What’s wrong at Wembley?

What’s wrong with the pitch at Wembley stadium? A question on the mouths and typing fingers of football pundits and forum dwellers alike. It’s also a concern of many Sports Engineers, having recently attended a conference on sport surfaces I thought it was appropriate to write a few words on the recent revelations on the condition of the Wembley pitch. It was of no surprise to find that this was the main discussion point at the conference, with experts from all ranges of turf science from installation and maintenance to player-surface interactions.

Figure 1: Wembley Stadium, the home of English football since 1923

There has always been some controversy surrounding the pitch at Wembley; some even blame it for England’s no show at UEFA Euro 2008, but the catalyst for the recent onslaught of criticism was the latest round of FA cup semi-finals; in particular Tottenham’s defeat to Portsmouth, with Michael Dawson slipping in front of the goal mouth allowing Frederic Piquionne to easily slot one past.

So, without casting assertions that all a footballer thinks about is football, how has Wembley gone from being the pitch players dream about to one that is now in their nightmares?

The beginning…

In short, grass needs five main things to survive; water, light, carbon dioxide, oxygen and nutrients.  Wembley is a fibre turf pitch with a 95% sand rootzone reinforced with thin polypropylene fibres (“hairy sand”).  The theory is that the natural grass roots can bind with fibres to develop a stronger root system.  The high sand composition should benefit the pitch’s draining capability – in fact before installation, Wembley claimed that 50 000 gallons of water will be able to drain through the pitch in one hour.  The stadium itself was designed to maximise the amount of sunlight reaching the pitch, and extensive computer models of air movement were analysed to ensure optimum growing conditions.

It seemed like Wembley had it sorted, so what went wrong?

Digging through event history reveals that the first turf was laid in Wembley in June 2006.  The opening Community Day was on the 17 March 2007 and the first official football match (England U21 v Italy U21) was on the 24th March.  A few months after this (less than 1 year after the turf was installed) Wembley hosted its first major pop concert – a 2 day event with George Michael trying to relive his Wham days.  On the Lead up to England’s eventful qualifying game against Croatia in November 2008, Wembley hosted another 4 music concerts, one rugby match, 5 football matches and one NFL game.  It was the NFL game that took the unfair brunt of the blame for England’s loss; with the English press tearing into the American sport with as much vigour as the players did to the turf.

Figure 2 - Unofficial stats of events held at Wembley from opening a) Event numbers b) Based on pitch time

To pay the interest on over £300 million of debt built up during the construction of the £750 million project, Wembley were always going to have to branch out and rebrand the stadium as a multi-use arena… either that or charge the players match fees! But Wembley still maintain that “football is number one priority”.  Is this really true?  Returning to the thankfully short history archive it appears that Wembley has hosted around 100 events since re-opening in June 2007.  Out of these 100 approximately 1/3rd of them were non-football events (Figure 2a).  So yes, if you look at the numbers this way, football is the priority.  However, if you make some basic assumptions that a football match lasts for 90mins, rugby 80mins, NFL 60mins, a motor race 1 day, and a music concert 2 days, add in a bit of dodgy maths and you can work out the allocated “pitch time” to each of the events (Figure 2b).  Viewing like this, the figures shift very much in favour of the non-football events with approximately 90% of “pitch time” being allocated to them.  Perhaps debatable that football is number one priority…

What next?

In light of this, what can Wembley do to improve the condition of the pitch?  Last April head groundsman Steve Welch was dismissed and the groundstaff team were replaced by members of the Sports Turf Research Institute.  Clearly the pitch still hasn’t improved, so perhaps the decision to sack the Groundsman of the Year 2002 was a bit rash.  The consensus among experts at the conference was that the grass simply isn’t given the time it needs to grow.  Since installing the first turf in June 2006, the pitch has been replaced 10 times, with the 11th being undertaken as I type.  It takes about 3 months for a turf root system to fully develop… this would suggest that over the 3 year period, the pitch was suitable for play for only 4 months.   If the stadium was used only for football and replaced at the end of the season and given the off season to grow, this would work fine.  A good example of this is the Arsenal Emirates stadium.  Described as a bowling green, the Emirates Stadium is rapidly becoming the favoured pitch to play on.  Emirates uses a Desso Grassmaster system; 200 mm synthetic turf fibres are injected into the natural turf rootzone to reinforce the turf.  But, as with any natural turf system it needs at least a 3 months period to fully bed-in.  The main difference between Emirates and Wembley is that the former can focus on football, and the latter despite being the ‘home of English football since 1923’ cannot.  This is not something the groundskeepers can do much about.

Dave Saltman, former head groundsman at the Millenium Stadium suggests that the infiltration system under the pitch could be one area of improvement.  Additional layers of gravel or sand could help drain the excess water that builds up during heavy downpours.  It seems Wembley’s initial claim of draining 50 000 gallons an hour was a tad optimistic, and the open stadium designed to maximise the much needed light on the pitch was better suited to a country with a little less rain!  But to replace the pitch foundations would require at least 2 months of construction – time that Wembley haven’t got to spare.

Other options…

Trying to avoid sparking a controversial debate and suggesting Wembley goes artificial, I’ll instead be equally as controversial and suggest football players just get used to it!  Pristine pitches do not exist for all levels of football.  In the UK and the majority of Europe, natural pitches can be roughly grouped into two types; firm ground and soft ground.  Firm ground typically being pre-season, end of season and the spring/summer months; soft ground being the winter months.  However, the hardness is not the only parameter that comes into play; factors such as grass cover, root depth, moisture content, temperature, soil density and pitch construction all affect how the surface performs.  In winter with soft ground conditions, it is expected that studded boots would penetrate into the ground and thus give greater traction when compared to firm ground due to the enhanced contact area.  However, firm ground in the spring months is likely to have greater grass cover and root strength; leading to improved traction through root-stud interaction.  Basically, natural surfaces are always different and are highly influenced by geographical and temporal parameters.  So for a pitch to be wet and muddy after it has rained, or firm and dry after a sunny spell should not be that surprising to players.  Football boot designers go to a lot of effort to ensure there is a stud design suitable for types of ground conditions; low profile rubber multi-studs for hard or artificial turf, moulded studs or short blades for firm ground and the more traditional screw in studs or long blades for soft ground conditions.  The problem is, players will always favour their lucky boots over the pair that might be most suitable for the pitch conditions… not really surprising that they find themselves injured or on their back watching the ball sky rocket into the stands.

As I see it, Wembley has two options – either replace the turf and allow a rest period for it to sufficiently grow, or equally as challenging, try and educate the players on appropriate footwear!

Heather Driscoll

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