While playing in the highest Dutch league is new to many of the PEC Zwolle players this season, groundsman Alfred Meiberg and his team have been contending for the top position for several years already. Sportsfields.info sat down with him to establish which tools of the trade help him to make a difference.
The progress in the quality of the stadium pitch of PEC Zwolle becomes immediately evident when you plot the results of the VVCS competitions for the best stadium pitch in the two highest Dutch football leagues for the past few years. Ever since the synthetic turf field was replaced by a natural turf surface, the pitch has taken the sports world by storm. With his statement that “The highest Dutch football league should only be played on turf surfaces,” Meiberg expresses the feelings of many. In addition to maintaining 180 sports fields in the Zwolle region, he has been caring for the PEC Zwolle stadium pitch for the past 23 years. “I understand very well why some professional clubs have opted for synthetic turf in the stadium in the past. However, looking back to the 13 years that PEC Zwolle played on synthetic turf, what really stands out to me is how much time and energy is spent in defending ourselves against criticism or fear and prejudice about injuries.” These days, he is energized by statements made by players such as Younes Namli. The latest PEC Zwolle sign-up had the option to follow Ronaldo, Neymar or Wijnaldum to the Middle East, but opted for a return to PEC Zwolle. Namli has fully acknowledged that PEC Zwolle replacing its synthetic turf with natural turf increased his enthusiasm to sign up again.
Asked about the building blocks that have helped Meiberg to secure his success, he points to five: experience, clever investments, guts, passion and teamwork. “When all work hand in glove, it should be possible to maintain a stadium pitch for less than the EUR 350,000 incentive league organizer Eredivisie CV pays to clubs whose fields comply with the standard for stadium fields,” he boldly states. Meiberg calls the decision to reinforce the 100% natural turf surface with synthetic turf fibres as vital to his success. “A hybrid surface provides more operational reliability,” he says. It was a choice that was more or less forced, after the turf that had been imported from Germany failed to settle in time before the start of the season. “We had a very well-prepared top layer of 16cm that held a large portion of acidic forest peat soil to stimulate nutrients absorption. However, as the decision to replace the synthetic turf by turf was made late during the summer break, sowing the field was not an option.” As a result, the turf, consisting of 70% meadow grass, 25% perennial ryegrass and 5% red fescue was quickly assessed as very slippery. “Once the league broke for the Christmas period, we immediately started working on reinforcing the pitch by injecting synthetic turf fibres into the turf.” Although the pressure was on, PEC Zwolle had the courage to embrace the SIS Pitches hybrid solution, despite it being new to the Netherlands and having over 10 other options to choose from. “While they were thrilled to help us out, our decision to reinforce the surface during the winter break initially dampened their enthusiasm,” Meiberg recalls. Nevertheless, he remained steadfast.
A switch to turf usually means that the stadium pitch can be used less and hardly ever again for commercial purposes. However, when PEC Zwolle wanted to introduce its new away-shirt with a very dominant green color, the turf and the skills of Alfred Meiberg were cleverly used.
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Down to the yarn
Ever since that winter of 2020, the focus of the PEC Zwolle grounds team has only been ‘upwards.’ Meiberg admits that this is partly due to their eagerness to consider every detail. He illustrates this with his reason for choosing SIS Pitches. “In addition to the beautiful colour, we were really impressed by the resilience of this yarn. Its core is a bit thicker than the edges. By guaranteeing that the fibres always stand upright, this contributes to the game itself and the visual appearance of the field. Furthermore, it prevents felt formation of organic material that accumulates around a synthetic turf fibre that lies flat on the surface.” In terms of maintenance, Meiberg also has his own opinion. “You have to scalp such a hybrid surface once a year but you have to do that very delicately. If you scrape away too deeply, there is a chance that the synthetic turf fibre will lie down. In my view, the synthetic turf fibre should only protrude one centimetre from the turf.”
Another technology that Meiberg lists in his arsenal is the (mandatory) field heating. “This keeps the soil temperature at a comfortable 12 degrees Celsius. Nevertheless, the difference with the ambient temperature should never be greater than 8 degrees Celsius to prevent the grass from drying out.” Before deciding on an input temperature, Meiberg considers the synthetic turf fibres. “The plastic reflects the heat, which is something to take into account when you want to determine to what soil temperature you want to heat.” The field heating is split into two sections. “The distribution is about 30-70. The part of the field that experiences shadow the most is controlled separately. The efficient approach prevents unnecessary costs as we not always have to heat the entire pitch.” PEC Zwolle also has special cloth to temporarily cover the field when temperatures become too extreme.
“We have also invested in two Rhenac Sports LED units to support the grass by delivering additional light. This helps repair the damage more quickly, helps grass seeds germinate more quickly and supports the grass at times when there is insufficient sunlight.”
Alfred Meiberg, PEC Zwolle
Support where necessary
In addition to support from below, there is also technology to help the turf from above. “We have also invested in two Rhenac Sports LED units to support the grass by delivering additional light. This helps repair the damage more quickly, helps grass seeds germinate more quickly and supports the grass at times when there is insufficient sunlight.” Their decision to select Rhenac Sports LED broke further new ground. “Rhenac’s LED technology can reproduce any natural light, including ultraviolet and infrared.” Grass prefers specific colours for certain moments. For example, red light helps grass seed germinate faster and grow biomass, while blue light increases leaf size, stimulates root growth and inhibits any vulnerability to disease. “We opted for two movable units. That gives us the flexibility to support all the traditional focal points such as the goal mouth, or the part of the field that is often in the shade.” The units have also been fitted with infrared heaters. “The heat these direct onto the field also reduces the need to switch on the pitch heating for that particular section.” Several different light programs allow Meiberg to select exactly the type of light the grass needs. Although he calls the technology fabulous, he also warns against overkill. “You often see in winter that lighting support for stadium fields runs day and night and for multiple days in a row. We all know that grass also needs rest and we want as little stress as possible on the mat.”
To rule is to look into the future
In addition to technology, Meiberg is also very critical in terms of resources. “Chemistry is out of the question, so we try to anticipate as much as possible.” This integrated sports turf management focus is increasingly becoming the norm in the Netherlands. In addition to frequently checking his weather app to establish what will happen naturally, Meiberg regularly supports the grass with additional substances. “We use about 200kg of pure nitrogen over an entire season to prevent the growth of meadow grass. We also supplement foliar fertilizer and a stress booster once a month. In winter we sprinkle some extra potassium.” All this should result in a healthier, more resilient turf.
In anticipation of the upcoming winter, Meiberg recently over-seeded the pitch to ensure it will soon have as few open spots as possible. “We overseed regularly, but in the run-up to winter we have used 400kg of grass seed.” Meiberg attributes this high volume to higher losses in the overseeder he uses.
Cultural change necessary
Whenever somebody is asked to describe a success or achievement, almost always the answer will revolve around procedures, techniques or technologies. Initially, Meiberg’s answer to this question is no different, but gradually he emphasizes ‘the human being.’ About himself he says: “I have a team of six people, but during the warm-up, I am constantly near the dugouts to see to it that the warm-up and running exercises are completed in the sections that have been indicated. These are mainly the least vulnerable parts of the field.” The pitch-heating map he and his colleagues in the league recently prepared forms his basis. He particularly wants to ensure the warming-up of the goalkeepers takes place away from the goalmouth. “We provide movable goals that are placed in those areas where the grass usually experiences less pressure during the game.”
Meiberg also praises his family. “Grass requires constant attention and the responsibility for a stadium pitch also demands your attention during evening games, during mid-week fixtures as well as during the weekend. I have a passion for my job, but, at the same time, I also have a family. Fortunately, I have their full support.” Of course he also has the support of the club. “Both former operations manager, Jeroen van Leeuwen, and facilities manager, Anouk Wagenaar, have stuck their necks out on several occasions,” he says. “In addition, the transition from a synthetic turf stadium pitch to a grass surface requires a culture change throughout the entire organization. Synthetic turf makes people lazy and it was used at all times without any concern about possible consequences. That has changed. The turf in our stadium is now sacred and is only used by the main team, and, occasionally, the main ladies team. Use by others is now subject to strict conditions.”
With the growth curve of the stadium pitch in recent years in mind, it seems only a matter of time before PEC Zwolle will claim the title of the best stadium pitch in the Dutch league. Meiberg is not fussed about this idea. “Maybe, but it is not something I consider as important. I prefer to see the club finish as high as possible.”