of her immediate concerns because the league was experiencing a lot of cancellations and poor player feedback. The condition of pitches was impacting negatively on the profile of the competition and quality of football that could be played.
With the WSL and WC on the rise, early TV rights deals were increasing in demand. The English Premier League (EPL) and its ground staff have set the global standard for pitches, and, during the 2019/2020 season, the neighbouring WSL was having an alternative experience. It was mainly thanks to the foresight of The FA that PSD had already begun the detailed measurement of pitch standards, using a system called Scoreplay. This system enabled The FA to benchmark their pitches with each other in the league. More importantly, it also enabled The FA to benchmark the pitches against established norms across other leagues such as at some English Premier League clubs. Here, PSD conducts hundreds of tests every year.
The FA quickly learnt that, while early season and end of season quality showed more uniform and desirable playing conditions, critical winter periods from December to March were causing pitch quality across the league to become inconsistent, with several pitches falling below desirable standards. This resulted in cancellations as well as impacting the visual profile of the game and free flowing, attractive football. It was certainly not enhancing the profile of the WSL.
Determining the origins of inconsistent pitch quality during winter
Through implementation of objective assessments across the WSL and championship pitches, pitches with inherent limitations were to be identified for further investigation. Switching service provision from pitch quality testing, PSD implemented a series of objective feasibility studies to identify the existing pitch profiles and rootzones in place. This was achieved by initiating a series of sample excavations and collecting materials testing through European Turfgrass Laboratories. This allowed The FA to identify limitations on specific pitches as well as the required improvements in infrastructure and additional maintenance approach to raise standards to make the WSL pitch standards more uniform.
Building a technical and business a case for works needed
Contrary to general perception, the global benchmark in pitch standards set by the EPL requires tremendous levels of investment and operational cost to sustain. The level of investment was significant and beyond what some clubs’ business models could facilitate. Support was going to be required for the FA to support WSL clubs and WSL itself in raising the profile of the league as a world leader.
The FA, working through its project delivery team the Football Foundation (FF), set off to facilitate a series of pitch upgrades that would target earlier identified limitations and provide long-term home grounds to clubs. Ideally, future pitches would sustain desirable standards year round. At some sites, men’s teams benefitted too, via upgrading ground share scenarios.
Working with PSD, the FA reviewed all pitch options available, along with costs associated with the improvements. Instead of looking at each venue, they considered the maximum impact across the leagues. With standard pitch profiles at EPL grounds costing over GBP1.2m, The FA could not foresee an ability to achieve the widespread benefit to the WSL through generic implementation of such construction. PSD reviewed what the WSL needed to achieve from pitch improvement and the numbers of pitch improvements required to make a significant difference. From this, newer technology options with alternative pitch profile constructions were suggested by PSD that enabled the WSL to make improvements by utilising as much of the existing profiles as possible. This has made pitch works more accessible and reduced the comparable carbon footprint of such works across the league.
The Football Foundation has now delivered four pitch improvement projects, working through PSD and several industry suppliers. With such positive traction achieved, it was also pleasing to observe some clubs adding further funds to investment to optimise pitch installations.
During 2021, The FA and Football Foundation supported the upgraded pitches, despite the challenging COVID-19 period. The football pitch construction industry stepped up despite the high levels of lead time uncertainty, while dealing with quick turnaround to get pitches constructed during tight summer windows. PSD took oversight of these projects and helped realise improvements needed through effective cooperation. It certainly also allowed the industry to show its ability. Most rewarding was the opportunity to welcome new or young grounds staff into roles with more responsibility.
Looking back, looking forward
The entire England women’s squad that was assembled for the recent tournament ply their trade in the WSL. This was different three years ago when pitch quality was not good enough and was hindering the potential of the league and its players. Three years on, The FA has, through careful assessment and implementation, along with effective engagement of capital, achieved an observed and measured improvement in pitch quality. The British grounds profession and application of multiple disciplines within it has played a huge role in helping The FA deliver its vision for women’s football. We are proud to be part of this.
Perhaps the most impressive part of this journey is that it doesn’t stop here. The FA is fast establishing the WSL as the standard of women’s football. Women and girls now have established figureheads and new aspirations. The FA does, however, recognise that grassroots and effective tiered football are essential to move the benchmark up even further. The focus is now shifting to pitches across more tiers of the national women’s game to identify standards and ways to improve these pitches year round.
PSD continues its work with the women’s game, supporting FIFA and the Local Organising Committee (LOC) in India. Our next goal is, through our sister organisations Labosport Australia and New Zealand Sportsturf Institute (NZSTI) and the LOC in Australia and New Zealand, to take U17’s Women’s World Cup and the Women’s World Cup to another level. The Women’s Euro 2022 has proven that everything is possible.