If the football authorities ever decide to organize a World Cup for grounds teams, it is very likely that you will find the grounds team of KRC Genk participating. Groundsman Eddy van Endert and his team get ample opportunity to try out the latest techniques and technologies, which is why they make the difference.
It is often claimed that in the English Premier League, the sky is the limit in order to maintain a healthy pitch. However, a growing number of grounds teams in other more modest leagues have also started embracing techniques and technologies to pursue the ultimate pitch. Take KRC Genk from the Belgian Pro League, for example. Groundsman Eddy van Endert praises the relatively young age of the club’s management as one of the strengths that allows him and his team of six FTE and some volunteers to excel. “The club is currently undergoing a rejuvenation. For example, my line manager is only one year older than me and we are really encouraged to consider innovations,” says the man who is in his early thirties. Van Endert is responsible for the hybrid stadium field, the two synthetic turf and four natural turf fields at the youth complex as well as the almost three training fields of the main team. Furthermore, they look after the stadium field in nearby Geel that is used by the development team. “I have my own budget but am required to motivate major investments. Fortunately, management’s focus is on what is best over what is the cheapest.” This has allowed him to renew and modernize almost his entire range of machinery in just four years. Yet van Endert is convinced that this has helped him to save the club money without the quality of the field being affected. “Last winter, we were not allowed to use pitch heating because of the extremely high prices that were charged for energy. By using other techniques, we managed to still maintain the pitch in a relatively good condition.” More about that later.
Data is key
While he praises the young average age of the club’s management, van Endert still relies heavily on the input of a retiree. “He establishes the pitch conditions every week and the data is automatically added to a digital dashboard. The data obtained and the supporting advice generated largely determine the point of departure for our activities.” The data is collected by means of modern technologies. “The process can hardly fail but it is important that it is implemented consistently. This man has been doing this for years and does so very patiently, which benefit the assessment results.” Where necessary, the pitch condition is examined by specialist laboratories. “Three summers ago, we suddenly spotted bare spots in the turf that no one could explain from use. In retrospect, we handled it completely wrongly. Two summers ago, they returned even worse and we decided to reseed, and supplement with extra nitrogen and extra water, but that actually turned out to make the issues even worse. Only once the laboratories started testing our samples for Grey Leaf spot, it was established that this was the cause. We immediately stopped supplementing with nitrogen and water and renovated the field in two days. Last summer, we adopted preventative maintenance and we haven’t seen the fungus since.” The stadium field now has an 85% coverage.
Green light against fungi
Van Endert uses UV-C technology to permanently suppress the fungi. The carefully specified light spectrum deprives the fungi of their much-needed nutrients and thereby frustrates the growth of the micro-organisms. “We use the technique preventively and have observed that it prevents the growth and spread of fungi.” Van Endert specifically chose the Rhenac Sports LED technology. “Their unit works at a width of 6 metres, so it only takes me about 40 minutes to treat a full-size field. That is why we treat the field every day.” The treatment requires that the tractor be driven accurately. For example, the overlap must be minimal and the speed must be constant. When driving faster or slower than 5 km/h, the system switches off preventively to prevent ineffectiveness or overkill. Van Endert limits the deployment to the stadium field, as treating all fields would require one FTE. “If there was a robot version, I would acquire one immediately so I could treat all fields with it without losing an employee doing it.” The concept of integrating the technology into a grass mower unit is something that does appeal to him, due to the high footfall on the field. In addition, the grass experiences a shock when treated with UV-C but manages, thanks to its resilience, to recover from it. However, a double whammy because of the fresh cut would be too much for it to handle.
The stadium field of KRC Genk is a hybrid, but training is done on a field that has a unique type of lava mixed with the soil. The lava binds nutritional elements and prevents the leaching of fertilizers. The angular shaped lava fractions of 0-3 mm create pores in which moisture and oxygen are captured. “One of the biggest advantages is that the field remains stable and that it retains its shape even when it is played bare.” Initially, KRC Genk opted for only one such field. “It is cheaper than a hybrid field in which synthetic yarn is stitched,” van Endert says. “And with the squad being really satisfied with it, it was decided to also convert the second training field.” Nevertheless, it has been proposed for the new training complex to go for a hybrid solution whereby synthetic turf fibres are injected into the field. With a long list of companies providing such a solution, it hasn’t been decided yet who will be granted the contract.
(Like) a warm blanket
KRC Genk also uses the possibilities of special grass growth lighting. “We use both the HPS units from SGL Concept as well as the LED units from Rhenac Sports LED. The heat generated by the HPS units really stimulates grass growth very quickly. However, if you are not careful, you will have to cut the grass more often.” The LED units are used in the goal mouths and corner sections of the field. “We clearly see that, in the long term, they stimulate more root growth.” To fine-tune the technology, van Endert himself experimented for a while with both the light colours of the luminaires as well as the infrared unit fitted onto the units.
Both technologies required significant investment, and, as such, additional financing. “We first tested them extensively for three months, after which we were able to justify our request for a higher budget.” Yet van Endert cites this technology as an example of the savings it can bring to the club in the long term. “Although it is not mandatory in the Pro League, we do have pitch heating. But it has been there since 1998 and is not subdivided into different zones. That makes operating this technology very expensive.” When energy prices rose sharply last winter, van Endert was prohibited from using the technology. “We decided to start using the Rhenac units in August to stimulate root growth before winter would kick in, thereby making the pitch more resilient during the winter.” Van Endert also uses his Covermaster to reduce the need for using his pitch heating. “Our Covermaster saves us another 30% in energy. Last year, the temperature even dropped to -4⁰ but the cloths really helped us to deliver a playable pitch.”
Grass requires dedication
Unrolling and rolling up his Covermaster takes just over an hour, but using it gives van Endert an extra advantage. “Once removed, you can cut the grass immediately, which helps a lot on winter days when kick-off is scheduled for noon.” Pitches in the Belgian Pro League must be ready three hours before kick-off. Like many of his peers, van Endert is fearful that cutting the grass early in the morning while the blades have not thawed sufficiently will damage the grass plant permanently. Having had the experience already, he fears diseases and fungi re-establishing themselves in the grass. Keeping the grass lush with the help of the Covermaster will reduce the likelihood of this happening.
The battery-powered Dennis ER 34-R rotary mower also saves him time, although for a different reason. Belgium law prohibits the presence of combustion engines inside the stadium when the venue is being used. Thanks to the battery-powered grass-cutting equipment, van Endert and his team can still park their equipment nearby, thereby preventing them from having to walk a long distance before they can start recuperating the pitch. “Once the whistle has blown for the final time, we can start working immediately.”
Van Endert certainly has a love-hate relationship with the stadium. “There are only three stadiums in Belgium that have no open corners that affect the growing conditions for the grass. Ours is one of these,” he says, explaining his heightened attention to his work. However, it does pay off. When KRC Genk goes to training camp, van Endert is sent ahead to help out the local contractor to prepare the field to meet the preference of the teams. More often than not, he experiences an issue that is common at grassroots level. “Once we worked with a contractor who looked after 700 sports fields and who only followed a schedule that was drafted by the planning department. To me, that doesn’t work because a good grass surface requires dedicated attention.”
The KRC Genk stadium field is 100% perennial ryegrass. The training fields are sown with a mixture of 75% perennial ryegrass and 25% meadow grass. “Due to the sensitivity to fungi, we scarify the field regularly. This year, I overseeded the field three times with about 100 kg of grass seed each time.” Previously, work had to be approved in advance. Nowadays, the KRC Genk grounds team has more space to do as it pleases. “I consult with the trainer or management and very occasionally I advise them not to look at the field for a few days. For laymen, it remains unpalatable that a good-looking grass surface is being cultivated. However, we know what we are doing. And once they feel the difference afterwards, they understand that we know what we are doing and why we are doing it.” Fortunately, he is allowed to use new techniques and technologies to achieve his goals. Asked about how he describes his fortunes, he responds: “I live in a golden cage.”