HOME WORKERS: PITCHING IN
In the third part of a feature looking at the wide variety of matchday operations at Stamford Bridge, the official Chelsea website finds out about groundstaff activity in the lead up to and immediate aftermath of a game….
In similar fashion to the team itself, a lot of the hard and careful preparation for the match will have taken place in the week beforehand, but there are still clear tasks for the Chelsea groundstaff on the day of the game, some very visible to fans who arrive in the stadium early.
The starting point is well before gates open though, at about 7.30am with most of the tasks ahead of an afternoon game completed by noon.
The pitch has its final mow, both lengthways and across the pitch, but before that operation long brooms are used to knock overnight dew from the grass leaf, four members of the groundstaff involved initially, increasing to 10 closer to the game.
The pitch markings, the lines and the penalty and centre-circle spots, are painted on fresh and take half an hour to an hour to dry. All this however is assuming the weather is set fair for matchday.
The life of the groundstaff involves keeping a regular eye on the forecast and for today's visit by Manchester City, the matchday work was brought forward one day to Saturday.
'The weather forecast is certainly saved as one of the favourite on our tablets, and this weekend is a prime example,' explains Kevin Fowler, who has worked at Chelsea for 15 years and is the assistant head groundsman.
'It is a bit unsettled so we are getting it ready the day before even though it is quite a late kick-off, because we don't want to be fighting against the weather. We want the pitch to be looking as nice as possible and working in damp conditions can have an impact on the presentation of the pitch.
'On Saturday the pitch was cut and marked out, and that gives the markings enough time to dry out overnight and look bright for the TV cameras, and they won't wash away during the game if we do get any wet weather.
'On the day of the game we will liaise with the TV broadcast supplier to make sure none of their equipment gets wet when we water, and then we put the goals and corner flags into position.'
Given the importance of the weather, it is little surprise to learn that our own weather monitoring station is planned for installation at Stamford Bridge for next season. Fortunately, undersoil heating means an icy pitch is no longer the worry it was decades ago, but although it will stop the surface from freezing, it doesn't clear snow so a tractor with brush will be on hand in winter to do that job if needed.
When freezing weather comes, the temperature control is turned higher than normally only in the 24 hours before the game, as the raise is not ideal for the grass. When a home game against Man United was postponed back in December 2010 it was due to conditions in the streets around the Bridge, not because of the pitch.
During the week the goals live assembled and in special slots that don't get in the way of pitch work, and they are moved in to place on matchday along with the additional practice goals that allow the keepers to warm up away from the real goalmouth. Then it is time to water.
'The main question I get asked is why do you water the pitch as it may cause the players to slip over,' says Fowler, 'but the players want a bit of zip on the ball so before the game it is watered, and at half-time if the opposition allow us. And it does help hold the pitch together. Within reason the more moisture this pitch has in the root zone the better it plays.'
Checks are made with coaching staff before the game that everyone is happy with the surface and then it is over to the players for the main event. Whereas he used to double up as a stretcher-bearer, Fowler these days is most likely to catch some of the game on TV in the groundstaff room. At half-time the main task is repairing divots.
After the game, as soon as any player warm down is finished, the groundstaff are out there again putting divots back and using pedestrian mowers to clear up any debris.
The quality of the Stamford Bridge pitch has been praised by the players in recent years with benefits gained by not re-turfing for seven to eight years, and careful use of lighting during the week. But it isn't always a totally smooth operation.
'The year we won the Champions League it was a very wet April,' recalls Fowler, 'and before a game we were kicking a ball across the pitch to test it as it was holding a bit of water. I didn't have the right footwear on and I kicked the ball and slipped and ended up going right over on the floor. Luckily there weren't too many fans in at that point to cheer, but I was a bit worried Soccer AM might get hold of the video!'