To celebrate Ashton Gate’s much-anticipated Play on the Pitch season (8 to 21 May 2017) we caught up with Dan Sparks, Head of Grounds at just 25, to get the lowdown on their high-tech pitch and what it takes to keep it top notch.
Image - Head of Grounds Dan Sparks. Photo credit - Hannah Stuart-Leach
Let’s start with the basics, what is a groundskeeper?
My job is to ensure the pitch is in the best possible condition for every game here.
What does a typical day’s work involve?
That really depends on the day of the week. If it’s the beginning, and we had a game at the weekend, there’ll be some repair work to do on the pitch. There’s a match most weekends at Ashton Gate because we’re home to both Bristol City FC and Bristol Rugby. Sometimes they even fall on the same weekend which makes it a little bit more difficult.
We also look after the training grounds so we’re always juggling stadium preparation and repair with what’s happening on the training ground daily – players are there four, five, sometimes six days a week.
How many groundskeepers are there at Ashton Gate?
We’ve got a team of eight, split across different sites. Unless it’s a double header weekend – football and rugby – then everyone will come here.
Tell us more about this state-of-the-art pitch:
We have a new Desso pitch. So it’s real grass, but within it are vertically stitched artificial grass strands, punched deep into the soil, which intertwine with the real grass at the root zone and make it stronger. So imagine walking along a beach, and how the sand feels moving underfoot - well a Desso pitch stops that movement happening. It’s based on sand which is then packed down by the lawn mower making it even firmer. You don’t get chunks ripped out of it like you see after rugby scrums on TV.
What sort of jobs need to be done to maintain the grounds?
You need to hoover up the debris after a game, and then put the divots back and repair the grass. You may have to green out the lines if there’s a different sport coming up. It depends on the time of year, too, there’s a lot more cutting in spring for instance than winter.
It’s really important to control the height of the grass. We don’t measure the grass itself but the lawnmower is set to cut it to 25mm. So we go out with the lawnmower every day to make sure it hasn’t changed height, otherwise the pitch would be uneven.
Image - Preparing for match day at Ashton Gate Stadium. Photo credit - Hannah Stuart-Leach
Is there a lot of pressure in the build up to match days?
In the early days I’d get worried about making the lines wobble but now, with a couple of years under my belt, I’m much more relaxed.
Can anyone play on it?
Yeah it’s fine. If you play for a Saturday team you might find it is a bit firmer than you’ll be used to. But as long as you wear your studs there won’t be any issue.
Any tips for a team manager?
It will be quite a fast pitch. In grassroots football the pitches are known for being quite soggy and the ball rolls quite slowly, but here it’s different. The Desso pitch is much firmer. So you want to position your fast players up front because you’ll find they’ll be chasing the ball around a bit quicker. And make sure the players stretch off before the game.
What other attractions nearby would you recommend to visitors?
I guess Clifton Suspension Bridge would be my first thing - you can actually see it from the top of the stands. North Street’s also a nice place to enjoy a drink.
Finally, why would you recommend the Play on the Pitch experience?
You’ll get to play on the same surface as players at the top of their game. This season rugby players for England, Australia and New Zealand, including England Captain Dylan Hartley, have all run out on the pitch. For football, we played Hull City in the FA Cup so we’ve had a Premiership team play on this pitch already this year, and there’s many good players in the championship that have been there too. To play on the same pitch as such high calibre players is a pretty special feeling.
Ashton Gate Stadium's exclusive Play on the Pitch experience is for 30 players, and includes the use of changing rooms for three hours, the pitch for a 30 minute warm up and 90 minute game. Also included: first aid cover, a signed shirt and bottle of bubbly for Man of the Match, and a burger and pint for players in the Sports Bar after the game. Spectators are welcome to come along and cheer you on for free. Go to www.ashtongatestadium.co.uk/upcoming-events for more details and to book.