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Why is the Wembley pitch so poor?

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The Magazine answers...

Wembley being prepared for Race of Champions in 2007
It costs about 100,000 to re-lay the Wembley pitch

"Spongy" and "a disaster" are just two of the words used by Premier League managers to describe the once envied pitch at England's national football ground. So, what went wrong with the grass at Wembley?

Its multi-purpose use - staging concerts, racing events and American football games on top of a footballing schedule - seem to be at the root of the problem with the constant covering or removal of the fledgling grass playing havoc with its condition.

Ground officials have confirmed the turf is about to be re-laid for the sixth time since the £750m venue opened in 2007, and admits further improvements are needed to achieve the same conditions the pitch once had.

THE ANSWER
The pitch is used for too many different events

Wembley currently has a fibre turf pitch - a sand and soil base for the grass with plastic monofilaments strengthening it - chosen for its ability to be removed and put down again. But many Premier League grounds use a seeded Desso pitch which uses a surface that reinforces the grass with some artificial fibres.

However, this is something that cannot be used at the stadium, officials say, because it needs about three months to bed in and cannot sustain the multi-purpose needs Wembley has opened itself up to.

It has been widely reported that the entertainment events are necessary to pay off loans needed to build the stadium.

For concerts held over a long period the pitch must be removed but it can be covered by plastic for one-off events.

The new pitch, to be laid in time for the Community Shield in August, will be on a different combination of sand and soil.

Staff tend to the pitch before a football match
The new pitch will be put down in the summer

By then, eight games will have been played on it along with performances by AC/DC, Take That and Oasis.

A spokesman for the ground said the new surface will improve traction, result in fewer issues with the evenness of the surface and is what their turf experts recommend.

If the pitch is not completely level, the grass cannot be mown as short without "scalping" it.

Most modern stadium pitches, similar to Wembley, have a 300mm (11.8in) carpet of gravel covering several lateral drains.

Then, usually 50mm (1.9in) of grit and a layer of draining sand sits underneath the root zone, which can be about 70% sand and 30% soil and then the turf on top.

A lack of exposure to wind and maximum sunlight within many stadiums is also a problem and adds to the worries of Wembley's groundsman Steve Welch.

The microclimate that exists at pitch level means it is more prone to disease and retains moisture, and lamps have also been used during winter to recreate the vital effect of sunlight.

But can a multi-purpose venue ever hope to succeed? Yes, says David Saltman of pitchcare.com and former groundsman at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

He said the expectation of a perfect playing surface at the ground is such that the turf should have been re-laid many more times, regardless of cost.

Matt Dunning lies next to large divots after being injured at Wembley
Australian prop Matt Dunning lies next to large divots after being injured at the ground in 2008

"If the quality is right and the job done correctly, you can lay a pitch and play on it the next day," he said.

"It's about £100,000 to re-lay it but Wembley is a showcase venue and we need to avoid the embarrassment this situation has brought.

"It's a very complex subject with many factors going in to making a good pitch but, it must be re-turfed whenever required. It's a total necessity. "

He cites the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff which held numerous events before Wembley opened and Parken Stadium in Denmark which is home to FC Copenhagen, the Danish national team and provides more than 40,000 seats for concerts.

"Managers expect state-of-the-art as they are used to it and when it isn't, they are vocal," he said.

"Wembley has been one big learning curve and they were not fully aware of the multi-use aspect.

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"To move forward it needs regular re-turfing - it should have been done two or three more times than it has.

"There needs to be 100% quality control in preparation of the ground for the turf, good quality turf, harvested uniformly and laid to excellent levels - that's paramount - and dependent on the timescale for the next event, maintenance procedures need to be right."

Wembley officials said they have spent 18 months getting to the know the environment and trying different techniques and independent experts are working with grounds staff who have reviewed surface and subsurface conditions and reviewed the maintenance programme.



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