Erwin Beltman was the head groundsman for stadium De Kuip in the Netherlands between 2013 and 2022. In that period, the field was elected voted the best stadium field in the Dutch Eredivisie eight times in a row. These days, he works as a consultant and shares his experiences about achieving good turf pitches on Sportsfields.info. Today he evaluates the state of the stadium fields after the mid-season break.
The various football competitions have resumed and it appears that most stadium fields have managed to pull through. The widespread fear that the long winter break due to the FIFA World Cup, and the increase in energy cost would make it difficult if not impossible to deliver playable surfaces after the temporary stop, turned out to be a bit premature. Some stadium managers had already decided to not take any risks and use the break to have their stadium surface replaced. Together with Hendriks Graszoden, we have replaced the stadium field of the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam as well as the stadium field of PSV Eindhoven. Other stadium managers might regret that they didn’t decide to start the second half of the league afresh. I’ve seen some bad media coverage of the situation at Hampden Park in Scotland and Windsor Park in Ireland, where players complained bitterly about the surface. In Scotland, the FA has stepped in to assist in maintaining the surface, while the management of Windsor Park has now started making plans to replace the surface. Here, the groundsman was unlucky when a marketing event that saw dozens of people walking onto the pitch was followed by a patch of bad weather while there were still games being played. Even before the winter break really kicked in, the damage was already done.
I’ve never been a big fan of activities other than matches and training sessions taking place on a stadium pitch but I acknowledge that in this day and age, where venues have to go to great lengths to generate sufficient income, it is inevitable that such events take place. The groundsman of Windsor Park was simply unlucky. Luck is essential to our activities. You’ll need the luck that the weather turns out to be favourable or the luck that the home team keeps on winning its games, despite you knowing that the surface isn’t in great shape. You’ll need the luck that neither fans nor media will pick up the anomalies in the ball behaviour or that a coach or player will not go for the easy way out by blaming everything and everybody else for their poor performance, including blaming the groundsman. Unfortunately, the latter often appears to still be the norm.
I know from experience that it is an unenviable situation when everything and everyone points at you. However, you can largely overcome this by communicating in a timely manner with all parties involved. Inform the stadium management when the deteriorating condition of the field forces you to take drastic action. In the end, it will be them who will foot the bill. Also, talk to the coaching staff and players. Listen to their vision or experience, but also indicate what the situation is and what it will take to change it. A belly slide to celebrate a goal is fun and will certainly get the crowd excited, but when several players do that, and several times in a match, it will certainly affect the playing surface. Even a monster score cannot undo the damage and time it will take to rectify the situation.
On the other hand, you should certainly ask the stadium management or technical staff for their plans or ambitions as well as how they would like the pitch to be prepared for the upcoming game. Either way, an extra training session in the stadium or even a series of performances will push you to the limit. That is a great challenge, but also one that you have to work towards. By the time something takes place, the field needs to be able to withstand what they’re going to throw at it and be prepared for what you need to do next to get it back in shape. A good turf remains real teamwork.
The last bit
Something that you should definitely communicate at this time of year is whether or not irrigation is available. Many trainers prefer a fast playing surface, and therefore expect it to be irrigated regularly. In addition, the broadcasters want to show a nice green and lush surface. When irrigation is temporarily out of action for fear of frost, you cannot fertilize, something that is required to overcome the grey appearance. The latter is noticed even by the average layman.
Fortunately, we are on the eve of better times. The days are slowly getting longer and the chance of frost will decrease considerably from here on. From now on, the groundsman can be creative by playing with cloths or lights, while we’ll get access to a larger set of buttons that we can twist or turn to make improvements. You could even take a chance and experiment a bit. Even if we get a period of heavy (night) frost, we will soon have more favourable conditions and enough resources for the surface to quickly recuperate, even when we are unlucky. Things would have been different if such periods of severe frost had occurred in November or December. Go experiment a little bit, but be careful not to push your luck by overplaying your hand!
Erwin Beltman is a former groundsman of Stadium De Kuip in Rotterdam. Between 2013 and 2022, the stadium field was voted the best stadium field in the Dutch Eredivisie eight times in a row. Today, he is director of Master in Grass and consults and advises fellow groundsmen.
The views or information he shares in his articles are not necessarily the views of the publisher.
in March I will discuss how you can best plan and schedule your maintenance activities.