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From Blackpool to the Bernabeu

Santiago Bernabeu
The Santiago Bernabeu hosted the 2010 Champions League final on 22 May

By Alistair Magowan

For Real Madrid's English groundsman Paul Burgess, the countdown to the 2010-11 La Liga season has been anything but straightforward.

So much so that when the Champions League draw was made last Friday the former Arsenal employee was half hoping the two sides were kept apart.

That might come as a surprise to those who witnessed his perfect pitch at the 2010 Champions League final in May between Inter Milan and Bayern Munich.

But since then a unique chain of events has made the arrival of new Real boss Jose Mourinho the least of his worries.

Burgess recently became a father for the first time but because his girlfriend lives in Hertfordshire he has spent the last two weeks travelling back and forth between the UK and Madrid. And then there is the case of the exploding tractor.

"Real Madrid versus Arsenal would have been the best possible tie but also the worst possible tie for me because the pitch isn't quite how I want it," he told BBC Sport.

Puffing audibly, he explained: "One of the problems at the minute is that a pipe broke on the tractor and spread oil over one part of the pitch. As you can imagine oil and grass is not really a good mix!

Real Madrid's groundsman Paul Burgess says growing grass in Madrid is difficult
Even now when I walk into the Bernabeu it gives you a special feeling - one you don't get in other stadiums

Real Madrid groundsman Paul Burgess

"Also, because Madrid is really hot in the summer you get quite poor root growth, so during the game the grass isn't as strong or stable as you would like it. Based on the current situation, it hasn't done me any harm that Real Madrid were away for the first game of the season."

If Burgess is guilty of wanting to show an English audience only his best work then it is perhaps understandable for a man who began his career doing work experience at Blackpool's Bloomfield Road after reading an article about Arsenal's head groundsman.

His progression to the Santiago Bernabeu came after 12 years' service at Arsenal where he received numerous awards for making the pitches at their former ground Highbury and the Emirates standard-setters across the world.

So it was little wonder that the 32-year-old took the call to rescue Real Madrid's hallowed turf which he has described as a "real disaster" when he first arrived.

"I think quite a few players got injuries on the pitch and they just ran out of patience, so rather than just chucking money at re-turfing it they looked around for what they thought was the best pitch and it went from there," he stated.

"The call from Real Madrid was a bit out of the blue! I'd been at Arsenal for 12 years and I wasn't actively looking to go somewhere else but I was certainly ready for a new challenge."

The pitch at the 80,000-seat Bernabeu is certainly unique in that category.

Burgess added that not only do the 70m-high stands restrict the amount of sunlight the pitch receives, but also the vast range in Madrid's temperatures means that growing grass in the city is in his words also a "disaster".

606: DEBATE
Alistair M - BBC Sport

Yet if all that sounds a world away from the becalming image of a groundsman sweeping up and down the pitch on a motorised lawnmower, Burgess told me he relishes working for the nine-times European Cup winners, who employ 2,500 people each match day.

"There is a different kind of pressure here compared to Arsenal," he admitted. "There, the club is more about the future whereas at Real Madrid it is all about today. If they don't do well today there is no tomorrow, so winning is everything.

"That transcends down to the groundsman as well. Everyone at the club has to have a winning mentality and if you don't have that, then you aren't part of the make-up of the club."

Given his standing in the profession and his ability to work under extreme demands, the pitch at a famous stadium in north west London is never far away from conversation with the Blackpool fan.

Wembley is due to hold the 2011 Champions League final on 28 May and will host the first of England's Euro 2012 qualifiers against Bulgaria this Friday.

But having been re-laid 12 times since the new Wembley reopened in 2007, debate about the pitch has died down since officials decided to use the Desso Sport System which uses a turf which has artificial fibres woven into it.

Michael Owen
As soon as we stepped out onto it we all looked at each other and said, 'what a difference'

Michael Owen on the new Wembley pitch

It is a system that Burgess knows well, having used the same product at the Emirates, and even Manchester United's Michael Owen praised Wembley's improvement after the Community Shield having suffered a hamstring injury in the 2010 Carling Cup final in February.

But although the initial signs are good, Burgess has noted a word of caution.

He has stressed that the real test will come when the turf is covered for concerts - such as the gigs for rock band Muse on 10 and 11 September ahead of England's next home Euro 2012 qualifier against Montenegro on 12 October.

"With this system you won't have the problems they have had in the past with the turf sheering," Burgess said. "The surface stays flat, strong and stable.

"The downside to it is you cannot change the grass overnight because it's stitched down with plastic fibres. So if they have an event and it destroys the pitch, they will either have the next event on a pitch that looks terrible or they will have to put a turf over the top of the pitch which makes the system redundant.

"That will be their dilemma in the future, to make all the events works.

"It depends on how long the pitch is covered for. It will also depend on what kind of damage is caused, what time of year and also the weather. I think they will have a difficult balancing act, more so in the summer.

"But I think they are giving it more of a chance now because the schedule is far better than the one they had two years ago. It's a learning curve for everyone but it's a shame that it has taken so long, and it remains to be seen whether it will be totally okay, but they are going in a better direction."

Burgess said he has not been consulted by Wembley but would not rule out the possibility of working there in the future, if asked.

Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho
It's a nice way to work when someone is clear on exactly how they want things

Paul Burgess on Jose Mourinho

In the meantime he has more than enough to contend with in the Spanish capital and the way he talks about his new boss and his place of work you would expect him to a resident there for years to come.

"I've been speaking to Jose Mourinho quite a lot and he has been fantastic so far," Burgess told BBC Sport. "He's a really nice guy but quite a serious guy and as long as I can give him what he wants he will be a top man to work for.

"Obviously if the pitches are not up to scratch I can imagine he won't be very happy but that would be the same with any coach.

"It's still early days with him because of the World Cup but everyone who works with him is enjoying it because it's a nice way to work when someone is clear on exactly how they want things."

For a 14-year-old boy who was laughed at when he told his teacher he wanted to be a groundsman, the journey is almost complete.

"I didn't think reading that article back then that one day I would ever be at the Bernabeu," Burgess said. "I remember going to see Real Madrid against Barcelona a few years ago when David Beckham scored and I said to my girlfriend I'd love to work here.

"Even now when I walk into the Bernabeu it gives you a special feeling - one you don't get in other stadiums.

"It's a proper football stadium; it feels new but with all the history, and to have the Champions League final at the end of my first full season was the icing on the cake."

So is there anywhere where else he would consider working after Real Madrid?

"If Blackpool ever get into the Champions League then I've said I would go back there," he laughs. "But I don't think my girlfriend would like to move to Blackpool to be honest, I don't think I can sell her that one!"

And it would be remiss not to ask one of the world's best groundsman what makes the perfect back lawn.

"I've actually got artificial grass in my back garden," Burgess admits. "The last thing I want to do when I get home is cut grass!"



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see also
Wembley pitch consultants resign
23 Jun 10 |  Football
Wembley pitch to be relaid often
19 Apr 10 |  Football


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